Friday, November 25, 2011

Clos Nomena: Taking the Wine of Madagascar to New Heights

Pictures: Christian G.E. Schiller and Jean Allimant with Marie Nomena Allimant and their Clos Nomena Wines in Antananarivo

My wife Annette and I have known Pâquerette and Jean Allimant for many years through joint Betsileo friends, including Tantely Andrianarivo and Patrick Rajoanary. When I heard that Pâquerette and Jean had launched a wine project in the Betsileo region in Madagascar – Clos Nomena - I got very excited and even more so, when the first vintage was put on the market a few months ago. I was thus very pleased when I was invited recently by Jean and his daughter Marie Nomena to a private tasting of his new wines at his residence in Antanarivo.

Clos Nomena is different from any other wine that has been produced in Madagascar so far in that the grapes used to make the wine are the grapes that we know from the European and the international market, while the traditional winemaking in Madagascar is based on so-called French-American hybrid grapes. Generally speaking, French-American hybrid grapes have the advantage of being robust, but do not match the so-called European grapes in terms of elegance and refinement. The European grapes are the best when it comes to fine wines. “We only use the noble grapes of Europe” Jean said.

Picture: Jean Allimant

Moreover, Clos Nomena is using the modern wine technology available to the winemakers around the world, while the other winemakers in Madagascar do not do this, at least not to the extent Clos Nomena does.

Finally, Clos Nomena has teamed up with a professional winemaker from the Bordeaux area, who brings his experience and expertise in fine winemaking to the job.

Food and Wine in Madagascar

Off the eastern coast of Africa, Madagascar in the Indian Ocean is the 4th largest island in the world. Long known for vanilla beans and peppers, you can dine in its capital Antananarivo like in France, but at much, much lower prices and you can drink imported wines, mainly from France and South Africa, as well as – and this comes as a surprise to most visitors - good table wine produced locally.

Before becoming a sovereign country again in 1960, Madagascar was a French colony for over 60 years. The food in Madagascar is thus French-Malagasy. French food in Madagascar ranges from basic bistro food to one star michelin food. The traditional Malagasy food is rice three times a day, for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, with a bit of meat or fish and bok choy type greens. The Malagasy eat this with a spoon and a folk - no knife. I have written on Malagasy food and restaurants: Wining and Dining in Antananarivo, the Capital of Madagascar – Schiller’s Private List of Restaurants in Antananarivo, Madagascar and Schiller’s List of Restaurants in Antananarivo that Serve Malagasy Wine - Madagascar on schiller-wine.

Picture: Map of Madagascar

Not well known in the rest of the world, Madagascar produces wine. Malagasy wine tends to be of good table wine quality, not more. I always try to have a bottle of Malagasy wine, when I dine in Madagascar. Traditionally, the main grape varities are Petit Bouchet, Villardin, Chambourcin and Varousset for vins rouge and the Couderc Blanc for vins blanc. I have written on the wines of Madagascar: The Wines of Madagascar - Good and Interesting Table Wines

For imported wines, practically nothing was available in the 1980s, when I first set foot on the red island. That changed in the following years and French wines started to show up in supermarkets and restaurants. The most recent development is the influx of South African wine, which began perhaps a decade ago, reflecting both the opening up of the Malagasy economy and the export drive of the South African wine industry following the collapse of apartheid.

I lived in Antananarivo from 1989 to 1992 and visited Antananarivo since then on average every other year.

