By Jeanne Horak-Druiff

In the late 1800s, Cuban political writer Jose Marti wrote of Cuban wine: “Let the wine be made of plantains. If it turns out bitter, it is still our wine.”  And I must confess that when somebody first mentioned Cuban wine to me, I had a sneaky suspicion that it probably would in fact be a concoction made from plantains, much like country wines in England are distilled from berries and plants rather than grapes. 

When one thinks of Cuba, it is rum, cigars and revolutionaries that come to mind, not rolling hills covered in vines.  There is good reason for this – the Caribbean island’s subtropical climate and summer rainy season are far better suited to growing sugar (for rum) and tobacco than grapes. 

In fact, soon after the arrival of the Spanish colonists arrived in Cuba in the 1500s they tried to grow grapes so that they could make wine. The ability to make wine was considered important not only because wine was the beverage of choice at the time, but also because it was essential for celebrating Communion in the Catholic Church. But despite the colonists’ efforts, the wine grapes could not survive in the Caribbean climate.  In fact, the priests who had accompanied the Spanish colonists to Cuba became concerned that they had entered a world created by a devil that had no use for wine and its relationship to Christ. 

Grapes are generally an adaptable fruit and grow in many countries around the world. However, annual weather conditions are critical to the success of a vineyard. Extremes of heat or cold can disrupt the proper growth cycle and can even lead to the ruin of a crop. Too much precipitation can drown vines, and too much humidity can lead to parasitic problems, such vine rot. And even if the amount of precipitation is just right, the vines prefer their precipitation in the winter months rather than the summer.  So although views grow in many countries, a quick study of the map will show that they grow best in temperate climates with winter rainfall, and that most wine regions that are well-known for their grapes generally fall between 20 and 50 degrees latitude, either north or south of the equator.

Cuba lies at 21 degrees north of the equator, so literally on the cusp of the ideal wine making latitudes, but its climate leaves much to be desired if you are a grape.  Summer temperatures routinely reach 30C and winter temperatures seldom drop below 20C, meaning that the grapes never get the cool winters they need.  The average monthly rainfall in summer is 160mm – which is too much rain and at the wrong time.  And we won’t even discuss the Cuban hurricane season between June and November each year that can bring winds of up to 250km per hour!

So on paper, you may be justified in thinking that any wine that the Cubans are planning to make will in fact have to be made from plantains.  But you might be in for a surprise.

In 1994 third-generation Italian winemaker Marialena Fantinel, looking to expand the family’s wine operations, researched vineyards springing up in unlikely places such as Chechnya, Moldova, Venezuela and the Dominican Republic.  She realized that many of these countries previously thought to be inhospitable to vines were now producing wine grapes thanks to advances in technology.  In particular, innovations in the industry had led to the development of grapes resistant to Cuba’s tropical weather.  

Later that year Vinos Fantinel S.A., a joint venture between the Italian winemakers and the Cuban government, was established with the goal of transferring winemaking culture to Cuba.  Wine production started in 1998 on Fantinel’s 80 acres in the foothills of western Pinar del Rio province. Initially the company imported grape concentrate from Italy and blended it with local grape juice at its Bodegas San Cristobal winery before putting the juice through the fermentation, filtration and bottling processes.  The wine was labeled and sold as “Cuban-made wine” and in their first year of operation, Bodegas San Cristobal produced 300,000 bottles of wine.  By 2003, this had risen to one million bottles of red, white and rosé wines per year. 

Vinos Fantinel startd expanding their operations almost immediately, acquiring an additional 30 hectares of land in western Cuba on which to plant grapes.  The first seeds of the six varieties of grapes planted in the San Cristobal vineyards  were donated by the Italian cooperative Vivai Cooperativi di Rauscedo.  The vines yield some 20 tons per hectare in two harvests a year, and the first 15 acres of Vinos Fantinel’s Cuban-grown grapes were harvested in 2004. 

The company is cultivating classic Old World grapes that were genetically engineered to allow them to thrive in the Cuban climate, with an eye to gradually replacing grape juice concentrate imported from Italy.  Varieties being grown in clude Cabernet Sauvignon, Pinot Grigio and Chardonnay.  More than 80% of Vinos Fantinel wine is sold to hotels and restaurants in Cuba, with the remainder exported to other countries, including Britain, Hong Kong, Sweden and Curacao. 

Another wine-making joint venture, this time between Spain’s Palacio de Arganza and Cuban company Centricos Caribe, is Bodegas del Caribe, who are also producing Cuban wine from grapes harvested on the Caribbean Island.  The venture was started with the introduction of 19 varieties of grape from the Spanish region of El Bierzo, of which the four best-performing varieties (including Tempranillo)  were chosen to create the first stocks, and there are already plans for expansion. 

So are the wines any good?  Bodegas del Caribe’s Castillo del Wajay (a dry red wine made from the Spanish Tempranillo grape), and San Cristobal’s Merlot are the most promising, but experts say it takes at least five to ten years of harvesting to produce quality wine from new vines. But even if you don’t care for the wine, the beautiful labels feature designs from some of the island’s most famous artists – and as Jose Marti said:  at least the wine is theirs.

Jeanne Horak-Druiff lives in London but her heart and her palate remain resolutely South African. Although she works in the legal field to fund her expensive travel habit, her true passion is for food, wine and writing. She maintains a food blog at ~ Winner Best Food blog and Best Overseas Blog in the 2009 South African Blog Awards CookSister is featured as one of the Times Online’s Top 50 Food Blogs in the World and has been interviewed by the Wall Street Journal Europe and the BBC. She also contributed to the Digital Dish, a collection of food writing from the Web. When she grows up she wants to live in Plettenberg Bay and lead culinary tours of the Garden Route!