There is something unique about Yatta Constituency. It is a plateau grandly bordered by Kilima Mbogo and Kanzulu ranges. But other than that, it is sandwiched between the Athi and Chania rivers, giving it a Mediterranean climate, unlike the rest of the country which is tropical. This makes Yatta suitable for vineyards.
The Yatta vineyards, which are as old as the country's multi party democracy, have seen Kenya produce its own wines.
" We recently decided to blend our wines to have only two brands- Yatta White and Yatta Red. Initially we had four wines made from various grapes, including Colombard, Muscat, Cheney Blanc, and Rubi Carbanet. Now we have blended all the whites to have the Yatta White," said Mr Gerald Masila of Kenya Wine Agencies Ltd (KWAL).
And since Kenyans are now indulging in the finer things of life, the wines have been performing excellently in the market.
The Cheny Blanc brand , packaged in Tetra Pak containers, has been highly successful.
In 1999, the first wine was rolled out with the prices ranging from Sh349 to 445 for the one litre tetra pack wines and Sh499 for the bottled variety.
KWAL also produces grape juice, packaged in tetra pack material. It is planning to bottle the brand for hotels, which would also reduce packaging costs.
They also produce red, green and yellow. table grapes and have adopted other value addition services on the land such as vegetables .
"Since this is a long-term investment, we have not yet been able to break even and are undertaking other activities for sustainability," said Mr Masila. French beans are exported while vegetables such as amaranth and kales are sold locally.
However, the vineyard is not yet at optimum level since the production is still on a lower scale. KWAL plans to increase production from the current 40 acres to 100 acres.
Expansion plans were halted due to market volatility when liberalisation hit the Kenyan market.
One of the major challenges that KWAL has had to contend with is the high cost of production.
"Excise duty does not favour local manufacturers since the tax is on the higher side at 65 per cent. At this current rate, imports are very cheap, not to mention that the liberalisation of the market has allowed all manner of wines to come into the country," said Mr Masila.
However, some fruits have failed to flourish in Yatta, forcing the management to do away with them. Ponor Noir grape is used to make sparkling wine, but the production costs are prohibitive.
Another vine that does not seem to be doing well is Cabrenet Sourvignor, while Chardonney was a complete disappointment as it never even flowered.
Although viticulturalist say that no two vineyards have the exact requirements, vineyards best thrive on extreme weathers.
"Grapes do well in extreme cold weather for dormancy, but extreme hot weather causes sugar accumulation in the fruits," said Mr John Mutai, the acting manager Yatta Vineyards.
According to Mr Mutai, the recent short rains have affected the production of grapes because the vines took too much water, which resulted in the grapes swelling.
"The swelling compacts the grape bunch hence competition for space. As a result, weaker fruits are pushed out, and once the process of fermentation begins, the smell of alcohol attracts vinegar flies."
Francis Mwathi inspects grapes at the Kenya Wine Agency Yatta Vineyard.
Other problems affecting the vineyard are pests and diseases.
Colomard vine has been attacked by termites which penetrate deep into the stem, causing it to slowly rot.
" We cannot use chemicals because they are expensive and ineffective and termites know how to evade them. We have to manually scrape off the termites every morning, which unfortunately is not as effective," said Mr Mutai. Thus far, over 2,000 vines have been destroyed by the termites.
But the advantage of vines is that they do not require good soil to do well. Industry lingo says that the worst soil is the best for grapes. The Yatta Vineyard viticulturist said a good tree could produce about three kilos.
The Chaney Blanc variety is one of the best performing vines. It produced over 51,700 tonnes in 2002, which was its best year. Rubi Carbanet which is used to make red wine is also another flourishing vine in Yatta.
That notwithstanding, 2004 was the vineyards' best year, with production hitting 138,000 kilos, which has been the highest since the vines were planted in October, 1992. The first harvest was in 1995. Seedlings were imported from South Africa, which is among Africa's best producers of wine.
Mr Mutai said the lifespan of a vine could be 100 years, depending on the production process.
"We harvest once a year since we do not want to over produce the vines as this diminishes their lifespan. An overproduced vine can last about 40 years."
He adds that after pruning, vines need spacing so that one plant does not have too many bunches as this would inhibit sugar accumulation. The ideal number of bunches that a vine can have is 10 and it takes the vine about four months to ripen after pruning.
The quest for vineyard efficiency has produced a bewildering range of systems and techniques in recent years. One of the modern techniques is the use of drip irrigation, which has in recent years expanded vineyards into areas that were previously unplantable. To maintain a steady flow of water in the vineyard, KWAL constructed a dam that serves the entire farm.
"Vines are very demanding plants," said Mutai who adds that he could not even leave the farm last Christmas . He said vines need optimum care, with hourly monitoring after pruning until the onset of harvest .
The decision to harvest grapes is typically made by the winemaker better known in the industry as a vintner. Harvest is mainly dependant on the level of sugar known as Brix, Titratable Acidity as well as the pH of the grapes.
"The level of sugar in the grapes is important not only because it will determine the final alcohol content of the wine, but also because it is an indirect index of grape maturity," said Mutai.
The ideal brix for white wine ranges between 20 to 22 while red can do with 18.
Other than Yatta, other places that vines can do well are Eldama Ravine, Thika, Makueni as well as areas near Lake Naivasha.
"We have struck a goldmine. But unfortunately, Kenyan wines are not competitive due to the high cost of production. The tax is punitive especially since this is a new product in the market," said Masila as he made a passionate appeal to the Government to review taxation on the locally manufactured wines.