A Wine-maker in Kenya

James Farquharson
James Farquharson

James Farquharson, formerly of Boschendal, headed for the wine-making region of Kenya a few years back. Many of us have been wanting to know how it is going up north. Well, here’s the story so far, as told by James.

Growing and making wine in Kenya is challenging indeed. I came to Kenya at the end of 2007 to take up the task of managing a vineyard, making wine and marketing it for a variety of reasons which stand beyond the scope of this particular piece. Since that time I’ve seen much progress in directing this project but only through learning some tough lessons and sucking up a fair amount of frustration. My wife still speaks to me though, so I guess it hasn’t been all that bad!

,Rift Valley Winery is situated on Morendat Farm which is situated close to the northern side of Lake Naivasha, about 90kms North West of Nairobi. Although it is nestled inside the eastern edge of the Great Rift Valley its altitude is at about 1900m and this makes for some interesting climatic phenomena., Most obviously we enjoy a large daily temperature gradient. It gets down to about 8 or 9?+¦???-¼?+¦-ú?+¦C early morning and goes up to about 30C?+¦???-¼?+¦-ú?+¦ by 2pm. Great for ripening; not so great for fertility and vegetative growing.

,The dominant geological feature is Mount Longonot, a dormant volcano responsible for the so-called soil we are trying to grow our vines in ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ essentially it’s just ash with low organic content and no structure to speak of. However, if this soil gets water you can grow just about anything in it. There are flourishing export vegetable and flower businesses around the Lake which, according to some sources, account for the largest portion of Kenya’s forex earnings.

,There are no proper seasons as we’d know them ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ seasons are marked by rains. Classically we are meant to have about 6 weeks of rain in March ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ April, the so-called Long Rains, and again in October, the Short Rains. Of course with global warming and El Nino etc this is all fairly moot. We had no rain in April 2009, very little in October 2009 but about 150mm in December, just 10 days before the most recent harvest. Yay.,,,,

,Vineyards:,

,The first vineyards were planted around 1994 from stock imported from UCD, predominantly Sauvignon blanc and Colombard. About 4 Ha of these are still around, and in the latest vintage gave us close to 7 tons / Ha. (In 2008 they yielded 1.4 tons / Ha.) We also have close to 30 Ha (mostly planted in 2008 and 2009) of Sauvignon blanc from un-grafted cuttings, Chenin blanc, Shiraz, Muscat d’Alexandrie (Hanepoot), and something called Dodrelabi (a table grape, the origin of which I am yet to discover). Most of the newer plantings are from SA stock grafted onto R110 and US7-8B from Voor Groenberg Kwekery.

,I’ve also planted a lunatic experiment on a farm called Ol Morogi, which is about 10km further up the road towards Gilgil. This comprises 1 Ha Sauvignon blanc and a half Ha each of Cab Sauv and Shiraz. It is at around 2100m above sea-level and is surrounded by a 7000 volt electric fence to keep the buffalo, eland and locals off the vines. Initial results are encouraging ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ watch this space.,

,At the end of 2009 I was finally able to commission the drip system I had ordered. Up to that point we were trying to keep the vines alive with a system of 4″ aluminium pipes stuck onto a 6″ mainline with an antique 100HP pump pumping river water and about 20 workers dragging 1″ hoses around from vine to vine. We were lucky to irrigate 2 Ha a day and this explains why 40% of new plantings died during the drought at the end of 2008 ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ Sept 2009. Fortunately my board approved my request for a drip-system.Now, 3 people can irrigate 8 Ha a day, no problem. In season I try to give the younger vines about 8 hours drip every 5-7 days and the older ones about 12 hours every 2 weeks (that’s about 12.5mm give or take).

,Weeds are a constant problem. It seems that you barely need to scratch the soil and you get weeds ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ mostly Mexican marigold, pigweed, various kinds of grass and Datura spp. Depending on the vagaries of the procurement department I might use herbicide to treat the weeds, applied by back-pack sprays, or I might just give up waiting for supplies and go for hand weeding. In-between rows we allow Kikuyu grass to grow. We let this grow until it gets too big (only really after any rain) and then we mow it with a gyro-mower. Whenever we can, we cut grass for mulching.

