Friday, July 26, 2013

Young Kenyans know what they like and will demand what they want!

Last night a group of young Kenyans, in fact the group were all women with one man, jumped into the deep end of wine tasting. This was at the Corner Café on Rhapta Road. So what were their reactions? Well, there was already a good knowledge about different grape varieties and how they tasted. Yes! So young Kenyans are buying wine, ordering wines at restaurants and enjoying what this can offer. Most of them liked the exuberance and up front flavours of the Sauvignon Blanc, but they were less enthusiastic about the more restrained and tropical flavours of the Chenin Blanc. They liked the oaky/vanilla flavours of the Chardonnay. And then turning to the Reds? They were unenthusiastic about the austere and mouthful of tannin from the Merlot, but liked the smoky fruit flavours of the Shiraz. All - man and women – were enthusiastic about the only indigenous varietal to Africa - the Pinotage. So, are young Kenyan’s drinking wines in restaurants only – or are they also buying wines to drink at home? The wines being tasted were from South Africa but in Kenya it is possible to buy wines from Chile, Spain, France and just about every major wine producing country in the world. So, what is the future for young Kenyans to taste and enjoy wines?

Nairobi is one of the fastest changing cities in the world. It is all go and there is a real buzz and everyone seems to be racing as fast as they can to the future. It is a cliché, but none the less true that the future is based on the young and Kenya is very much a young country. Well educated young people pour out of the nation’s higher education institutions every year and all seem to be wound-up and ready to go straining to make their marks. Partly because these graduates know that opportunities in the formal sector of the economy will be difficult to find, you meet an awful lot of young people that describe themselves as entrepreneurs. Their models are billionaires and they are developing all sorts of solutions to problems that they hope also will make them rich. It is not to fanciful to suggest that the future Mark Zuckenburg’s of this world could well be from Kenya.

This newly emerging young middle class aspire very much to the same things the young all over the world seem to aspire to including to what they drink. Beer is still king in Kenya and at least for young men spirits are gaining considerable in popularity. It is no surprise for example that in the last year alone several malt whisky brands, South African Brandies and French Cognacs, as well as well known American Bourbon brands have all entered the Kenyan market. Wine in terms of consumption is increasing rapidly albeit from a very low base. As young Kenyans frequent the rapid rising number of good quality restaurants in Nairobi they are choosing wine to accompany their eclectic food choices. Unfortunately and in most cases there is little information or support available to guide Kenyan dinners in their choice of wine. Any training provided to restaurant staff for example is at best ad hoc and usually provided by the wine selling companies, which are not exactly objective when it comes to selling their brands.

On anecdotal evidence, there is a huge demand for information about wine in Kenya. Just like the rest of the world, Kenyans can be intimidated by the plethora of wines available in supermarkets and hard to read wine lists in restaurants. Fortunately Kenyans are not what you would call a shy bunch they know what they like and are not afraid to demand what they want. Kenya is leading the world in cell phone usage in particular money transfer – so what can we do about wine knowledge transfer – hey – I’m drinking a wild/cool Wolftrap tonight – and you?

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Phoenix Rising in the Lowveld

I am currently away from my home base in Kenya and staying in a beautiful corner of Mpumalanga not far from the town of White River in the Lowveld of South Africa. It is winter here, although with sunny blue skies and day time temperatures around 24 degrees centigrade it is not what I would call chilly. I first got to know this part of the world when I was living in Mozambique from 1994 onwards. In those days Mozambique was emerging from decades of civil war and the availability of many items including food and not least wine was limited. The lucky few mostly expatriates would abscond once a month or so to the town of Nelspruit in neighbouring South Africa about a three hour drive from Maputo and fill up their cars with anything from butter to fresh vegetables and of course at least for me wine.