Vitis Vinifera, Vitis Aestivalis, Vitis Labrusac and Other Grape Varieties

When I am in a wine store in Washington DC or Frankfurt am Main, I never see any Petit Bouchet, Villardin, Chambourcin, Varousset or Couderc Blanc, the grape varieties traditionally planted in Madagascar. It is always Riesling, Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Noir, Merlot, to name a few. This should not come as a surprise because the latter are all vitis vinifera or so-called European grapes, indigenous in the Eurasian area. Vitis vinifera grapes are without any doubt the best in the world for fine wine. But there are other grape varities in the world, although the world wine market is dominated by European grapes, accounting for 90% of the market: Vitis aestivalis, native to eastern North America, Vitis rupestris, native to North America, Vitis riparia, native to northeastern North America, Vitis amurensis, the Asiatic grape variety, native to Siberia and China, Vitis rotundifolia, native to the southern half of the United States and Vitis labrusca, native to northeastern North America.

French American Hybrid Grapes and Madagascar

But Petit Bouchet, Villardin, Chambourcin, Varousset or Couderc Blanc Villard Blanc, Syval Blanc and Chardonel – the grape varieties prevalent in Madagascar - do not belong to the non-vinifera grape varities. What are they? They are French American hybrid grapes.

Hybrid grapes are grape varieties that are the product of a crossing of two or more vitis species. This is in contrast to intra vitis species crossings, typically between vitis vinifera grapes. French American hybrid grapes are crossings with both European and American vitis species involved. Importantly, the French American hybrid grapes have stronger winter hardiness and are more resistant to fungal diseases.

Pictures: Impressions from Antananarivo

When the phylloxera crisis (grape root louse) hit Europe in the 1860s, biologists fought to rescue European winemaking. One route they went was crossing the European grapes with American grapes. They developed what is now called French American hybrid grapes. These try to combine the elegance of the European grapes with the robustness of the American grapes. Eventually, Europe went the way of grafting European grape vines on American rootstocks, which solved its problem, but at the same time these French American hybrid grapes came into existence.

French American hybrids have also become a renewed focus in the context of the organic/biodynamic/natural wine movement in Europe, as chemical plant protection treatments can be cut back considerably. The recently developed varieties Rondo and Regent are examples of newer hybrid grape varieties for European viticulturalists. Regent now accounts for 2 percent of Germany wine production. I have written on French American hybrid grapes: French American Hybrid Grapes - Vidal Blanc, Seyval Blanc and Others on schiller-wine.

Traditional Wine Making in Madagascar

Winemaking in Madagascar started with French colonization. But it really took off only in the 1970s in the framework of Swiss development aid. When the Swiss withdrew a few years ago, however, the wine industry suffered, and it is struggling now to regain its previous strength.

Pictures: Impressions from Antananarivo

Madagascar’s vineyards are in the highlands, in the area where the Betsileo people live, around the city of Fianarantsoa. The vineyard area now totals 800 hectares. Typically, the vineyards are on steep-terraced slopes and interplanted with pineapples and bananas, alongside with rice paddies and sugar-cane fields.

The winemaking calendar is the one of the southern Hemisphere. Harvest thus takes place in February during the rainy season, which often sees severe tropical cyclones in Madagascar.

Everything – grape growing, pressing, fermentation and aging – is very basic and unsophisticated in Madagascar, with manual work dominating the whole process. Typically, when to harvest the grapes is not decided by using a refractometor and other tools, but just by eating and tasting the grapes. Fermentation takes place in large concrete vats. The grapes are pressed in a mechanical press; the juice is then put into the concrete vats, along with sugar and some chemical, but no yeast, for six months; red wine gets some of the skins left in; no oak-aging here, just concrete vats; hand bottling, hand labeling and hand corking; old bottles are typically reused and you can observe women delabeling and cleaning old wine bottles, thus one wine from one winery can come in all bottle shapes.

Most winemakers produce one or several brands and these brands typically come as vin rouge, vin gris, vin rose and vin blanc. In addition, you find vin blanc moelleux, a white wine with noticable remaining sweetness. Finally, vins d'aperitif (parfume au coco, l'orange, l'ananas) and eau de vie de raisin are produced. I have not yet seen any single-variety wine or specific-vineyard wine.

