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Ethiopian economy raises a glass to the country's bustling vineyards

ZIWAY, Ethiopia--Beyond the donkeys on a potholed road in southern Ethiopia, is an unexpected sight — vineyards bursting with merlot, syrah and chardonnay grapes ripening in the African sun.

The scene is more reminiscent of France's Beaujolais region than this corner of the Horn of the Africa, which for many still conjures images of famine, poverty and war.

“People outside Ethiopia may know of the drought 10 years ago,” Industry Minister Ahmed Abtew told AFP. “But when they see wine with 'Made in Ethiopia' on it, their mind automatically changes.”

The French beverage giant Castel, which bottled its first batch of Ethiopian wine this year, is helping change the way outsiders view the country. It is also boosting government hopes of attracting foreign investment, key to its plans to reach middle income status by 2025.

The country's growth rates are already among the highest in Africa, hitting 11.2 percent last year according to the government, although the International Monetary Fund puts the figure at 8.2 percent.

For Castel, the ambition is merely to produce good wine, and Ethiopia is an ideal — if surprising — place to do that.

“We don't find it difficult because the climate is good, it's not too hot,” said Castel's Ethiopia site manager Olivier Spillebout, at its vineyards in Ziway, 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of the capital Addis Ababa.

The sandy soil, short rainy season, cheap land and abundant labour were what drew the company's billionaire president Pierre Castel. The company has been working in Africa for half a century, and in Ethiopia since 1998 when it purchased a state-owned brewery, St George.

But the late Prime Minister Meles Zenawi thought a vineyard would boost Ethiopia's image abroad, and asked Castel if it would be interested. So in 2008 the firm spent US$27 million setting up Ethiopia's first foreign-owned vineyard.

Surprise Hit in China

Castel aims to sell half of this year's production of 1.2 million bottles on the domestic market, and half to Ethiopian diaspora communities in North America, Europe and elsewhere in eastern Africa.

But Spillebout has been startled by some surprise customers, including a Chinese buyer who snapped up 24,000 bottles.

“It's a big surprise,” he said, standing amid rows of merlot vines.

China, however, is home to the largest number of wine drinkers in the world, and in recent years Chinese investors have bought scores of French vineyards as they have become significant players in the wine world.

In Ethiopia, a bottle of Castel wine sells for US$10, and is of better quality than comparably priced imported wines from South Africa or Italy.

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