By 1994 when I began living in Mozambique the ‘frontline states’ had fully embraced the newly elected ANC government in South Africa. This was then great timing for this particular wine lover as it meant I had free reign not to mention a favourable US$ to Rand exchange rate to explore the wines from the Cape.To assist our enthusiasm for wine I and a group of friends started a tasting group in Maputo. Being a group made up of many nationalities we had the great benefit of having access to wines from a whole host of countries. Each of the individuals in the group of course championed the wines from their own country proudly presenting perhaps a Barossa shiraz, a cabernet sauvignon from the Napa Valley, or a lesser, although occasionally a first growth from Bordeaux. It was great fun and dare I say even educational as we explored the different tastes of New and Old World wines. In the absence of any South Africans in the group,(in those days South Africans had only just started spreading their wings to neighbouring African countries),I became defacto thetalisman for the wines from the Cape.

The general consensus is of course that the demise of apartheid and the emergence of South Africa into the international fold had overwhelming positive impacts. This was particularly true for the South African wine industry. Through most of the 20th Century South Africa’s wine farms largely produced grapes either for sale to the brandy industry or to large cooperatives, which then made wines of variable quality mainly for domestic consumption. There were of course a number of estates that had been producing wine for centuries and the quality of these wines for those fortunate to drink them was usually good and quite often exceptional. Nevertheless, these relatively few estate wines were the exception rather than the rule. Locked away for decades behind a wall of sanctions there were few incentives save personal pride let alone markets to encourage South African winemakers to produce anything less than vin ordinaire.

There is a much used adage to restrain those tempted to enter the wine industry, which is: the best way to make a small fortune is to start with a large one. In some ways despite the explosion in worldwide wine consumption over the last fifty years this is probably truer today than ever. However, from the 1980’s onwards with the end of apartheid now within touching distance South Africa offered new opportunities for enthusiasts to start up their very own wine farm with relatively limited resources.

Gyles Webb had been an accountant working in Durban historically not a place known for wine production. Infected with the wine bug Gyles, his wife Barbara and family bought a fruit farm outside Stellenbosch the Cape’s wine capital on the Helshoogte pass and called it Thelema Mountain Vineyard. The family had owned a hotel in Kimberley called the Phoenix and accounts for the emblem that adorns the label of Thelema’s wines. It is rumoured that Gyles became particularly adept at producing olive oil from the olive trees that are common in Kimberly, but that is another story. Gyles completed a degree in Oenologyat Stellenbosch University and after some experience making wine in South Africa and overseas, in 1988 produced the first vintage from Thelema Mountain Vineyard.

The first vintages from Thelema were well received in South Africa and indeed Gyles won the Diners Club Winemaker of the Year in 1994 for his Merlot 1992. It is probably fair to say though that it was the Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon 1994 which captured the attention of a wider wine drinking community. Gyles enthusiasm for wine was partly ignited by the wines from Burgundy and he admired the minimalist as opposed to old fashioned wine making techniques that the very best appellations use. “Wine is made in the vineyard”, is another adage common in the wine world and its proponents highlight the importance of the quality of the fruit rather than any wizardry in the cellar as the key to making great wine. The reputation of Gyles and Thelema for producing quality wine is much based on the emphasis of producing the best quality fruit possible and then handling it as little as possible to make wine. The wines from Thelema were though not shy in terms of using the best quality French oak barrels 50% first fill for the 1994 vintage for a total of 18 months.

Living in Maputo I bought a case of Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon 1994 in 1996; which if my memory serves me well cost R34 a bottle.I still buy a case a year and it demonstrates to wine makers if you hook them early they stay loyal dare I say even if the vintages go up and down. We used to have Thelema and other Cape wines shipped to Nelspruit, after which we managed to get them to Maputo in all sorts of innovative ways. I left Mozambique in 2001 and the Thelema wines followed me first to Zambia. In 2005 the wines returned to South Africa where they have been stored ever since in the Lowveld in temperature controlled conditions. I am down to my last three bottles of 1994 and it has become something of an event in our household to open a bottle or two on our visits to the Lowveld.