The Story of Clos Nomena

Clos Nomena is radically different from traditional winemaking in Madagascar. It is using modern winemaking technologies that are now available to winemakers in France and elsewhere. Most importantly, its vineyards are planted exclusively with noble European grape varieties and not with French American hybrids.

Clos Nomena is the dream of Pâquerette and Jean Allimant that started to become reality about 10 years ago. Pâquerette and Jean Allimant are a French-Malagasy couple that lives in France, but also in Madagascar, where Pâquerette comes from.

In 2001, with the help of French experts, Pâquerette and Jean set up an experimental vineyard in Ambalavao in the Betsileo region with the view of creating a wine that would combine Malagasy terroir and French grapes. They planted about 25 different vitis vinifera grape varieties on family land. After five years, four grape varieties showed the most promising results, and these were then selected to be grown on a commercial basis. Jean was a bit reluctant to share with me, which grape varities performed best, but “Riesling did not do well” Jean said.

Pâquerette and Jean are wine aficionados, but no experts in winemaking. In order to make quality wine that could be marketed at Antananarivo’s top restaurants and elsewhere, they needed to team up with someone from the wine industry. They found this expert in a winemaker from Saint Emilion, who was in love with Madagascar, was willing to move to Ambalavao, and they joined forces to produce a premium Malagasy wine.

Initially, 1 hectare was planted. The first vintage (2011) is now bottled and available in a number of top restaurants in Antananarivo. I recently saw it at the Café de la Gare, where it sells for Ariary 56.000.

The name: Clos Nomena? Well, Marie Nomena is the name of Pâquerette and Jean’s daughter, who is also very involved in the winery. “I spent the last 2 years in Madagascar at the winery and was involved in all aspects of it, starting from growing the grapes in the vineyard, fermenting and aging the wine in the cellar and putting it on the market” said Marie Nomena.

Picture: Marie Nomena Allimant

The current output is 7000 bottles. Looking into the future, “we are now planting another 4/5 hectares and plan to do the same size planting again in a couple of years. This will eventually push our output to 60.000 to 70.000 bottles per year” said Jean.

Modern Winemaking Techniques at Clos Nomena

Jean, Marie Nomena and I talked a bit about how their wines are made. We did not have enough time to go into all the questions I had, but I got a good idea of how Clos Nomena is produced and how different it was from the other, more traditional wine producers in Madagascar. Overall, the Clos Nomean approach is a very modern one, using the methods and techniques that are available today to winemakers in France and elsewhere. All the equipment was imported from France. In terms of vineyard management, I saw from the pictures Jean and Marie Nomena showed us that the vineyards are neatly maintained, reminding me of those I know from Europe and other advanced wine countries. Fermentation is temperature-controlled. Barrique-aging is not yet an issue, but may become in the future.

Jean made clear that Clos Nomena is not a static project but a process. “We are learning by doing” said Jean. The future will definitely see further advancements.

Tasting the Clos Nomena Rouge, Blanc and Rose

Jean and Marie Nomena had invited a bunch of friends to showcase their wines, accompanied by delicious charcuterie and cheese. Here are my tasting notes.

Pictures: Charcuterie, Cheese and Clos Nomena Wines


Straw yellow in the glass, a bit grassy, notes of pear and apricot on the nose, dry, fruity and crisp on the palate with noticeable acidity, reminding me a bit of Alsatian Riesling, long finish. I am looking forward to having this wine with oysters from Fort Dauphin.


Shiny pale in color, the nose is full with cassis and some raspberry notes, the mouth-feel is crisp and austere, vibrant finish. A rosé which I like in the summer months for lunch.


Bright ruby in the glass, attack of dark berries on the nose, coupled with some notes of wet wood, good structure, elegant, velvety feel in the mouth, supple tannins frame a lingering and silky finish. A wine ready for drinking now, worked very well with the charcuterie and cheese offered by Jean and Marie Nomena.


The fourth wine of Clos Nomena (which we did not taste).

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