,Fertility is a problem. Latitude and altitude conspire to ensure generally low fertility so I changed the pruning system to 6 or 8 bud canes instead of the 2 bud spurs they were using when I arrived (that explains the 1.4 ton / HA!). Yields have improved remarkably since then. We’re getting an average of about 5 tons per Ha now. ,For the table grapes (we also have some Alphonse) I’ll probably go for the sultana system with 12 bud canes wherever I can. For some reason all of the table grape vines had been trellised as if for wine (3 wire vertical trellis) and I’ve tried where possible to re-establish cordon at between 1,2 and 1,5 m and then, add on a Y trellis made of split 4″ poles. We’ll see?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-+?-+.

,Winery:

Currently we’re making wine in a converted shed. There is a kind of a floor but it is very uneven, so drainage and sanitation are problems. Most of the tanks I use are plastic water tanks fitted with 2″ butterfly valves. Until Jan 2009 we didn’t have a cooling system, relying instead on a 12m2 reefer set at about 14?+¦?????+¦???-¬C. Even so, the system we have is primitive, basically a chiller and pump circulating water through some steel coils suspended in each plastic tank.

,There is plenty of lovely machinery, including a 20ton Bucher press (minimum capacity 6 tons), 5 x 9500 liter stainless steel tanks for milk (??) ,, plate and sheet filter, bulk filter, lees filter etc, all of which require decent yields before one can actually use them. Most of the 2008 harvest was pressed in a 250kg basket press. This year I was able to fire up the Bucher twice. In other words when the company bought all this stuff back in 1996 there was no indication that they’d have the capacity to use it., But, we’re getting there now.

,My main challenge is keeping the plastic tanks full in order to try and keep oxidation under control. If I want to buy corks, barrels, glass etc it all has to be imported.

Other:

,Our brand is “Leleshwa” which is some kind of tree that the Masai use as a deodorant when hunting (so the animals can’t smell them, see?). We are currently producing a white (90% Sauvignon blanc) and a Ros+¬. These retail at around Ksh550 and Ksh450 respectively, or about R50 and R40 each, which is around 10 ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ 15% lower than generic imported SA wines available, like Douglas Green.

,We aim the wine specifically at the tourist market i.e. game lodges, coastal hotels and restaurants. So far, so good. There is demand for a locally produced wine.

Label front

,Institutionalized corruption is a major problem, as are the attentions of the myriad government authorities who all want their slice of the pie. There are the Environmental Management people, the Tax people, the Certifying People and the local municipality who basically doubles up on the functions of the others I’ve just described., Because the municipality is generally “under-funded” they impose all sorts of ad-hoc taxes on producers whenever they see fit. Add to this total police corruption (they arrest you if they find you transporting wine without a “permit”) it can get pretty dodgy at times. Certifying and Environmental authorities are generally clean but rarely impose / regulate their requirements once they’ve been paid.,,

,The labour force earns roughly R20 / day and are, understandably, reluctant to kill themselves working. Luckily most people speak reasonably good English (a throwback to the Moi era – he was a teacher) so communication is OK. Management is a real problem though because it seems that, in Kenya, the higher you go, the less you have to do.

,Politically the situation is volatile. The causes leading to the killing of over 1300 people during the 2007 ?+¦-+???+¦-ú?-¦?+¦-ú?+¦+¦ 2008 post-election violence have not been addressed, and the people responsible for it are still at large. Tribal militia are arming themselves in anticipation of any excuse which can allow them to kick off the trouble again. My wife and I are not too bothered by this, yet. But, with young children to consider we may think about sitting out the next general election on a beach somewhere warm.

,

18 thoughts on “A Wine-maker in Kenya

  1. Hi,

    I have recently started a wedding planning business in Nairobi and am looking for unique wedding venues.

    Do you allow for weddings to be held at your vineyards? I think this would be adventurous for tourists. if you do allow, how much do you charge? do have accomodation? is the wine complimetary?

    regards
    Sophie

    1. Hello
      I don’t have any vineyards, but many wine farms offer wineland weddings. Zorgvliet, Zewenwacht, L’Avenir, Webersburg…..have a look on the web.
      Good luck.

    1. Hi Dominique. Unfortunately I am not a winemaker. Are you looking for the Kenyan producer who wrote the posting? I could put you in touch with him.
      Regards

  2. Hello,
    I just returned from Kenya to the USA. I had brought two bottles of Leleshwa SB which were stolen from my luggage 🙁 I am sad. I’m wondering if you’ve begun any exporting of your wine? If not what would it cost to have some mailed to the USA?
    Thanks!!!
    Emelie

  3. Hi Emile , could you pot me in contact wth this winery ??

    We are importers of wines in Tz ( Arusha ) and very appreciate the white .

