If you ever find yourself suddenly whisked away to this remote island off the southeast coast of Africa, you will be lost and confused for a long time. Rice paddies cover the hills reminding you of Vietnam, China, the Philippines or many other Asian countries. Endangered creatures with big eyes and tails wound like a tight spring hide in the rain forests. The dry plains look like the African bush, with elongated barrel trees stretching toward the sky.
And the people with their big smiles, dark skin, and brightly coloured hats..are they African, Asian, Arabian, or some other ethnicity that starts with an A? Then you hear them speak. You think you hear Hawaiian or Indonesian, but it really is their native language, Malagasy, related to the languages of the Pacific Islands. No one really knows how a language from so many thousands of miles away came to dominate, especially since Africa and Arabia are so close.
Just to add more confusion you swear you hear, “Bonjour Monsieur!” and the smell of fresh baguettes permeates the morning air. And could that be?… rows and rows of grapevines are threaded across the bright red soil.
Yes, believe it or not, Madagascar has it all. Lemurs, chameleons, baobab trees, fresh bread and pâté, and yes, wine. You can thank (or curse) the French colonization of Madagascar in the late 1800s for bringing an entire new cuisine to this African island.
Soavita Vineyards is located in Ambalavao, a large town which, like many wine regions around the world, seems to be the art center of the country. In addition to the fine wine, you can visit a small shop where women make artistic, decorative paper from the raw wood pulp. Down the street is a tiny silk factory where women collect silk worms, withdraw the silk from their cocoons, and turn it into soft, beautiful scarves and other woven goods.
But back to wine. There are several vineyards in this region. Many were started by the French and are now run by Malagasy. According to several people, Soavita Vineyards is the only vineyard to offer “free” tastings. I use “free” lightly for two reasons. First, Madagascar is one of the poorest countries in the world, so if you do taste, consider buying a bottle or two or five. Second, this isn’t your cushy Napa Valley (California) or Adelaide (Australia) wine region with cheese plates, beautiful wine bars and sparkling wine glasses.
No, you’ll be savoring “fine” Madagascar wine just like the wine makers which takes a little bit of effort and balance. In order to taste, you’ll have to dip your cup into the top of the concrete vats. Almost everyone will be able to climb the three-metre high ladder on top of the vats and hop over the one- metre gap between them. However, after tasting the blanc, rose, rouge, and dessert wines, you still have to return the same way you came. Jumping those gaps and scrambling down the ladders isn’t quite as easy with four glasses of wine in your belly and head, so small tastes are recommended. Certainly these wines aren’t a refined French Bordeaux, but they’re a great break from the standard lager, Three Horses Beer.
All in all, a wine-tasting tour in Madagascar is an experience like no other.