Kenya makes its mark in wine making market
Posted by Administrator on April 5, 2012
First, dispel a myth: wine doesn’t get better with time. Well, at least not all wines.
“It largely depends on the kind of vineyard and grapes that you grow,” says Emma Nderitu, Leleshwa Wine’s Winery Manager.
“Our wines, for instance, are best consumed within two years. Beyond that and you won’t get its best.”
And to catch a glimpse of how the best of Kenyan wine is produced, you will find yourself standing in Morendat Farm in Naivasha, where Nderitu and Christine Kasimu, Morendat’s Vineyard manager, will take you through their 40 hectare vineyard and the delicate process of producing Kenya’s first home-grown commercially viable wine.
It’s a modest operation as far as winemaking goes, but its growth trajectory has proven that not only has Leleshwa wine grown over time but also their consistency is the one quality that defines them as a unique Kenyan product.
In 1993, Pius Ngugi, the owner of Morendat farm (one of the ventures under Kenya Nut Company) took a stab at winemaking by staking out a fraction of their sprawling farm.
It all began as a hobby more than anything else. A few years on and the Leleshwa brand is jostling for space on shelves with more established competition from South Africa, Chile, Argentina, Italy, France and the rest of the world.
“We are currently producing about 60,000 bottles per year and have a target to produce about 3M bottles annually in another couple of years when we expand the size of our vineyards from 40 hectares to 200 hectares,” says Nderitu.
Leleshwa, is a Maasai name derived from a tree dominant in Naivasha town.
The Maasais used to apply the sap from the leaves on their bodies while hunting so as to mask their human scent from the animals.
The Morendat vineyards produce two types of grapes; for wine production (which has lots of sugar) and table grapes for home usage (with less sugar).
Their 40 hectares produce about eight tonnes of grapes for Sauvignon Blanc that translates to about 45,000 litres of wine per year.
“It’s important to get it right on the farm first,” explains Kasimu.
She explains that it takes three years for the vineyards to be ready to be harvested during which period there is disease control, canopy management (removal of leaves to expose the grapes to sunlight and spraying), desuckering (removing suckers) and weed control.
Harvesting of the crop is done once a year, Kasimu adds, after which the crops go into what’s called the dormant period, “In temperate climates, this is done during winter, but since we are in the tropics, we often have to force them into dormancy by denying them food and water,” she adds.
In the silence of the farm, you will hear the constant noise of men shouting, the explanation for this is from Kasimu is: “Our greatest threat are birds and monkeys who eat the grapes. We are forced to have men working full time, day and night to scare away the birds and animals.”
For this job, 80 men are employed to holler throughout the day over the 40 hectares.
When the grapes survive the onslaught of the birds and monkeys, they then end up in the winery where they are de-stemmed (stems make the wine bitter) and the grapes pressed to derive the juice that makes 65 per cent of the weight of the grapes.
Fermentation then follows for two weeks in cold temperatures of 10-13 degrees for white wine and 22-25 degrees for red.
Nderitu explains helpfully, “The reason red wine is healthier than white is because, unlike the white wine, the grapes for red wine are fermented with their skin which gives it the colour and it has polyphenolic which are great antioxidants.”
Leleshwa wine, which comes in Sauvignon Blanc and Shiraz, targets the local middle-class that is rapidly expanding and developing their appreciation of wine.
Wine connoisseur Phillipe Cauviere of WWW Shop and Bar at the Junction is a great lover of the Leleshwa wine, “ I have stocked it for four years and it’s a fantastic wine which holds its own with the other brands from around the world.
“Kenyans love their wine sweet, so some might find it a bit harsh on the first sip but after the second sip, the palates usually get used to it and they love it.”
To maintain quality, Morendat hired the services of James Farquharson, a viticulturist and professional winemaker from South Africa who says the product is unique given that very few countries in the world have vineyards along the equator.
“At a 1,900m altitude, we aren’t prone to diseases that afflict vineyards in lower altitude. I think the only other country with vineyards along the equator is Colombia. So yes, Leleshwa is unique not only because of this, but also because it’s purely Kenyan and has shown that it can be done here.”
At Kona Baridi in Kiserian, another wine operation is going on albeit on a small domestic scale.
At the home of the famous archaeologist, Richard Leakey, some 1500 vines are grown in a humble vineyard, which produce about 300 bottles of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir per year.
Louise Leakey, Richard’s granddaughter, says, “We have been experimenting to find out which grape varieties grow best on the volcanic soil types here with some ending up as table grapes.”
The biggest challenge, adds Louise, is that since there is no winter in Kenya, during which time vines in temperate climates go into dormancy, they have to force the vines into dormancy using a growth regulator called Dormex.
Birds and insects also often damage their crop. However, they resist the need to use insecticides and lately, they have discovered that fresh milk can be quite useful when diluted 1:10 as mildew control.
“We don’t make enough wine to sell or stock since we are simply experimenting to see if we can make a good wine in the region.”
It’s a fact that more urbanites are drinking wine as their drink of choice.
It’s also a fact that comes with curiosity and interest on what good wine entails and as Farquharson says, “In a few years, wine consumption will be more than just a new social interest, it will be a full-blown lifestyle.”
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