The vast majority of wines produced throughout the world are designed to be drunk young and I suspect it is only odd folk such as me that enjoy old wines to drink as opposed to collect. It is also probably fair to say that Gyles never intended his 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon to be kept for the best part of 20 years. I notice on the back label of the 1994 Cabernet Sauvignon it says that the wine has the structure to, “improve over the next five years”. Since 1999 the wine may or may not have improved, but it has certainly changed. We drank two bottles last night with friends over dinner. I decanted the wine only forty minutes before drinking and there was as you would expect from a wine made with minimal finning and filtering and given its age plenty of sediment in the bottle. The wine was still bright if not necessarily brilliant with some good colour albeit gravitating towards mahogany. On the nose there is still good fruit aromas definitely blackcurrant and perhaps even a hint of the famous eucalyptuses (mint) that Thelema and to an extent South African cabernet sauvignon’s are known for. On the palate the fruit is there, smooth tannins and a reasonable length of finish.

The remaining bottles of the 1994 cabernet sauvignon will probably not get the chance to last another 20 years, a pity really as it would be interesting to see how it would taste. I should add that Gyles was awarded for the Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon 1994 again the accolade of Dinners Club Winemaker of the Year in 1996.Although the wines of Thelema Mountain Vineyards have changed in terms of style since the early 1990’s, the ethos of producing the best possible fruit has not. To this end Thelema now sources grapes from its Sutherland farm in the cooler climate Elgin area of the Cape. I am aware that for some Thelema wines are not necessarily considered in the imaginary category of South Africa’s “first-growths”. What is not in dispute though is the significant contribution Gyles Webb and Thelema wines have made to the modern South African wine industry. I for one will keep sending a nod of thanks from the Lowveld in the direction of the Helshoogte pass as I enjoy the remaining vintages of the Thelema Cabernet Sauvignon.

A footnote is that we also tasted some other older Cape wines on the same trip to the Lowveld, which included the following.

Meerlust Rubicon 1984
Stellenzitch Syrah 1998
Stellenzitch Sémillon 1998
Vergelgen 1998

Monday, March 4, 2013

“Georgia on My Mind” in Kenya

The majority of wine sold in Kenya is made from one or more of the famous-five grape varieties: cabernet sauvignon, merlot and shiraz for the reds and chardonnay and sauvignon blanc for the whites. In other wine markets of the world the phenomenon of ABC (any thing but chardonnay/cabernet) is well known. The more adventurous wine drinkers have turned to other grape varieties to titillate their taste buds. In response to changing tastes and new demands, wine makers increasingly provide wines made from new grape varieties in a plethora of combinations. Most of these varieties with rare exceptions are in fact anything but new. Instead, they are old varieties often long neglected that have been rediscovered, dusted off, sometimes given a marketing makeover and sent forth to jostle for shelf space with their more well known grape cousins.

Relatively new to drinking wine, Kenyan consumers are tentatively joining the grape variety treasure hunt. The world’s wine megabrands all present in Kenya supply wines made more or less from one or more of the famous-five grape varieties. The priority for Kenyan wine drinkers as is perhaps the case all over the world is not so much what is the wine made from, but of much more importance is does it taste good and is the price right.

My interest in grape varieties was stimulated recently by two events. The first was a bottle of wine given to me by a friend. The wine was a bottle of Teliani Valley Tsinandali 2011 from Georgia. Tsinandali is a village within the Kakheti region of south-eastern Georgia. For wine enthusiasts Georgia is interesting not least because it is the part of the world where many scholars believe that wine making originates some 5000 to 6000 BC. I must confess that I am not over familiar with Georgian wines and reading the back label on the bottle I learned that the wine was made from the grape varieties Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane.

