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.,,,,
,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?-¦?+¦-+?-+.
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.
,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.
,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.