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Wednesday, March 19, 2008

Meles Gives Castel Rent-Free Land for Wine Export

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APTN
-- It's perhaps surprising to learn that Ethiopia's wine industry reportedly dates back to the mid 16th century when Portuguese and Italian missionaries arrived in the country and used grapes for the ceremony of Holy Communion at church.

There's been little progression in wine-making since then and Ethiopia's wine-trade pales in comparison to other countries on the continent - like South Africa.

That's despite Ethiopia having a near-perfect climate for grape-growing - plenty of sunshine and rain.

But the nation's wine industry is about to get a much needed boost. "Castel", France's Dlargest wine producer, and the third biggest producer and trader in the world, is about to develop its own wine business in Ethiopia.

Castel subsidiary 'BGI' already brews three types of beer in Ethiopia ('Castel', 'St George' and 'Bati') and following talks with the Ethiopian Prime Minister last year the company has decided to make a move into the wine industry.

After almost a year of negotiations, the Ethiopian government has given Castel 500 hectares of rent-free land south of the capital Addis Ababa. The company plans to plant French vines this year and in three years time will produce its first bottle.

According to Castel, the success of the beer industry in the country led to the company's plans to invest in the wine industry there too.

Castel will take over this state owned farm in the town of Zeway, 170 kilometres from the capital.

The farm, one of just two state-owned, was established in 1980 and produces 250 tonnes of grapes per year.

The farm's not entirely sure which variety of grapes it grows right now, but agronomists have reportedly likened some to 'Grenache Noir'.

Fitsum Birhan manages the farm and says Ethiopia's proximity to the equator means the country's harvesting ability is unique, allowing it to harvest grapes twice a year.

At present all of the Zeway farm's grapes are supplied to the state-owned Awash winery in Addis Ababa. Established 60 years ago it's the only winery in the country.

But the Zeway farm is unable to produce enough grapes for the winery. As a result Ethiopia is importing up to 70% wine concentrate according to the Ministry of Trade and Industry.

Awash Winery's 500 permanent employees apparently produce five million litres of wine per year. They produce several different wines here including five types for export.

Red: Gouda, Dukum, Axumsite. White: Kamila, Crystal and also 'Shampagne' - a sparkling wine that is not allowed to be called Champagne.

They currently export wine to the US, Sweden, Russia, Djbouti, Uganda and other European countries.

Zerihun Bedasso, Awash Winery's Production and Technical Manager, welcomes Castel's investment and says the wine industry in Ethiopia has real potential, adding that the industry has been growing over the last seven years at a rate of 5-7% per annum - due to demand both locally and abroad.

In 2005, Ethiopia produced around five million litres of wine valued at nearly $8 million USD. Nearly 30,000 litres of that were exported - valued at around $85,000. (Source: Ministry of Trade and Industry)

Castel's aim is to get Ethiopia competing with the likes of South Africa, a 'New World Wine' producer which has seen it's popularity grow from strength to strength in recent years.

Once it starts producing wine, Castel plans to export up to 70%, leaving 30% in Ethiopia.

But convincing the locals to swap from their traditional 'tej-wine' - which is made from honey - to Ethiopian wine with a French twist could prove to be it's greatest challenge.

SEE story on National Geographic.

FOE Commentary on AP story:
Ethiopians won't swap Tej for Castel wine. No way.

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