Coincidentally I also received recently a copy of Wine Grapes by Jancis Robinson et al. This remarkable tome, all 1,241 pages of it and weighing in at over 3 kilograms, is for this wine geek a delight. Beautifully illustrated with plates from Ampélograhie by Pierre Viala published in French between 1901 and 1910, Wine Grapes provides descriptions for 1,368 vine varieties. I will not regurgitate the entries for the Rkatsiteli and Mtsvane varieties; suffice it to say they are comprehensive. Rkatsiteli though has a particularly interesting pedigree being one of the world’s oldest vitas vinifera (wine-bearing grapes) vines. Oeno-archaeologists a word that for some reason makes me smile claim that clay vessels containing Rkatsiteli seeds dating back to 3000 BC have been found in Georgia. Some biblical scholars claim that Rkatsiteli was the first vine planted by Noah after the flood, which I guess means it can tolerate high soil moisture content. Apparently after the waters subsided at the end of the Flood and according to the bible, ‘Noah began to be an husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: and he drank the wine, and was a drunken.’ I guess Noah had been pretty busy and this ancient viticulturalist needed a bit of relaxation.

As for the Teliani Valley Tsinandali wine well it was delicious. The colour of the wine was pale straw with a light floral or stone-fruit nose. On the palate apple or quince flavours, crisp acidity and ripe fruit although finishing dry. A little more research indicated that the wine is made predominantly from the Mtsvane variety used because it gives fresh citrus aromas, tropical fruit flavours, but with crisp acidity. One other interesting note is that the Teliani Valley Tsinandali wine is made using the traditional clay qvevri. Qvevri-like containers have become increasingly popular in many parts of the world with winemakers believing it to be a more natural way of making wine. For the Georgians it would seem it is just the way to make wine.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Lord of the Manor

Razvan Macici on a recent visit to Kenya
Kenyans drink more wine than ever and consumption increases every year in volume by about 5 per cent. As demand for wines increases so too do the visits to Kenya from winemakers from around the world promoting their various products. If numbers are to go by it is winemakers from South Africa who are leading the way. In the last few months Chris Williams from Meerlust, Ken Forester on a return visit and Giorgio Dalla Cia and his son George from their eponymous Dalla Cia Wine and Spirit Company have visited Kenya to swirl, sniff and taste with the great and the good. This last week we had the pleasure to welcome to Kenya on his first visit none other than Diners Club South Africa Winemaker of the year 2012 Razvan Macici. Hot-foot from the Dinners Club awards dinner; Razvan was on the plane next day to Nairobi and attended a variety of functions representing Nederburg and its parent Distell, South Africa’s largest wine and spirits company.

Razvan is from Romania where he grew up in the vineyards of Dealu Mare and studied Viticulture and Oenology at Alexandru loan Cuza University. Seeking to broaden his experience of winemaking, Razvan went to visit South Africa to work the 1994 grape harvest. Three years later he was offered an initial 18 months contract making white wines with Stellenbosch Farmer’s Winery, which along with Distillers Corporation formed Distell in 2000. Razvan at the time fully expected to return to his native Romania on completion of his contract. Eighteen years on after his first visit to South Africa and the rest as they say is history. Razvan became Cellarmaster at Nederburg in 2001, which has one of the largest crushing and winemaking facilities in South Africa. He married a local South Africa woman and now has three young children and loves life and work at his Paarl home. There is a twinkle in his eyes as he describes his idyllic life at Nederburg with his home some 500 metres from its super modern cellar.

I was amazed to hear from Razvan that for this last year Nederburg bottled some 83 wines with different labels. Admittedly there are four other winemakers at Nederburg working under Razvan, but still that is a heck of a lot of different brands and bottles of wine to come out of one cellar. In Kenya Razvan was promoting in particular the Manor House range the Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. Good wines they are too and interestingly, at least I thought so, was the fact that the Sauvignon Blanc was a 2008 vintage.

