Establishing a successful vineyard and winery just south of the Equator at a higher-than-a-mile location is not for the faint of heart. But James Farquharson was ready for a challenge, and besides, he already knew how to make wine.
Pius Ngugi, the owner of Kenya Nut, Thika Coffee Mills and several farms in the fabled Rift Valley, had already tried making wine from his vines at Morendat farm north of Lake Naivasha in the 1990s.
“But he came to the realisation that he needed a professional viticulturist and a professional winemaker who could work in Africa and who could actually make wine, so he got a South African winemaker,” said Farquharson, who received Ngugi’s offer in an email “out of the blue” to set up Rift Valley Winery and produce wine under the Leleshwa label.
He had been working at the Boschendal winery in South Africa on reds and roses, a job he called good “but highly corporatised.”
When he arrived at the Morendat farm in mid-2007, existing wine stocks covered 28 hectares, but Farquharson ripped out all those that were dead or going nowhere and imported a lot of stock from South Africa.
“It’s unlikely we would make a purely Kenyan variety,” he said. “That would take years. So we’re mainly working with sauvignon blanc and some chenin blanc for the whites. For the red, shiraz is naturally quite fertile and better suited than a merlot or cabernet sauvignon grape for this region. It doesn’t require too much ripening or maturation like a cabernet sauvignon.”
The vineyard now encompasses 46 hectares of which 14 are producing wine grapes. In 2008, the first year of production, the yield was 1.5 tonnes per hectare and 10,000 bottles. In 2009 production doubled to 20,000 bottles.
He said 2010, when production increased to 88,000 bottles, was “a bit funny.”
“We’ve had two harvests because it didn’t stop raining. Here there is no natural dormant season caused by the cold so we have to initiate it by starving the vines of water. That normally works in Naivasha, but we had more than double the water we normally get. Actually, the second harvest was even better than the first.”
He called making wine in an equatorial environment at 1,900 metres “quite an inexact science” and said he is also working on some “experimental stuff” at 2,100 metres, which he called “particularly high for being on the Equator.”
Up to now, the main market for the Leleshwa sauvignon blanc, shiraz and rose blend of shiraz and carignan has been to Kenya’s tourist industry — the top-end lodges, hotels and resorts.
“People like it when there is a Kenyan product available,” he said. “So it has really taken off on that side of things, but I don’t think that will be enough for the future, so we need a bigger market and are looking to expanding into the retail area like supermarkets and wine shops.”
The Leleshwa white and red are available at some of the Chandarana supermarkets in Nairobi and at the Haven wine shop at Lavington Green.
So far, the rose, which Farquharson calls “quite good” is still sold mainly in Naivasha, and as yet there is no sparkling wine, which requires specialised equipment. But he said he would definitely like to take on that challenge as well.