Friday, May 11, 2012

The Wines of Madagascar

Pictures: Christian G.E. Schiller with Marie Nomena and Jean Allimant, Clos Nomena, and in front of Malagasy Wines in Antananarivo

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 Paris, 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 – 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 1-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.

Not well known in the rest of the world, Madagascar produces wine. Typically, Malagasy wine tends to be of good table wine quality, not more. Traditionally, the main grape varieties are Petit Bouchet, Villardin, Chambourcin and Varousset for vins rouge and the Couderc Blanc for vins blanc. These are all so called French American hybrid grape varieties. Generally speaking, French-American hybrid grape varieties have the advantage of being robust, but do not match the so-called European grape varieties (vitis vinifera) in terms of elegance and refinement.

Pictures: Madagascar

However, a brand-new development, there is now one winery in Madagascar  - Clos Nomena - that is radically different as it makes wines exclusively on the basis of the European grape varieties: Vitis vinifera grapes are without any doubt the best in the world for fine wine. My wife Annette and I have known the Clos Nomena owners Pâquerette and Jean Allimant for many years through joint Betsileo friends.

I have written about Clos Nomena on schiller-wine:

Taking the Wine of Madagascar to New Heights and Fine Wine and Fine Oysters in Madagascar: Oysters from Fort Dauphin and Wine from Clos Nomena

For an earlier Posting on the wines of Madagascar on schiller-wine:

The Wines of Madagascar - Good and Interesting Table Wines

I lived in Antananarivo from 1989 to 1992 and visited Antananarivo since then on average every other year. The last time, I was in Madagascar, was for 2 months between November 2011 and January 2012.

At the time of my last visit, in 2011/2012, the exchange rates were Euro 1 = Ariary 2750 and US$ 1 = Ariary 2000.

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 the best in the world for fine wine. But there are other grape varieties 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 traditionally 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, while also having some elements of the finesse and elegance of the vitis finifera gapes varieties.

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:

Wine Producer Missouri – Once a Major Force in the US Wine Market, Then Non-existant and Now on a Rebound with French American Hybrid Grapes and

French American Hybrid Grapes - Vidal Blanc, Seyval Blanc and Others

Wine in Madagascar and Clos Nomena

There is now one winery in Madagascar that is radically different, as it makes wines exclusively on the basis of the European grape varieties. “We only use the noble European grapes ” owner Jean Allimant said at a recent tasting of his wines in Antananarivo. 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. In sum, Clos Nomena is very different from all the other Malagasy wines … and you can see it in the price of the wine.

Pictures: Christian G.E. Schiller with former Prime Minister Tantely Andrianarivo and Mamy Radavitra at a Clos Nomena Tasting in Antananarivo

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.

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. 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 see at the wineries women delabeling and cleaning old wine bottles.

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 vin are produced.

The Winemakers of Madagascar – French American Hybrid Grape Varieties

There are currently 8 main wine producers in Madagascar. 7 of them use French-American hybrid grapes.

S.A. Chan Foui et Fils, Ambalavao

This is a first-wave Chinese. There is currently a large inflow of Chinese into Madagascar. But these second-wave Chinese have to be distinguished from the first-wave Chinese, who came to the country at the end of the 19th and during the 20th century, mostly as forced workers during French colonization and from Mauritius after the collapse of the sugar industry there, are now well integrated into the Malagasy society; they are Malagasy with Chinese roots. S.A. Chan Foui et Fils belongs to this group. It offers 5 lines of brands:

NV Coteaux d’Ambalavao, Cuvee Speciale, vin rouge, 11.5% alc., Ariary 7400
NV Coteaux d’Ambalavao, vins rouge and rose, 11.5% alc., Ariary 5400

NV Cote de Fianar, Vin naturel de Ambalavao, it comes as vin rouge, vin rose, vin gris, and vin blanc, Ariary 5800

NV Beauvallon, Vatoavo – Ambalavao, it comes as vin rouge, vin rose, and vin blanc, Ariary 5800
NV Blanc Doux de Maroparasy, Elabore au Vignoble a Ambalavao, a sweet white wine, 13% alc.

Chan Fao Tong, Antsirabe

Viticulteur Encaveur, B.P. 68 Antsirabe, Tel. 48 488 61. Another first-wave Chinese winemaker, who currently produces Madagascar’s best wine, when it comes to hybrid grapes, the NV Grand Cru d’Antsirabe:

NV Grand Cru d’Antsirabe, Rouge Alicante, Ariary 11800
NV Grand Cru d’Antsirabe, Rouge Seyve Villard, Ariary 11.800,
NV Grand Cru d’Antsirabe, Rose Viala, Ariary 10300,
NV Grand Cru d’Antsirabe, Gris de Gris, Ariary 10300,
NV Grand Cru d’ Antsirabe, Blanc Couderc, Ariary 10300

Lazan ‘I Betsilio S.A., Fianarantsoa

This is a large wine co-operative, created in 1971, which, with the support of Swiss development aide, used to make the best wine of the country. But, since the termination of the Swiss project, the quality has suffered, the co-operative has encountered financial problems (and had to suspend its activities from 2000 to 2006) and is now trying hard and successfully to get back on track.

The wine co-operative Lazan’I Betsileo currently has 625 members. Their vineyard area accounts for about 40% of Madagascar’s total. They produce about 500.000 liters of wine annually. Lazan means pride in Malagasy.

Lazan ‘I Bestsilio offers one line of products:

NV Lazan ‘I Betsili, Haute Matsiatra, Du raisin au vin par l’amour des paysans du Betsileo, eleve et mis en boutaille par Lazan ‘I Betsileo S.A., Fianarantsoa Madagascar.