I know in South Africa as with most markets the demand from consumers for Sauvignon Blanc is said to be for as new a vintage as possible. Consumers seem to like a blast of tropical fruits and the zingy acids that young Sauvignon Blanc can deliver in spades. For the Manor House range Razvan explained his intention is to produce a style of Sauvignon Blanc with a little more restraint and finesse. Razvan is very much a lover of the ripe fruit flavours that South African wines, benefiting from the consistent sunshine of the relatively warm Cape, can usually provide. For this wine however, Razvan is after more minerality and complexity, which is assisted by the fact that the Manor House unlike most Sauvignon Blancs is not released immediately. The grapes come from the relatively cool district of Darling and Razvan believes that this origin accounts for the distinctive aromas of fynbos, the Cape’s unique flora, both on the nose and palate. Most Kenyans have never smelt the “slender-scrub” of the Cape so it proved a challenge to pin down how to describe the unique aromas. We do have in the highlands of Kenya heather-like vegetation, which although very different in terms of aromas at least gave an idea.

At one level and on a personal note I have a soft spot for Nederburg not necessarily because their wines have always been great, which indeed back in the 1980’s and 1990’s and with some exceptions they were not. It is more to do with the fact that over the years and having lived in many African countries the wines of Nederburg were the only wines available, at least from South Africa that one could approach with some confidence. It is perhaps hard for many to believe how much enjoyment a bottle of Edelrood or Baronne brought to wine-starved enthusiasts living in Africa outside South Africa back in the 1980’s.

Razvan’s contribution to winemaking at Nederburg and in South Africa in general is remarkable. The transformation in the quality of wines from Nederburg over the last decade is well documented, a fact recognised by the Platter Winery of the Year award in 2011. Razvan magnanimously points out that quality improvements are not just down to his efforts. Distell prioritised Nederburg to spearhead a drive for improved quality across all of their many brands backed by significant investments. We wine geeks can sometimes be somewhat sniffy towards the large wine corporations for a variety of often subjective reasons. For the average consumer in Africa though a technically sound product of consistency and quality at a price point that is affordable is not to be underestimated.

To finish our fun with Razvan we had a bottle or two of the Winemaster’s Reserve Noble Late Harvest the 2011 is yet again awarded 5 stars by the Platter’s Wine 2013. Most Kenyans are not necessarily interested that this wine is “blessed” as Razvan puts it with botrytis cinerea, or that it is made from a 100 percent Chenin Blanc. Instead they just loved the bright amber colour, intense apricot and fruit nose and fabulous sugar (about 240 grams per litre) with good acidity on the plate. Sweet wines are a love of Razvan and he told me that a few years ago he made South Africa’s first Noble Late Harvest sparkling wine, which at the very least sounds interesting. It was great spending a few hours with Razvan and hopefully next time he comes to Kenya we can show him some of the sites outside of Nairobi.

Monday, November 19, 2012


To say that the wine world was shocked in 2011 when a Chinese wine won the prestigious Decanter World Wine Awards best Bordeaux varietal is an understatement. The wine from the He Lan Qing Xue Winery located in Ningxia Province in north-central China is a red blended wine using grape varieties associated with the Bordeaux region of France. For many this astonishing success came from out of the blue. For others more in the know it merely confirmed the fact that the investment made in the Chinese wine industry over the last three decades has begun to pay off.

Archaeologists point to an area around the borders of what is now Georgia and Iran about 7,000 BC as the place where humans first cultivated grape bearing vines. As with many other inventions from gunpowder to printing, it is the Chinese that probably discovered the process of alcoholic fermentation. For most of China’s history it has been rice that provided the raw material for making a fermented alcoholic drink. It was only towards the later part of the 20th Century that the Chinese began to turn their attentions in earnest to both drinking and making wines from grapes. The economic explosion and a rapidly rising middle class with disposable incomes have driven a dramatic increase in wine consumption in China.

Chinese consumers initially turned to the wines of Europe and in particular France to supply their demands. The provenance and label of a wine are extremely important to the Chinese consumer and even more some say than the quality of the contents of the bottle. It is no coincidence that it is China that buys an increasing amount of what are termed Bordeaux first growth and Burgundy Gran Cru’s, which are some of the most expensive wines in the world often in excess of $1,000 a bottle. It is also to France that China turned to import the necessary expertise to develop its own wine industry.