    Thanks to help

    Michel

  4. I am in Kenya at the moment but just for a few more days now and would like to buy some of this wine. Which supermarkets and which branches is the wine available at.
    Also, is the wine available from the farm itself?

    Any help would be much appreciated.

    Thanks.
    Ken

  5. I’ve been reading “Africa Uncorked” by John & Erica Platter. In early 2002 they visited John and Eli D’Olier at Lake Naivasha Vineyard and, being aware of what has happened to so many other brave, or perhaps foolhardy, pioneers in Africad I was wondering what happened to them, which is how I came across your blog.

    It was with a sense of foreboding that I googled their names and…..

    It seems that John was murdered by AK-47 wielding bandits at his 60th birthday celebration in Oct 2010 and 2 friends “seriously wounded” – did they recover, was anyone ever arrested and convicted for this crime?

    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/travel/7929933/Masai-Mara-murder-threatens-Kenyan-tourism.html

    In the article above John is described as a “former vineyard owner” so what happened there?

    I agree with Paul Theroux – most people who go to Africa on safari, etc, are fantasists and blind to the risks. The number of white farmers, conservationists, do-gooders, etc, who get murdred in Africa is huge by comparison with anywhere else.

    For example, George and Joy Adamson the “Born Free” couple were killed in separate unrelated incidents. Then there was Diana Fossey and the Gore-Browne’s in Zambia (“The Africa House”) shortly after they were visited by Michael Palin. As all these individuals were quite well-known, if not internationally famous, before their deaths, this must be the tip of a huge iceberg which the Kenyan govt I’m sure does its best to suppress.

    Anyway I wish you good luck in your venture and if I ever sum up the courage to go to Kenya I will look out for your wines.

  6. Hi, Thanks for the honest report on the vineyard. do you allow people to visit the farm, what are the dys one can visit? any charges and what are the visiting hours?

  7. Hi James,

    I have always thought of opening a winery in Tigoni
    Limuru area which is 20 minutes from Nairobi and is
    Currently a tea growing area.Mine would have more
    Emphasis on wine festivals and weddings due to the amazing
    Tea views and cool climate.Would you be interested with helping
    Out?

    Charles

  8. Hi,

    A friend staying with us this week brought a bottle of Kenyan wine to the table the other night as a gift. My wife, who is Kenyan, and I smiled. I had never sampled Kenyan wine but have had many bottles of South African, and only a few did I find pleasing to my palate.

    So, after a day of deriding the idea of Kenyan wine, I cooked a meal of seared tuna and we opened the wine – a Shiraz “Lelesha” of Rift Valley Winery. We were all pleased by the nose, the deep and full-bodied of this red. More satisfying was, of course, the taste.

    It was delicious and without any pretentions — the pallet reminded me of an old-world wine. No pretentions, no trickery and no alchemy. It was an incredible glass of wine that I drank while dining on rare wasabi tuna.

    We would love to know where to pick up some of this wine in New York. We have a sad feeling that it isn’t being imported to the States, but perhaps we are wrong.

    We visit Kenya every year and I am thrilled to find a delicious red from Africa. We will definitely purchase a case of this to bring to “shags” when we return for our annual visit.

    My only disappointment — I haven’t yet had a chance to taste the white, which our guest tells us is even better. We shall see.

  9. Hello,

    I’m wondering where I can buy this wine in Kenya? Also, is it possible to visit the farm? Hoping to support the local business!

    Thanks!

  10. I have just returned from Kenya with a few bottles of the red and white Leleshwa wines to sample. I got them from Nakumatt in town.

  11. Hi James,

    Loved your article! Good thing you have a sense of humor. I was chuckling throughout the article. I work with a couple of friends in the coffee trade. One has a farm in the Thika area and the other is a coffee ag specialist. I suggested that there might be a real opportunity and future in the wine trade. Ha,ha!

    like all ag businesses it tough to beat all the variables and Lord knows Kenya has more than most places.

    Keep up the good work!

    Next time I am in Kenya I will definitely pick some up and if possible come for a visit, that is if you allow visits!

    I will tell my Kenyan friends about you as well!

    Best,

    Jim

  12. Hi,
    I am very interested in wine making and to know the process of making a vineyard. I currently in the states but am thinking of a simpler life. I have a very rare type of cancer and am fighting hard in the hope of coming home next year. I would love to meet with you. I would also love to communicate with you privately. Please send me an email through the provided email. Am glad that you are able to start winery in Kenya. Congrats. Love what you have done.

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