AFRICA has always been the continent of the brave and one brave producer is looking to bring back the golden era of Zimbabwe wines, after years of the country being in a depression.
The verdant Winelands of Bushman Rock is set to turn pre-conceptions of its country’s wine quality on its head as it starts to lay foundations for sparkling wine production next year and bring the wow factor of tourism into play to boot.
Glass of Bubby writer, Alexander James spoke to the estate owner, Jonathan Passaportis on his extensive knowledge on the decline and fall of his nation’s wine and why he’s committed to fighting all odds to bring it back to its best.
Zimbabwe was once a country renowned for delicious vino, but that all changed following what many describe as a punishing era of sanctions and the erosion of agriculture. The future of sparkling wines from this once booming nation of Zimbabwe was hard to predict.
Now things could change. There’s a new government since November 2017, one keen to adopt an entrepreneurial spirit. Wineries like Bushman’s Rock are looking to take up the challenge of producing the kind of bubbly that will put the country back on the wine map. Jonathan’s story is one the triumph of passion over profit and a love of wine that has outlasted challenging times.
Then throw in Jonathan’s love of tourism, Bushman Rock is a travel destination in its own right, a classic African lodge, set between a forest, a lake, game reserve and rolling hills, kissed by the sun and fresh air, to really reveal what good wine is all about.
AJ: So give us the backstory of Zimbabwe and its wine heritage?
JP: One cannot talk about Zimbabwean wines without addressing our recent past. The past two decades have seen the reduction of vineyards from between 12 to 20 wineries in 1999 (with more being planned and planted) to 4 currently in production (with two of the three scaling their vineyards down). As we move forward into what promises to be a very positive period in Zimbabwe we acknowledge that a number of problems that arose in the past two decades will continue to cause issues, however, there is absolutely no reason that vineyards and wine production cannot return to their previous place in Zimbabwean agriculture. The long term nature of vineyards does mean that there will be no sudden boom of grape planting, however, as the economy improves the wine market will continue to grow, resulting in increased margins for local producers which in turn will attract more growers.
AJ: What are the distinct flavours of Zim wines when compared to other wines from around the world?
JP: It will be difficult to talk of distinct Zim flavours given the geographic range of our wineries, however, at Bushman Rock we get fruity and flowery tones in our wines with salty and mineral accentuations on some of the reds.
AJ: What challenges have Zim wines face, and how do you hope this will change in future?
JP: There are a number of issues to discuss when looking at Zimbabwean wines;
First is the summer rain which makes viticulture a little more stressful than other areas of the world. Our climate is challenging, however, we believe that the positives outweigh the negatives and that very good quality wines can be produced here. Indeed in the late 90’s, some fantastic wines were produced from the larger wineries. As winemaking in Zim matures there is a gradual move towards early ripening varieties which are harvested prior to the onset of the main rainy season.
The second is scale; As the wine industry is so small there are no supporting industries surrounding it. This has far reaching effects in the production phase as the majority of inputs are now unavailable locally. From basics such as filter paper and bottles through to the more specific such as agronomy services and implement production Zimbabwean winemakers are left stranded. There have been no improvements to machinery or production facilities in years and the few wineries in Zimbabwe make do with fertilizers designed for coffee production and sprays designed for use in the Western Cape of South Africa (a region that differs greatly from us here in Zimbabwe).
On the retail and marketing side of the industry, scale is proving an issue too. The Wine industry in Zimbabwe historically centred around two organisations – AFDIS and Mukuyu. These organisations performed the function of a “co-op’ ensuring that individual grape growers had the adequate support and a constant market. As Zimbabwean wine production declined due to various factors these organisations had to rely on supplementing their production with imported South African product. The reliance on imported product is now ingrained in our organisational culture and without large scale investment in local production, this will remain the case for a long time to come.
The Third is the Brain Drain – although not restricted to the Wine Industry the loss of our human “wine” resources was almost catastrophic to our industry. Generational knowledge has evaporated and any problems that arise within the industry now are treated as if they are “new problems”. Given the different climatic conditions that we exist in replacing this knowledge is going to be a long term goal.
AJ: What, historically, has been the influence on wine production in Zimbabwe?
