Tag: wine

French winemaker Castel bottles its first Ethiopian wine

The grape names – merlot, syrah, cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay – are distinctly French, but the label on the Rift Valley wines is surprising: made in Ethiopia.

The French beverage giant Castel, one of the world’s biggest producers of wines and beers, is raising a glass to its first production of 1.2-million bottles of Ethiopian Rift Valley wine.

The African state’s former president Meles Zenawi, who died in 2012, encouraged Castel to develop vineyards in Ethiopia, one of Africa’s poorest countries, as a way of improving its image.

Half of the bottles are destined for domestic consumption and half for export to countries where the Ethiopian diaspora have settled, though 26 000 have already been snapped up by a Chinese buyer.

Lab equipment for testing wine is pictured at the Castel winery outside the town of Ziway, central Ethiopia. (Pic: AFP)
Lab equipment for testing wine is pictured at the Castel winery outside the town of Ziway, central Ethiopia. (Pic: AFP)

Although Castel does not expect its Ethiopian wine business to make a profit until 2016, it hopes to more than double production to 3-million bottles a year. Though Ethiopia is better known for its production of another drink, coffee, Castel says the African country has the potential to rival the continent’s main wine producer, South Africa.

“It’s not that difficult because the climate is good and it’s not too hot,” Castel’s Ethiopia site manager, Olivier Spillebout, told Agence France-Presse. “Exports are small now, but year after year they will grow.”

The company has produced a better quality wine called Rift Valley, selling in Ethiopia for the equivalent of €7 (£5.50) and a grape-mix wine called Acacia, retailing at the equivalent of €5.

It is not the first wine to be commercially produced in Ethiopia. Vineyards established near Addis Ababa and in the south-east by Italian troops who occupied part of the country from 1936 to 1941 were later nationalised, then privatised, and are now run by Awash Winery, which boasts Live Aid founder Bob Geldof as a director.

Landscape perfect for grape growing
Wine experts say parts of Ethiopia’s diverse landscape, which include high plateaux and verdant valleys as well as six climatic zones, are perfect for grape growing.

Pierre Castel, the billionaire founder of the family-run group, could see the potential in the sandy Ethiopian soil, the short rainy season, cheap land and equally cheap and abundant labour for wine production. The Castel company had been producing beer in Ethiopia since 1998 after buying the state-owned brewery called St-Georges.

After striking a deal with the Ethiopian government in 2007, Castel immediately dispatched the company’s best French experts who spent seven months looking for areas for the vineyards.

They finally chose a site 160km to the south of the capital, near the town of Ziway, where 750 000 vines, brought from Bordeaux, were planted over 125 hectares by 750 local workers. Merlot, syrah and cabernet sauvignon grapes were chosen for the reds that make up 90% of Castel’s Rift Valley production, and chardonnay grapes for the white wines.

Women pick grapes at the vineyard of the Castel winery outside the town of Ziway, central Ethiopia. (Pic: AFP)
Women pick grapes at the vineyard of the Castel winery outside the town of Ziway, central Ethiopia. (Pic: AFP)

A member of the Castel team, who did not want to be named, told the Guardian the aim of the company’s “considerable investment” in the Ethiopian vineyards was to produce a wine of international quality.

While there had been several grape harvests since 2007, this was the first time the company had bottled the wine produced.

“We have used the same savoir faire we used on our French vineyards and as we do on those in Morocco and Tunisia, to produce this Ethiopian wine,” he said. “Our objective is to produce a wine worthy of international standards so we preferred to have multiple trials before engaging in the process of commercialising the wine.”

He said the wine produced was “aromatic and fruity”, with a pleasant, middle-of-the-road taste.

A delighted Ahmed Abtew, the Ethiopian industry minister, said in a recent interview: “People who live outside Ethiopia remember the drought a decade ago, but when they see a wine labelled ‘Made in Ethiopia’ … their whole attitude immediately changes.”

Growing grapes in the Horn of Africa is not, however, without its hazards and French winemakers lament their vines being devastated by disease and a series of catastrophic hailstorms.

Castel’s Ethiopian vineyards are also surrounded by a two-metre-wide trench to deter pythons, hippopotamuses and hyenas.

Fine wines flourish in Muslim Morocco

Vines stretch to the horizon under the hot summer sun in a vineyard near Casablanca, one of the oldest in Morocco, where despite the pressures from a conservative Muslim society, wine production – and consumption – is flourishing.

