This Christmas, drink wine and be merry

By :|Updated: 2010-12-21

Wine drinking has picked up in Kenya following the importation of a wider variety. []

Now that shoppers in Kenya have to pass through a gate to enter the cordoned-off alcoholic beverages section of shops and supermarkets since the passage of the Alcohol Drinks and Control Act, the experience of buying wine may have become just a bit more daunting.

Faced with the dilemma of red or white, cork or screw cap, France or Franschhoek, Chateau Lafitte or Chateau Cardboard, the novice wine buyer often will have to navigate narrow spaces with a trolley — or without, depending on the shop — and strain his or her eyes in the shadows in search of a familiar label.

Not only is the actual display area often more cramped, the shelving has been built much higher to maximize on the limited space, forcing would-be buyers to stretch their necks — and arms to reach the bottles and casks.

But looking on the bright side, the wine scene today in Kenya — or at least in Nairobi — is incredibly rich and varied compared to what it was in 1996 when I first discovered pinotage, the South African varietal that, when good, can be like drinking smoky velvet.

More imports

Back then, just a few years after economic liberalisation, there were only a handful of wine importers in Kenya and just a smattering of drinkers who expected more than a house Chianti or something cold and clear from a cardboard box.

And anyway, talk of drinking something that hinted of smoky velvet, bitter dark chocolate, elderflowers, tobacco, green pepper, caramel, or grass would just confirm to hesitant drinkers that it was by far safer to stick to Tusker.

But in Kenya today, beer sales are basically flat, while wine consumption is on the rise, according to Rupen Samani, the founder and chief executive office of Viva Product Line, the beverage distributor he established in Nairobi in 2000.

At loose ends after finishing university in Britain, he had fond memories of holidays in Spain where he learned to speak fluent Spanish and drink wine.

“When we started, wines were considered to be elitist, and most people stuck to beer,” he said. “Now wine is a typical middle class drink, and beer has fallen. We were about six or seven importers back then; today there are 30.”

Among the first wines he imported was Baron de Valls red, a pleasant, light blend of tempranillo and bobal grapes produced in Spain’s eastern Valencia region for export to Asia and Africa.

It is still on the market, and because it is slightly sweeter and lighter than other basic reds, it offers an easy introduction into the wine-drinking world.

Introducing wine to a non-wine culture is as much or more about education than it is about marketing.

There is next to nothing written about wine in the Kenyan or regional media.

Sales people have to be trained to know the difference between wine from Chile and wine from France, and wait staff in restaurants, many of whom have never drunk wine, also have to learn about what’s on the wine list they hand to customers.