Rémy Martin the famous French Cognac label was the first foreign company to establish a joint wine making venture in China in 1980. Dynasty Wine Limited imported from France everything from the vines themselves to all the paraphernalia needed for making wine including expensive oak barrels and expert personnel. Since the initial foreign investment Chinese wine production has boomed and today China is the 7th largest wine producing country in the world set to increase even further over the next few years. Most of China’s wine production well over 90 per cent is consumed in China so do not expect to see Chinese wine on the Kenyan supermarket shelves anytime soon. Nevertheless, I predict that it will not be so long before Kenyans are buying wines from China as opposed to South Africa, France and other countries.

Food and wine pairing can be a confusing and even a contentious subject. Although I tend to be sceptical at over elaboration when it comes to choosing what wines go best with specific cuisines, I do accept that matching wine with Chinese dishes is particularly challenging. Part of the problem relates to complex sauces and strong spices associated with some Chinese dishes. Few wines for example can compliment satisfactorily a Chinese dish containing plenty of spicy Sichuan pepper. The other problem is that Chinese food is usually served all together and selecting a single wine that will compliment an array of different tastes is difficult.

In general what seem to work best to accompany many Chinese dishes are lighter bodied wines and in particular white wines. Perhaps best of all is to choose white wines made from the so called aromatic grape varieties. I am thinking in particular of zingy Sauvignon Blancs from South Africa of which there are many good examples available in Kenya. Even better although a little more difficult to find in Kenya are wines made from the famous German grape variety Riesling. I recently discovered a really good Rieflé Bonheur Convivial Alsace Riesling available from a new wine shop Le Decanter situated at the ABC shopping mall in Nairobi. In the same vain I would recommend searching out wines made from the difficult to pronounce Gewürztraminer grape and there is a South African one from the company Simonsig available in some supermarkets in Kenya.

Another white aromatic grape variety Viognier seems to work well with many Chinese foods. There is a particularly good wine based on the Viognier grape called Goats do Roam, which is available in all good Kenyan supermarkets at a relatively reasonable price. If you are a red wine enthusiast then I would suggest wines made from grape varieties with lower tannins that mouth puckering chemical that is also present in a cup of tea. Better to go with lighter bodied wines based on grapes such as Merlot and Gamay the grape associated with the fruity light wines of the Beaujolais region in France. Last but not least why not try a fruity and chilled Rosé wine, which can work very well with a variety of Chinese dishes.

Giorgio Dalla Cia

Giorgio Dalla Cia is one of South Africa’s most famous wine makers who with his son George recently visited the Sankara Hotel Nairobi to participate in a food and wine extravaganza. Giorgio is a larger than life character, easy to talk to with a twinkle in his eyes and always wears his famous white fedora hat. Giorgio moved from his native Italy to South Africa in 1974 where he became the winemaker at the Meerlust Estate. At this old and venerated estate he created South Africa’s first so called Bordeaux blend. This is wine made from a blend of grapes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc found in the Bordeaux region of South West France. Against the odds and certainly the opinions of his fellow winemakers, the Meerlust Estate Rubicon wine became a national and international success. After 30 years at Meerlust Giorgio set up his own winery and distillery company close to Stellenbosch South Africa’s wine capital eponymously named Dalla Cia Wine and Spirits Company.

I would describe the food at the Sankara as modern classical sourcing the finest ingredients from Kenya and turning them into fabulous food. The chefs at the Sankara relish a challenge such as pairing Dalla Cia wines with sumptuous food. The first pairing involved cured salmon with a citrus of lemon and liquorice pearls with the Dalla Cia Sauvignon Blanc. Next was ostrich and lobster brochette with a red wine jelly paired with a Cabernet Sauvignon, which also contains some Merlot and Petit Verdot. For desert we were presented with a declination of chocolate and raspberry paired with a Merlot wine interesting because it is a red wine not usual to accompany a desert. Giorgio’s wines are very much in the European tradition by which I mean they are made first and foremost to compliment and enhance food. The event at the Sankara Hotel was a joy and a fine example of food and wine pairings at their best.


