Unbelievable yet true, wine production has started in Gabon. While the agricultural sector currently accounts for less than 3% of GDP, with most of the output coming from cash crops including rubber, coffee and cocoa, viniculture has established a beachhead in the tropical African country. Since 2012, the Domaine d’ Assiami, owned by wine group Malymas wines, has produced a selection of spicy reds, citrusy whites, fruity rosés, all produced owing to the terraces of the verdant Batéké Plateau. That Gabon is an unusual choice for a winemaker goes without saying, for the dense jungle and grassy savannahs of the country are a far cry for the rolling hills of Napa or Aquitaine, but Malymas owner Domenique Auroy has faced more challenging climates.
UNEXPECTED ROOTS: Indeed, Malymas was not Auroy’s first attempt at unconventional winemaking. Almost 20 years ago, his first experiments started in the Pacific Ocean in Tahiti, French Polynesia, giving birth to the Domaine de Rangiroa. The Tahitian vineyard yields four different wines – two whites and two rosés – and such was the comparative success that Auroy was invited to replicate the experiment in Central Africa.
In 2004, with the support of former late President Omar Bongo Ondimba, 40 different vine stocks were planted, including some imported from the Pacific. After selection of the most adequate varieties, 7 ha of vines were planted in 2011. Indeed, the main challenge to grow grapes and producing wine in Polynesia and under the Equator was to find the correct blend of grape varieties tolerating unfavourable climates such as alternating severely dry and severely wet weather.
HISTORIC LOCATION: Up in the Batéké Plateau, at the heart of the Haut-Ogooué province, the oenological project came on-line in the small village of Malymas, in the south-east of the country. Through the 50/50 partnership between the deceased President and the French producer, one of the very few conditions was to establish the vineyard in the President’s native region. The location is characterised by a sandy and arid countryside offering spectacular landscapes, and a suitable yet challenging land for viniculture. Assiami’s soil is composed of altered granite sand which is well adapted to the cultivation of grapevines for winemaking as rainwaters rapidly drain into the soil. However, that type of soil hardly captures organic matters, bringing in technical issues for the Domaine to grow effectively.
SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT: In line with the government’s focus on promoting sustainable development, Malymas wines are produced according to the best environmental practices. The use of pesticides has been minimised in order to encourage organic farming. Thus in Malymas, biodiversity, fauna and flora are almost untouched, creating an auto-regulated fertile soil. The entire vineyard is irrigated drop-by-drop and the vines have been tied up in an ancient way, putting ecology and sustainability to the forefront. The objective is to preserve the environment while maximising profitability. Further, by enhancing agricultural activities in the region and providing jobs, the project aims to promote economic and social inclusion within local communities. In addition, it also aids working skills via technical training for viticulture processes.
BEARING FRUIT: While the production strategy focuses on quality rather than quantity, rapid growth is under way. In 2012, the vineyard produced around 5000 bottles, through two harvests of 2500 bottles each. In the medium term, the objective is to expand the vineyard from 7 to 10 ha, allowing a yearly production of 60 tonnes of grapes. Starting from 2016, around 60,000 bottles should be produced and distributed accordingly onto the local market. As of 2013, bottles are available in local restaurants, hotels and retail stores.
Although it will not prompt concern from growers such as Domaine Barons de Rothschild, the quality of Malymas ensures it offers a unique flavour. It is one of the few vineyards to be known in sub-Saharan Africa – excluding South Africa. While land conditions and technical specificities will continue to challenge the development of large-scale production, exporting to the wider region offers opportunities in the medium term.
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