Is viticulture a forgotten taste in Zimbabwe?: Part One


By Dr Michelina Andreucci

“No great poem was ever written by a drinker of water.” – Roman poet Horace
SINCE its ancient origins in Mesopotamia, (near present-day Iran), thousands of years ago, man has enjoyed drinking wine.
After bread, wine, was the sustenance most in demand.
Apart from water, there existed no other drinks.
However, is viticulture a forgotten taste in Zimbabwe?
Wine production in Zimbabwe is an untapped agricultural sector of the economy.
A significant, albeit small, foreign exchange earner shortly after independence in 1980 was the viticultural industry in Zimbabwe.
More than any other factor, the quality of the grapes determines the quality of the wine.
Grape quality is affected by variety as well as weather during the growing season; soil minerals and acidity, time of harvest and pruning method, as discovered by the Romans.
The combination of these effects is referred to as the grape’s terroir.
‘Terroir’ refers to the geophysical features of land which inter-relate to create unique conditions that in turn give specific characteristics to the wines produced.
Key factors include topography, climate, geology and soil which form the foundation of many geographical indication systems; choosing the site according to the cultivars to be planted is therefore important.
Although Zimbabwe is not considered ideally suited, climatically, for wine production by some, the country enjoys summer rains from November to April.
Grape harvesting time is from November to January and radiant sunlight and the right soils are the soul of wine, of which Zimbabwe has in abundance.
While moisture can be a problem, especially during grape-harvesting time, the combination of high-altitude, hot summers and cool nights make land-locked Zimbabwe an ideal location for wine production.
With the right viti-vinicoles, almost the whole of Zimbabwe could be ideal for growing grapes.
Vitis is a genus of about 60 species of grapevine plants in the Vitaceae family.
Most of the species are found in the temperate regions with a few in the tropics.
There are 44 indigenous species of Vitaceae – the grape family in the country.
Cabernet, Clairette Blanche, Colombard, red and white Hanepoort, Hermitage (Cinsaut, a high-yielding grape variety), Servan Blanc, Muscatel red and white, Muscat Hambro, Pinotage, Riesling, Seneca and Chenin Blanc (known as Steen), were the names of the growing range of wine grape varieties produced in Zimbabwe.
Vitis vinifera provides the wine grapes, resins, sultanas and currents and belongs to the same botanical family.
The fruit of several vitis species are grown commercially for consumption as fresh grapes and for fermentation into wine.
The Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO), estimates
75 866km2 of the world is currently dedicated to viticulture and increasing by about two percent per year.
Approximately 71 percent of world grape production is used for wine production, 27 percent as fresh fruit and two percent as dried fruit.
South Africa’s 350-year history of wine-making has dominated the sub-Saharan wine business.
The Pioneer Column brought vines to Rhodesia (circa 1890).
In 1899 Harold Christian hewed a vineyard out of virgin bush that became known as Meadows Estate.
Wine production in Zimbabwe dates back to the early 1950s, but it was not until 1960, however, that grape-growing was undertaken commercially by Rene Paynter at Arlington in Umwinsdale.
In 1963, Paynter produced and marketed ‘St Christopher’ — a white wine, and ‘Rosa Maria’, a light red wine from a vitis known as Isabella grapes, after he tested a variety of vines.
In 1965, after Rhodesia’s Unilateral Declaration of Independence (UDI), trade sanctions were imposed by Britain which forced many farmers to diversify and some, encouraged by Paynter’s success, diversified into viticulture.
At the same time, African Distillers’ distiller and wine production manager, David Hughes, imported 6 000 vines which were distributed to farmers in the Eastern Districts, Hippo Valley, Marandellas (Marondera) and Mazoe (Mazowe) Valley.
Following Zimbabwean independence, vitis vinifera was adapted to savannah conditions and grown successfully in the country from the mid-1980s, when a thriving wine industry was established, developing and growing steadily.
Although wine production was still relatively under-developed, Zimbabwe nonetheless had established a basic designation of standards system much as Italy’s DOCG, France’s AOC and South Africa’s Wine of Origin scheme.
By the late 1980s, Zimbabwe had 300 hectares (742 acres) of viticulture for the wine industry.
In a space of three decades, Zimbabwe made progress in viticulture oenology industry which had its origins in the Odzi and Esigodini areas.
By 1987 there were 19 registered vineyard complexes.
The Hwedza and Mazowe areas accounted for approximately 50-55 percent of the total wine production; other areas include Darwendale and Gweru.
Wine production in Zimbabwe expanded from 14 000 hectolitres in 1985 to 15 000 hectolitres in 1986.
Production of fortified desert wines rose from 10 000 hectolitres in 1985 to 13 000 hectolitres in 1986.
From the mid-1980s onwards,
1 000 hectolitres of sparkling wines were being produced annually.
Midway into the 1980s onwards, Zimbabwe was looking into the vines of success with new editions of wines being released under the Mukuyu label.
Although by0 international standards, Zimbabwean wines were rated medium quality, there was the potential for us to rival Californian, South African and possibly even French and Italian wines.
Although falling within the warmer winegrowing zones, Zimbabwe has a great diversity of topography and mesoclimatic conditions impacting on viticulture.
The identification of viticultural terroir is receiving much attention internationally, sustained by increasing consumer demand for knowledge and understanding of the origin of wine produced.
Zimbabwean wine producers are focused on identifying and selecting sites best suited to particular grape varieties.
In addition, new clones and rootstocks which are particularly well-adapted to the local soil and climatic conditions are being selected.
With seven designated wine-appellation regions, Zimbabwean wines are gaining recognition on the international stage as tourists visit the country’s vineyards.
Bushman Rock’s manager Jonathan Passaportis said: “While great wines are being made from Zimbabwean vineyards, some of which have received awards in international competitions, there is still room for growth in both quality and quantity.”
Given we now have ample land to cultivate, it is time to study and exploit viticulture, the lucrative fruits of independence.
Dr Michelina Rudo Andreucci is a Zimbabwean-Italian Researcher, Industrial Design Consultant and Specialist Hospitality Interior Decorator. She is a published author in her field.
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