"I drink it when I'm happy and when I'm sad. Sometimes, I drink it when I'm alone. When I have company I consider it obligatory. I trifle with it if I'm not hungry and drink it if I am; otherwise I never touch it - unless I'm thirsty."

Madame Bollinger, one of the "grande dames" of French champagne (1884 - 1977).

When we celebrate we often reach for a bottle of fizz, preferably and if we can afford it the king of all sparkling wines, champagne. It is well known that bubbles in wine assist in enabling alcohol to enter the blood stream more quickly, but I do not think this is the main reason we love fizz. Fizz just makes us happy even before we have drunk it. There is the ceremony of the opening and wine buffs will tell you that the cork should be eased off gently by turning the bottle and not the cork. The objective is to preserve the precious bubbles as mush as possible and ideally only a gentle whiff should be heard as the cork is released. Most of us though prefer the sound of a pop even a bang followed by an eruption of foaming wine. Fizz is all about extravagance, something to be shared with friends and family or even strangers. I notice that when glasses of fizz are poured and handed around most of us eagerly drink with gusto. Seldom does anyone pause to consider the colour and bouquet of a glass of fizz as perhaps one would with a glass of still wine. Instead fizz is drunk quickly with the hope that another glass will follow. Fizz is made for drinking not tasting, to celebrate, enjoy and have fun.

The inventor of champagne the most famous of all sparkling wines is often wrongly credited to Dom Pérignon (1638 to 1715) the legendary French Benedictine monk. He is said to have exclaimed on first drinking wine that had mysteriously developed bubbles, “Come quickly I am drinking the stars”. In reality Dom Pérignon although a consummate wine maker did not invent champagne and ironically spent much of his time trying to prevent his wines developing bubbles. It is the English that may have some claim to have discovered sparkling wine. From the 16th Century onwards still wines from the Champagne region of France were exported across the English Channel to supply the nobility. This tart and acidic still wine was exported in barrels before the invention of glass bottles. To make the wine more palatable the English added sweeter possibly honey to the barrels of wine. The residue of yeasts left over in the barrels combined with the sugars induced secondary fermentation. This had the desirable effect of both increasing the alcohol content and create carbon dioxide, which dissolved in the wine to give bubbles.

Bottle fermented sparkling wine sometimes known as wine produced in the traditional method is considered the superior method to produce sparkling wine. Champagne still provides the benchmark for quality of all bottle fermented sparkling wines even though almost every country in the world that produces wine makes bottle fermented sparkling wine. In South Africa it is known as Méthode cap Classique (MCC), in Spain Cava is the most famous bottle fermented sparkling wine and in other countries such as Australia, USA and Chile the words traditional method is usually used to denote how the wine was produced as well as a mark of quality.

In addition to bottle fermentation there are three other methods to create bubbles in wine. The first, the cheapest and most common method is to pump carbon dioxide into wine just like in soft drinks. Most bottles that state on the label “sparkling wine” are usually made in this method. The second method to make sparkling wine is called Charmat or sometimes referred to as the Italian method. The most famous of sparkling wines produced using the Charmat method is perhaps Prosecco from Italy. It is made by fermenting the base wine a second time not in the bottle, but a large stainless steel tank. Once the wine has completed a secondary fermentation and now with bubbles the wine is bottled under pressure using a customary mushroomed shaped cork. The fourth method is the "transfer method" where the wine does undergo secondary fermentation, but then will transfer the wine out of the individual bottles into a larger tank to spend further time on yeast to acquire further complexity before being rebottled.

