Sene­gal pro­duces first wine in shade of iconic baobab

The China Post - - FEATURE - BY MAR­GAUX SUBRA-GOMEZ

The bot­tles boast­ing Caber­net Sauvi­gnon and Gre­nache could be from any Parisian su­per­mar­ket but a closer look re­veals this is wine with a dif­fer­ence — nur­tured in the un­for­giv­ing soil of Africa’s Sa­hel.

“Le Clos des Baob­abs” — “the Baobab Field” in English — is Sene­gal’s first vine­yard, si­t­u­ated an hour’s scenic drive from the cap­i­tal Dakar on the pic­turesque Pe­tite Cote.

Ex­tend­ing over just one hectare dot­ted with baobab trees which watch over the young grape as it gorges on nour­ish­ing, year-round sun­shine, the plot is the re­al­iza­tion of a cher­ished dream shared by two French busi­ness­men who are lovers of all things Sene­gal.

“The main chal­lenge here is that there are no sig­nif­i­cant sea­sonal changes,” said Philippe Fran­chois, an in­sur­ance bro­ker in his 60s who teamed up with Fran­cois Nor­mant, a for­mer com­puter engi­neer.

Since ac­quir­ing 10 hectares of land three years ago in the ru­ral idyll of Nguekhokh, they have spent much of their brain­power and busi­ness acu­men ac­com­mo­dat­ing the un­fa­vor­able con­di­tions.

“In France, you harvest on near enough a fixed date. The vine in Sene­gal de­grades quickly but the ad­van­tage of the cli­mate is that we can make two har­vests a year,” says Fran­chois.

Sene­gal is a flat, arid coun­try, but the rainy sea­son brings a mix­ture of hot sun­shine and bib­li­cal down­pours and the air near the coast can be rel­a­tively hu­mid.

The two en­trepreneurs use a com­plex ir­ri­ga­tion sys­tem, fea­tur­ing a 180-me­ter well, which looks im­pres­sive — and ex­pen­sive — although the busi­ness­men pre­fer not to dis­cuss how much cash they have sunk into the ven­ture.

Of the 10 hectares, only one is op­er­a­tional so far, a test­ing ground to gauge the re­ac­tion of vines im­ported from France to the un­pre­dictable, capri­cious Sene­galese soil.

20 Mil. Bot­tles Sold An­nu­ally

Nor­mant and Fran­chois have started out with five va­ri­eties — Caber­net Sauvi­gnon, Cin­sault, Gre­nache, Syrah and San­giovese.

“The Caber­net mis­be­haves. It’s a long vine. We’re not plan­ning to re­peat the ex­pe­ri­ence,” says Nor­mant, who is in no hurry to reach in­dus­trial pro­duc­tion lev­els any time soon.

This year, for the es­tate’s sec­ond harvest, 500 bot­tles of red and rose wine are be­ing read­ied, stamped with the em­blem­atic baobab tree, which the pair hope will be their trade­mark once they be­gin mar­ket­ing.

At 7,000 francs (US$12.30) a bot­tle, the wine is aimed squarely at the up­per mid­dle class, but the en­trepreneurs deny be­ing an ex­pat brand in the al­most en­tirely Mus­lim coun­try of nearly 14 mil­lion.

“There is a Sene­galese up­per mid­dle class who love good things and want to con­sume lo­cal pro­duce,” says Fran­chois.

Le Clos des Baob­abs is start­ing out with a red, a “clas­sique” and a rose which Nor­mant and Fran­chois say will work well with the spicy cui­sine typ­i­cal of Sene­gal, such as the ubiq­ui­tous “tiep bou die­une” rice and fish dish or “yassa poulet,” chicken roasted in an onion sauce with le­mon juice.

“Wine cul­ture is in its in­fancy here,” says Mokh­sine Diouf, a Sene­galese wine­maker who trained in France who has been ad­vis­ing the busi­ness since his re­turn to Sene­gal in 2013.

“Be­cause of re­li­gion, there is a lot of hypocrisy on who drinks and who buys al­co­hol but 20 mil­lion bot­tles of wine are sold each year.”

Pit­falls

Un­able to stump up for a sur­tax of 125 per­cent im­posed on im­ported wine, most Sene­galese buy al­co­hol man­u­fac­tured lo­cally which, while much cheaper, is of du­bi­ous qual­ity and po­ten­tially un­healthy, ac­cord­ing to Diouf.

Fran­chois and Nor­mant say they are proud of hav­ing man­aged to pro­duce their wine de­spite all the pit­falls.

The grand cru may be some way away, but the pair pro­fess to be pleased with a cu­vee they say most buy­ers find “very sat­is­fac­tory.”

“The red has a beau­ti­ful deep color with pur­ple shades,” says Jean-Marie Mikalef, a wine­maker who has come to en­joy the nov­elty of home­grown wine in a Dakar bar.

“You can smell the ripe prune, the date. For a first vini­fi­ca­tion in Sene­gal, that’s great.”

Fran­chois, smil­ing, tells how som­me­liers and wine­mak­ers in­vited for a blind tast­ing in France a few months ago thought the Clos des Baob­abs rose “was from the Cotes de Provence or Coteaux d’Aix.”

While he and his part­ner ap­pear not to dwell too much on the fu­ture di­rec­tion of their busi­ness, they al­ready have a new pro­ject in mind — their own wine bar.

“We’ll set up there in branches of the baobab,” Fran­chois.

“Peo­ple will taste the wine over­look­ing the vine­yard. It will be mag­i­cal.” the says

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