David Bristow: Great Rift Valley Wines

By , 13 February 2015

Please allow me to introduce myself, I’m a man of wealth and taste … Well, I’m not really, but I thought a musical introduction would be a fine way to get going on Travel on Winemag. Back in the day I was more of a Beatles fan but you have to give credit to the Stones as the greatest survival act in modern musical history.

To borrow more from Symphony for the Devil:

And I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate.

For the past year I have been travelling the back roads of Africa to visit my 21 must-see places for a book African Icons due out in May.  During that time I’ve tasted some good, mainly South African, wines at various top safari lodges. But I’ve had to also swallow a lot of plonk to get my daily tipple.

September found me washed up in Lalibela, Ethiopia, where I found the people living in a curious timewarp mix of ancient Judaism and third-century Christianity. It’s like you walked into a scene from the Bible. Local legend tells that the Queen of Sheba journeyed to Jerusalem laden with gold, frankincense and coffee. King Solomon was much impressed, so much so they had a son, King Menelik I, the first king of Ethiopia (Punt at that time, later Axum).

One of the rock-cut churches of Lalibela.

One of the rock-cut churches of Lalibela.

Prime attraction in Lalibela are the 11 hand-hewn churches commissioned by King Lalibela in the mid-1200s, apparently on instructions from God, and with the help of angels, carved them out the surrounding volcanic rocks. It was thirsty work, trundling up and down the mountainslopes to visit the churches, so on retiring to my hotel each evening I would crave a glass of red.

The Mountain View Hotel is as fine a place as you will find in that country, the wines not so. Their main offerings were Culembourg and Drosty Hof, in bottles, kept in a neat rack in the dining room all awash with lovely Ethiopian sunlight. So I snooped around and found some Great Rift Valley wines behind a counter.

“Yes, but those are local,” the F&B man told me with disdain.

I ordered a bottle of red anyway and found it to be not only of a more amenable temperature than the dire South African offerings, but a more than acceptable drinking experience.

More famous as the home of coffee, wine has been made in Ethiopia since time of the Italian occupation from 1936 to 1941. Through various political upheavals the Awash Winery was nationalised in the 1970s, then privatised in the 1980s and now boasts Live Aid founder Bob Geldof as a director.

In 2007 French beverage group Castel planted 750,000 vines across 125 heactares in the Rift Valley. The first bottling was last year and they plan to double production up to three million bottles over the next two years. For a first vintage these Great Rift Valley wines were not only well rounded but also smoother than you might expect.

There is a Rift Valley range selling at around R100 a bottle, and a lesser Acacia label selling for about R90. The reds are made in a near-Bordeaux style (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah) with Chardonnay-led whites, all aged in French oak barrels. While the company admits its wines are “middle of the road” the fruits of the labour are most pleasing. In a place you otherwise would be prepared to quaff student wine, on the premise that dooswyn is better than none, Great Rift Valley Wines are a small blessing.

So when in Ethiopia drink lots of the stupendous local coffee as well as the local wine, just ask them to keep the latter out the Rift Valley sun.

  • David Bristow has written multiple books and magazine features on travel, nature and African culture.


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