JP: Wine production in Zimbabwe has its roots in the Italian Immigrants who came to the country post second world war. Various grape growing areas were established and then in the 50s the grape growing and wine production was encouraged to try to remove the country’s reliance on tobacco. Grapes and tobacco tend to like similar growing conditions and as such, government incentives were put in place to encourage farmers to diversify from tobacco. A number of farming areas invested heavily with the main wine growing regions being Odzi, Marondera/Ruwa, Mazoe, Gweru and Esigodini. The majority of vineyards had supply contracts with the two main winemaking companies (AFDIS and Mukuyu). Although our neighbouring country South Africa had a huge grape industry our climatic conditions and the European background of most grape growers meant that the wine industry in Zimbabwe has more of leaning to Europe than it does to SA. As the country’s grape and wine industry expanded investment was made into various world class facilities and winemaking expertise were sourced from Germany, New Zealand, Italy, Greece and Australia. Various local students started to do industrial placements in Zimbabwean wineries and many went on to study at international institutes. Unfortunately, in recent years, this human capital has failed to return to Zimbabwe and the wine industry is reliant on a few passionate individuals.
AJ: What about Zim and its landscapes and its awe-inspiring terrain, how does this help wine tourism?
JP: There is no doubt that Zimbabwe has some of the most spectacular natural landscapes in the world and it is almost impossible to improve on natures splendour. Huge areas of the country have been set aside for pure conservation and large quantities are dedicated to agriculture. The ordered nature of farming lends a certain beauty to the agricultural landscape around the country but it must be said that nothing, bar nature itself, can compete with the majesty of a well laid out, well maintained vineyard. Bushman Rock is inspiring in its beauty as the vineyards roll down to the calm lake and the indigenous forest covers the hills opposite. If ever there was a place to motivate creative winemaking this definitely is the place.
AJ: How do you hope changes in business legislation will mean Europe/UK will see more of this wine?
JP: As international relations normalise and improve there is great opportunity to maximise on the short term niche of a “curiosity” product once there is a return of viable trade routes. Improvements to import tariffs, ease of travel so that our winemakers and personal can experience cultural/wine exchanges etc will all have immediate and positive results on the wine industry.
The immediate and perhaps most sustainable value derived from the return to normal international relations will be an increase in inbound tourism. As international tourists return to our country the interest in a locally made quality wine will increase. It is hoped that with increased production we will be able to remove the dependency on imported produce. Any changes in business legislation that results in an increase in tourism to our country should directly affect the local alcohol industry in general and specifically our wine industry.
AJ: What about the location of where you grow? How do you see it as a destination to visit in its own right?
JP: This is definitely a destination in its own right. Bushman Rock is unique in its combination of Wildlife, Wine and Hospitality. With beautifully appointed rooms, spectacular vineyards, great food and sustainable wildlife management a mere 40minutes from our nation’s capital, Bushman Rock is the ideal location for guests to spend a few days unwinding.
AJ: Tell me more about your business, is it family run, a passion project, a way to tap into a new market, or a mix of both?
JP: Bushman Rock is designed as a commercial operation that grew out of a family business. The past few years have been difficult and at times the whole operation was held together only by our shareholders passion for our country, our little valley and our community. As the country returns to normalcy the long-awaited expansion of our operation is underway and we are moving every aspect of our business into fully fledged commercial operation. With interests in vineyards, asparagus production, wildlife management and conservation, polo and equine management and hospitably we are incredibly buoyed by the current positive feelings in our country. We do believe that as our country returns to the international market, Bushman Rock is perfectly poised to expand into a fully commercial operation.
What else would you like to express about winemaking? How much sweat and toil goes into it? The feeling of being around nature and its weather, for example?
For this, I’ll turn to Nelia Kanyasa (The Bushman Rock Winemaker) who tells me: ‘Winemaking, a combination of science and art can be quite hectic over the harvest period when every fruit needs its particular attention and to be treated according to its demands. When grapes are ripe enough for what you want to use them for, you just have to pick and process them irrespective of everything else happening around you. Meanwhile, the weather can be extremely ruthless, especially rains, hailstorms and beetles which seem all determined to fight the winemaker’s dream. However, when the results of a vintage are achieved, it is all joy and smiles. I wouldn’t hesitate to compare this whole experience to a pregnant woman’s journey, sometimes full of anxiety and the eventual joy of holding a healthy baby in her hands.’