It comes as Rouge for Ariary 6300, Rouge Primeur for Ariary 7400, Gris for 6300, Blanc for Ariary 6300 and Blanc Moelleux for Ariary 8600.

Societe Mac et Freres, Ambohimalaza

This winery in Ambohimalaza, about 30 km away from Fianarantsoa, offers one line of products:

NV Clos Malaza

It comes as Rouge, Rose, Gris, Blanc sec, and Blanc doux, for Ariary 7400.

Society Mac et Freres runs a decent web site, with useful background information about their wine portfolio (in French):

Vin blanc sec: Vin blanc tranquille, issu d'un mono cépage, le " Couderc blanc", il est élaboré à basse température. Son caractère frais et tropicale accompagne bien coquillages, crustacés et poissons exotiques. Servir frais à 6 - 7°C.

Vin gris: Robe pelure d'oignon, légère et gouleyant. Idéal en début de repas. A servir entre 8-10°C.

Vin rosé: Style: léger, simple, fruité. Avec une petite note de caractère des cépages rouge dont il est issu, sa robe vire à l'œil de perdrix.

Vin rouge: Style rouge souple, fruité, à consommation rapide. Idéal pour les plats de poulet, viande de bœuf et fromage malgache. Aérer avant de servir.

Vin blanc doux: Style: léger; l'équilibre sucre résiduel - acidité confère au vin son doux caractère "conviviale"et sa première protection. spécialement conseillé pour le foie gras et le roquefort. .

Son vignoble et ses cépages

Le vignoble se situe dans une cuvette à 1400 m d'altitude avec un sol acide, latéritique, sablonneux et argileux. Abrité par la fin des contreforts de l'Isandra, un ensoleillement et un micro-climat bénéfique exigés des grands vins, permettent une récolte stable, saine et l'élaboration d'un vin de qualité supérieure, souple et robuste. Ceci explique également la typicité de nos eaux de vies. Nos vins rouge, rosé, et gris proviennent de raisins sélectionnés et élaborés selon de méthodes de vinifications spécifiques et perfectionnées. Ils ont pour origine des cépages hybrides ayant fait leurs preuves: "Villard noir" proche de "Pinot noir", "Chambourcin", "petit Bouchet", "Villardin" et "Varousset". Tandis que le vin blanc est issu d'un seul cépage : le "Couderc blanc"

Verger – Thonon – Canone Viticulteurs, Domaine de Manamisoa

This winery in Soavita, south of Fianarantsoa, offers 2 lines of products:

NV Château Verger, Grand vins d’Ambalavao, Soavita, Rouge , Ariary 5000 ; the only Malagasy wine that carries « Château » on its label.

NV Rose, Gris, Rouge, Blanc de Manamisoa, 11,5%, Ariary 5000

Malaza Sarl

Malaza Sarl is the only winemaker in Madagascar that currently produces vintage wines. They are all called Cru de Malaza and have 12% alcohol.

2009 Cru Malaza, 12% alc.

It comes as Gris, Rouge and Blanc and sells at Ariary 7900 in the supermarket.

Monastere de Maromby, Fiananarantasoa

The Maromby monastery was founded in 1958 by the abbey of Mont des Cats (France, Order of Cistercians of the Strict Observance). One of the founders still lives in Maromby. The community is now almost entirely composed of brothers from Madagascar. Maromby (4 km north of Fianarantsoa) is a small, peaceful village in the vicinity of vineyards. The monks produce wine for their own use and sell it also.

Widely available is the NV Clos Malaza, 12%, Rouge and Blanc, Ariary 7600.

Domaine Lovasoa, Cave de Fianarantsoa Soaindrana

A wine that I have not seen in any of the restaurants in Antananarivo, but in the shelves of the Giant Score.

NV Vin de Betsileo Gris, 11.5%, Ariary 5800

Domaine Mendrika, Iharanany, Soaindrana, Fianarantasoa

Another wine that I have not seen in any of the restaurants, which sells under the label

NV Domaine Mendrika for Ariary 6650

This wine comes as Gris, Rouge and Rose.

The Winemakers of Madagascar – Vitis Vinifera Grape Varieties

There is currently only one winery in Madagascar that has ventured into producing wine on the basis of noble European grapes - Clos Nomena.

Clos Nomena 

Clos Nomena is the dream of Pâquerette and Jean Allimant. The dream 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.

Picture: Jean Allimant

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 varieties 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

When I was at the residence of Jean Allimant in Antananarivo for a presentation of the Clos Nomena wines, 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.

BLANC SEC: 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.

ROSÉ: 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.

ROUGE: 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.

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

Schiller Wine - Related Postings

Dining and Wining at a Malagasy Institution: Chez Madame Chabaud in Mahajanga, at the West Coast of Madagascar

Wining and Dining in Antananarivo, the Capital of Madagascar – Christian G.E. Schiller’s Private List of Restaurants in Antananarivo

The Wines of Madagascar - Good and Interesting Table Wines (2010)

Christian G.E.Schiller’s Private List of Restaurants in Antananarivo That Serve Malagasy Wine

Clos Nomena: Taking the Wine of Madagascar to New Heights

Fine Wine and Fine Oysters in Madagascar: Oysters from Fort Dauphin and Wine from Clos Nomena

Restaurant and Hotel AKOA – An Oasis of Tranquility in the Buzzing Third World City Antananarivo in Madagascar

Tsiky – Charming Restaurant in Antananarivo, Madagascar, Serving Good Food and Malagasy Wines

Sea, Sand, Soul and Sakafo, and Whales and Wine – At Princesse Bora Lodge on Ile Sainte Marie in the Indian Ocean


  1. Good study about malagasy wines, thanks mister schillerwein

  2. Really interesting. Thanks!

  3. hi there, there is a way to buy online madagascar wines? my email