Leleshwa wines continue to be a source of pride for Kenya and their talented winemaker Emma Nderitu might well be the only female winemaker North of Johannesburg and South of Sicily. Stick that into your glass and drink it, says Iloti Mutoka, after heading to Naivasha to meet the woman behind the award-winning wine.
I always imagined I would go to France one day to learn about the secrets of making wine. I pictured myself sitting with a white-haired farmer after a day picking grapes, smoking Gauloise cigarettes as we shared a joke and knocked back small glasses of dark red wine. So it came as a great surprise when the other day I got a call from my friend, a wine connoisseur, who asked me if I would be interested in accompanying him to the Rift Valley Winery in Naivasha for a story about Kenyan winemaker Emma Nderitu.
On the day of the meeting, we drive down the escarpment under a heavy grey sky that looks ready to burst. We drive in through the gates of Morendat Farm, home to the winery and take in the open paddocks that contain large fat cows basking in the shade of the looming acacia trees. In front of us stands a white warehouse which we soon discover is the winery we have come to visit. Emma Nderitu is outside, ready to greet us and hands us a white lab coat each before we enter the building. Once inside we are hit by a cool air, a slightly musty wine odour in a large room packed with thick steel vats that are used to ferment grapes as they are turned into wine. “We use steel because it gives us greater control over the process,” says Nderitu, raising her voice to be heard over the hum of the machines.
Growing up in Nyeri County, where agriculture is the lifeblood of the local economy, Nderitu insists she always knew she was interested in food production. In 2009, she was completing her degree in BioChemistry and Microbiology, when she visited a horticultural fair in Naivasha. It was here, at the Rift Valley Wine stand, that she met James Farquharson, who would later become her mentor in all things wine.
Farquharson, who before coming to make Leleshwa at Morendat Farm, was employed at the Stellenbosch winery in South Africa, convinced her to come back in January and try her hand at harvesting grapes. A few months and many long days later, Nderitu completed her first harvest and was forever hooked. By 2011 she had been employed by the company full time as their winery manager and, by the looks of it, this is not a decision they have come to regret.
There is no question in Nderitu’s mind that the time of year that tests her mettle is the harvest period. That said, despite the early mornings and late nights and the back-breaking work, it is a vintner’s favourite time of year. “I love it,” she smiles, “You learn so much and it is a really fun time.”
Those long days, Nderitu explains, are what make it a job like few others. “The smallest error can ruin three years of hard work. Good wine, though, is made from the best grapes, the best grapes are borne of struggle and here in Naivasha the struggle is real.” Nderitu pauses, thinking before adding, “Oh they love it here, it is very hot during the day and super cold at night.” I am informed that this temperature contrast is what gives wine grapes the necessary complexity for a great tasting wine and that if it is only warm, they end up sweet and are better used for eating.
As we make our way into the grapevines, bright green rows set against the silhouette of Mount Longonot and the dark skies over the far away Nairobi, Nderitu begins by telling me about ‘wine latitudes’ and why she is eager to disrupt the industry. “The wine latitudes are a region that are between 30° and 50° in latitude in the Northern and Southern hemispheres. It is thought that this belt is the only one capable of making good wine, but we are making good wine and it will only get better. Witness the rise of the new latitude wines!” she declares with excitement. This is obviously not just big talk: in 2015 Leleshwa white wine won the Michelangelo International Wine and Spirits Gold Award and their 2017 vintage is already generating a buzz. Nderitu takes this all in her stride, just as she appears to do with the unique challenges of being a woman in her industry.
“I never really am conscious of it. I believe that if you work hard and are good at what you do, then the respect will follow”. A long term Rotary Club member, Nderitu acknowledges that her unique position can serve as an inspiration to anyone, that application is crucial and that anyone can adapt to anything, no matter what their gender or background. “It is never enough. When you get there, find a new place to go,” she says, when I ask her what drives her. She talks without hesitation, with an assuredness that speaks to a confidence in her own ability. In her eight years at Rift Valley Wines, she has done research and development to see if it was viable to produce a sweet white dessert wine and currently has plans in place to make the first Kenyan Grappa, a strong Italian-style spirit made from fermented grape skins and stalks.
The first drops of rain start to splash around us so we quickly cross the highway that cuts between the vineyard and the winery, to get to cover. It is a huge farm; the vineyard alone is 33 hectares. Nderitu says that there is scope for more growth in the wine industry in Kenya if people start thinking that way. “I didn’t plan to become a winemaker but I did and this has so far been such a rewarding job”. Give her a chance to talk about wine business in Kenya and she becomes effervescent, convinced that wine, an industry that is steadily growing in an economy that has gone through some bumpy years, can only improve if more people follow her lead. “Go for it,” she urges my friend, when he mentions a plan in the pipeline for opening his own winery. “More people means more diversity of ideas and new ways of thinking.”
The future of Emma Nderitu is filled with promise. Primarily though she still wants to spend more time where she is, learning more about wine and how to make it. As she closes the winery for the day, we watch her as she moves effortlessly through her natural habitat and it is clear that this vivacious, knowledgeable and ambitious woman is not so much breaking the mould as she is making a whole new one all on her own.