“In Morocco we are undeniably in a land of vines,” says wine specialist Stephane Mariot.

“Here there is a microclimate which favours the production of ‘warm wines’, even though we aren’t far from the ocean,” adds the manager of Oulad Thaleb, a 2000-hectare vineyard in Benslimane, 30 kilometres northeast of Casablanca, which he has run for five years.

The social climate in the North African county is less propitious, however, with the election of the Islamist Party of Justice and Development in 2011, and the fact that Moroccan law prohibits the sale of alcohol to Muslims, who make up 98% of the population.

In practice though, alcohol is tolerated and well-stocked supermarkets do a brisk trade in the main cities where there is a growing appetite for decent wine.

According to some estimates, 85% of domestic production is drunk locally, while around half of total output is considered good quality.

“Morocco today produces some good wine, mostly for the domestic market, but a part of it for export, particularly to France,” says Mariot.

Moroccan women pick grapes on September 14 2009 at the Ferme Rouge domain in Had Brachoua. (AFP)
Moroccan women pick grapes on September 14 2009 at the Ferme Rouge domain in Had Brachoua. (AFP)

Annual output currently stands at about 400 000 hectolitres, or more than 40 million bottles of wine, industry sources say, making the former French protectorate the second biggest producer in the Arab world.

By comparison, neighbouring Algeria, whose vineyards were cultivated for a much longer period during French colonial rule, produces 500 000 hectolitres on average, and Lebanon, with its ancient viticulture dating to the pre-Roman era, fills about six million bottles annually.

Some of Morocco’s wine regions – such as Boulaouane, Benslimane, Berkane and Guerrouane – are gaining notoriety.

Already it has one Appellation d’Origine Controlee – controlled designation of origin, or officially recognised region – named “Les Coteaux de l’Atlas”, and 14 areas with guaranteed designation of origin status, most of them concentrated around Meknes, as well as Casablanca and Essaouira.

And in March last year, an association of Moroccan sommeliers was set up in Marrakesh bringing together 20 wine experts.

French legacy 
In the central Meknes region, nestled between the Rif Mountains and the Middle Atlas, there is evidence that wine production dates back some 2 500 years.

But the industry was transformed during the time of the protectorate (1912-1956), when the kingdom served as a haven for migrating French winemakers after the phylloxera pest decimated Europe’s vineyards around the turn of the 20th century.

As in Algeria and Tunisia, the French planted vineyards extensively, with Morocco’s annual production exceeding three million hectolitres in the 1950s.

The main grape varieties used to produce the country’s red wines are those commonly found around the Mediterranean, such as Grenache, Syrah, Cabernet-Sauvignon and Merlot.

Mariot, the manager of Oulad Thaleb, boasts that the domain, which he says has the oldest wine cellar in use in the kingdom, built by a Belgian firm in 1923, produces one of Morocco’s “most popular wines”.

Standing by a barrel, he casts a proud eye on the vintage, describing it as a “warm and virile wine”.

Abderrahim Zahid, a businessman and self-styled “lover of fine Moroccan wines” who sells them abroad, says the country now produces “a mature wine which we can be proud of”.

A man pours wine into a glass inside a wine cellar in the Moroccan town of Benslimane in the Casablanca region. (AFP)
A man pours wine into a glass inside a wine cellar in the Moroccan town of Benslimane in the Casablanca region. (AFP)

Morocco’s wine industry now employs up to 20 000 people, according to unofficial figures, and generated about $170-million in 2011.

But the remarkable progress made by the sector in recent years has taken place within a sensitive social environment.

While alcohol production is permitted by state law, and supermarkets and bars enforce no special restrictions on Muslim customers, officially the sale and gift of alcoholic drinks to Muslims is illegal. They are unavailable during Islamic festivals, including throughout the holy month of Ramadan.

Separately, the Islamist-led government decided last year to raise taxes on alcoholic drinks from 450 dirhams ($53) per hectolitre to more than 500 dirhams.

So far this has not noticeably deterred consumption among Morocco’s population of 35 million, although economic realities certainly influence local drinking habits.

The wine favoured by Moroccans is a cheap red called Moghrabi, which comes in plastic bottles and costs 30 dirhams (about $3.50) a litre.