I never imagined that Ethiopia produced wine until I arrived jet lag and weary at my hotel in Addis Ababa, went to the bar and ordered a drink. “Do you prefer red or white?” the gregarious bartender asked with a smile. “What do you have” I replied, being kind of a wine connoisseur. He rattled off the different wines starting with South Africa and then asked if I’d like to try an Ethiopian wine. Ethiopian wine? I was shocked. “Is it good?” I questioned trying not to sound like a wine snob. “Try for yourself” he replied with a knowing grin. I began with a glass of dry white wine and proceeded on to a delightful glass of smooth red. It was delicious! This would become my five o’clock ritual for the next two weeks in Ethiopia; a ritual I dearly miss since being back home where I have yet to find a bottle of Ethiopian wine.
Ethiopia’s climate and topography are prefect for making wine especially in the Rift Valley where the climate is mild with a fair amount of sunshine and adequate amount of rain for growing grapes. Although wine had been produced in Ethiopia since World War II, the Ethiopian wine industry has never been that well known and most of the grapes were grown near the nation’s capital. In 2007, French beverage giant Castel saw the potential for growing grapes and producing wine in the Rift Valley and opened the Castel Winery near the town of Ziway about 100 miles (160 kilometers) south of Addis Ababa. Ethiopia’s wine industry was about to change along with the image of Ethiopia itself.
Castel brought in their own grapes from Bordeaux planting 750,000 vines over 125 hectares for their varieties of Merlot, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay grapes. Per a recent article in the Guardian, “First Bottles of Ethiopian Wine Produced by French firm Castel“, the first production of 1.2 million bottles of Rift Valley wine has been completed. Half of the production is intended for export, and Castel plans to double production over the coming years hoping to compete with and rival South African wines.
I had been enjoying my nightly glass or two of Ethiopian wine for well over a week, not having the time to stop and think about where it was actually produced. It took a six-hour drive south of Addis Ababa into Ethiopia’s sensational Rift Valley where I visited my first Ethiopian winery. Near the town of Ziway about half way to our destination, our caravan of land cruisers pulled over for a brief stop at the newly opened Castel Winery tasting room. The intention was to buy a few bottles of wine however there really wasn’t a way we could stop at a winery without enjoying a glass of wine.
My jaw dropped open in surprise as we pulled into the parking lot and entered the building. It was stunning, gorgeous and so out of place. Right across the street was a reminder that we were in rural Ethiopia and we had just driven three hours seeing women carrying jerricans of water on their back, men and children riding donkey carts, and herders tending their cattle along the side of the road.
I was excited to enter the building and explore what it looked like inside. I was not disappointed. It is gorgeous and the ceiling is built like a giant tukel (a traditional grass and mud hut that most rural Ethiopians live in).
I headed into the wine shop to buy a few bottles of wine for the road. For a highly competitive price of $10 a bottle, I can see how Ethiopian Rift Valley wine is going to give South African wine something to think about.
I loved the colorful artwork inside Castel. Here are some of my favorite pieces.
We were only supposed to have a short ten minute stop, but somehow our group found the outside terrace and we all ordered a quick glass of wine. It was delicious!
I could have spent the entire day at Castel sipping marvelous wine and touring the vineyards but sadly it was time to leave. We had about a three hour drive to our location for the next couple of days and no one wanted to fall asleep in the car. The scenery of the Rift Valley is way to stunning to miss.
I was in Ethiopia as a reporting fellow with the International Reporting Project.
References used for this post:
“First Bottles of Ethiopian Wine Produced by French firm Castel” (The Guardian, published July 23, 2014)
Addis News article “First Bottles of Ethiopian Wine Produced by Castel”
For more about Ethiopian wines: