Ziway, Ethiopia

Photo: Castel Winery Ethiopia
Photo: Castel Winery Ethiopia

You’re sitting on a terrace overlooking a valley filled with rows and rows of grape vines. Volcanic hills stand in the background. A gorgeous new tasting room, made of stone and wood, is behind you. The sun is brightly shining, though a cool breeze keeps it from being too warm. And a glass of Merlot, your favorite wine that you sampled during the tasting, is in your hand. You couldn’t have asked for a more perfect afternoon in Ethiopia. That’s right, you’re tasting wine in Ethiopia.

You didn’t expect to find wineries here. Neither Ethiopia’s location on the Horn of Africa nor its extreme poverty made you picture vineyards while planning this trip. But then you started driving south from Addis Ababa. The capital’s tall buildings soon gave way to rolling hills, small farms, and massive lakes. Coffee plantations thrive in the Rift Valley’s nutrient-rich soil. Outside of Ziway, a fishing town on Lake Ziway, a French company decided to plant vines in that same soil.

Castel Winery isn’t Ethiopia’s first winery. Italian troops first planted vines in southeastern Ethiopia during the Italian occupation in the 1930s. Awash Wine, outside of Addis Ababa, later opened in the 1950s. But few wine makers have attempted to produce wine here since then. Castel, one of the largest wine producers in the world, decided to change that. They planted vines from Bordeaux; the first harvest was in 2007. They built a tasting room that looks like a traditional tukel (mud and grass hut). Then they waited. The wine is finally ready to drink.

In the art-filled tasting room, you swished the blended wines—the Medium Sweet White, the Medium Sweet Red, and the Dry Red—in the lower-priced Acacia line. You moved on to the Rift Valley wines. The Chardonnay was crisp, since it’s fermented in stainless steel tanks. The Cabernet Sauvignon and the Syrah were fruity and aromatic. While the deep-red Merlot had a spicy aftertaste. You finished the small pour, immediately asked for a full glass, and made a beeline for the terrace. Cheers to Ethiopia.

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