Whatever the method of producing sparkling wines there is no doubting their huge popularity. Each year whatever the vagaries of the economic climate more Champagne and sparkling wines in general are produced and consumed than ever. The French are fervently protective of the name Champagne and will unleash the full force of armies of lawyers if anyone foolishly calls their wines or anything else for that matter Champagne. In Kenya there are available numerous Champagnes from the famous houses (companies), bottle fermented sparkling wines from countries as diverse as South Africa and Italy, Prosecco produced using the Charmat method from Italy as well as a whole raft of sparkling wines from many different countries. Recently in Nairobi a wine tasting group known as the Winettes sampled a variety of sparkling wines all of which with the exception of one are available in Kenya. Here are the results of the mammoth tasting session.

The first four wines are from the biggest wine company in South Africa, Distell. Under the brand JC le Roux more than 10 sparkling wines are produced. At the tasting we sampled 4 of their sparkling wines.

JC le Roux naturally lively White – a sparkling wine made predominantly from Sauvignon Blanc grapes, fun and fresh would be ideal for mixing.

JC le Roux La Chanson red – another simple sparkling wine, sweet, light red in colour and just good fun.

JC le Roux La Fleurette pink – sparkling wine for those that really like their sparkling wine sweet. The high sugar content in this one was not necessarily to the taste of the Winettes.

JC le Roux La Vallée – a bottle fermented off-dry Non Vintage mostly Pinot Noir with a nose of nutmeg and ripe pear. Non vintage in a sparkling wine refers to the fact that the content is a blend of wines from different years. This wine is a notch up in quality from the other JC le Roux offerings.

Marquis de la tour brut – this is a sparkling wine from the Loire Valley in France. The wine is made from a blend of different grapes including the Loire Valleys famous white grape Chenin Blanc. This sparkling wine is lively and fresh made in an off-dry (semi-sweet) style. Perhaps suitable for a welcoming drink at receptions and such like.

Marquis de la tour rosé – this is a sister wine to the brut above for those that like their fizz pink. Again off-dry in style and this wine has a pronounced nose of strawberries.

Arnea Spumante Veneto Italy – this is a bottle fermented sparkling wine from the north-west of Italy. The wine has tiny and persistent bubbles with complex aromas of nearly ripe apples, bread crust and a touch of vanilla. Dry to the palate, full with a long finish.

Riccafanna Francicorta Brut – also a bottle fermented sparkling wine this time from Lombardy in north-west Italy. This wine is made from 100% Chardonnay grapes with a pleasant toasty nose and bread aromas. On the palate the acids are firm and the wine has a persistent bubbly mouth feel.

Simonsig Kaapse Vonkel – it is 40 years ago that Simonsig produced South Africa’s first bottle fermented sparkling wine. This wine has small persistent bubbles with a pronounced nose smelling of brioche. The wine is made from the three famous grapes used to make Champagne: Pinot Noir, Pinot Meunier and Chardonnay. A classy wine and is suitable for any occasion.

Nyetimber Classic Cuvee England – this wine is unfortunately not available in Kenya, but a fine example of the fact that England is producing excellent bottle fermented sparkling wine. This wine also uses the three classic Champagne grape varieties and displays a gentle spiraling set of bubbles through a pale gold hue. Bread dough and white peach contribute to a pleasing aroma. The palate is fresh and vibrant with a core of grapefruit, lime leaves and minerality with bubbles bringing roundness to the wine.

Nicolas Feullillate Champagne Brut – this wine is a non-vintage Champagne from the house of Nicolas Feuillate. This is great quality Champagne at a reasonably price this wine is light and fruity with fine discreet bubbles and subtle overtones of apples and pears. This wine has undergone 4 years cellar ageing before disgorgement and bottling to add complexity.

Nicolas Feullillate Champagne Cuvee Special 1997 – this wine is vintage Champagne available in Kenya from Mia Wines and Spirits International. Vintage Champagne refers to the fact that the base wine used for making the Champagne is from a declared year. The Champagne wine authority only declares a vintage in exceptional years and this wine dates from 1997. On the nose this was by far the most complex of the wines tasted. The complexity follows through on the palate with a combination of apples and bread. This is a wine for those who are serious about their Champagne.