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A Corky Little Upstart

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With all this talk about free trade, globalization and e-commerce, I wonder how anyone could not associate a sophisticated habit like wine sipping with Nigerian society.

Of course, as more countries produce and consume the astringent stuff, the product-to-market cycle has become a matter of global interest. Nigeria’s fast-growing wine industry is proof of its exposure to this global economy.

“Nigeria is a major wine destination,” says Obinna Otuonye, founder and chief executive of Just Wines, a Lagos-based wine retailer. He should know. Otuonye has spent the last 14 years sourcing and selling wines.

“I started small; I started with one bottle of wine in a bag, strolling around the streets of Lagos in search of customers. I gradually grew my business. Initially, my European friends were curiously surprised, they were very skeptical about my intentions. One German winemaker once asked me whether black people drank wine… now he knows better—he is currently one of my biggest suppliers.”

Viticulture is largely unknown in Nigeria. I may be ignorant on this but there are no wineries in West Africa. Wine drinking is however happening big time in Africa’s largest population patch. Vintage and non-vintage wines from the traditional and nouveau vineyards of the world are selling like never before in Lagos and, for this reason, Nigeria could very well be described as the China of Africa (except for the fact that China also produces some of its own wine).

“The economy is tough my brother but our people are drinking more… I sold more drinks, and more wines this Christmas than any other time over the last five years,” another Lagos-based retailer told FORBES AFRICA the week after the festivities; the period of the year when beer drinking peaks in these parts. In truth you only have to go to the shops and markets across Nigeria’s major cities to see the invasion of the red and pink bottles.

Foreign liquor, especially wine and champagne, is giving beer makers a good fight for a share of throats in the market.

“Nigeria could very well qualify to be Africa’s thirstiest economy,” analysts at BGL Group, an investment bank say. “When compared alongside other key markets in Africa and Europe, Nigeria’s per capita liquor consumption is relatively low and recent activity in the sector—business consolidations and new investments—mean more hectolitres of alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverages for the country’s burgeoning population.”

Beyond beer production and consumption, Nigerians are increasingly quaffing red, white and pink varieties of wine.

“To get a good feel of how and what Nigerians like to drink you have to understand our urban, contemporary way of life, and the numerous lifestyle influences and choices we have to contend with,” says Kayode Oguntayo, businessman, wine connoisseur and wine bar owner. His wine cafe, 1662, is one of many cozy joints springing up in cities like Lagos, Abuja, Enugu, Benin and Port Harcourt. It is a ritzy, well-appointed bar complete with barbecue-grill, wall-mounted flat TV screen and cappuccino mixer. Located in the highbrow Ikoyi area of Lagos, it is a quaint and inconspicuous place, a shy contrast to the army of flashy fast food eateries, restaurants and nightclubs around.

“Why 1662?” FORBES AFRICA asked innocently.

“1662 is a significant year in the history of wine making. It was the year an English scientist called Christopher Merret (1614-1695) first documented the modern method of making wine,” Oguntayo replies. Interesting! Do any of his patrons know this?

“My customers are well-educated, accomplished business people and aspirational working class professionals. They want exclusivity and they like to enjoy their wine in a certain kind of milieu, away from the hustle—my role here is to provide my clientele with good quality. I have regular wines, but I prefer to stock vintage, full-bodied wines with character and balance.”

Conspicuous wine consumption al fresco is not an image you easily associate with Nigeria. But social culture is dynamic. Some of the world’s priciest wines would be found in the shops, cafes and private collections in Nigeria. A few hugely expensive labels in Messrs Otuonye and Oguntayo’s establishments can be found—Roederer Cristal, a champagne; Domaine de la Romanée Conti or Château Lafite Rothschild, Bordeaux’s most famous label; Château l’Évangile, Château Pétrus, Château Ausone,  and Château Cheval Blanc. Nigerians have good taste, Otuonye says.

“The more expensive wines move faster than the cheaper ones.”

Wine merchants say three out of every five bottles of wine sold in Nigeria is red. By far the most common variants here are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Shiraz—popular pairings with the country’s spicy, meaty meals.

One could be forgiven for believing that South Africans out-wined the rest of the continent.

“There is no type of champagne that you will not find in Nigeria,” Otuonye says. “New drinks continue to arrive every week mainly because there is growing demand for the best wines from the wine growing regions of the world.”

“Credibility and word of mouth marketing is important in this kind of business and we do what we need to do, which is basically to stock the best wines from the vineyards of Europe and other key wine regions.”

Oguntayo explains quite tactfully, that a wine drinking habit indicates a certain level of social and economic refinement—hinting that wine may not be for riff-raff.

In this economy, where the gap between the haves and the have-nots is huge, having a regular glass of wine for leisure whilst lounging around with the lads or with a meal is a distant dream for many. Some of these wines cost as much as $80 a bottle. And that’s cheap, by global standards. Really cheap wines would retail for about $8 to $16 a bottle. By comparison, $10 would buy you about 12 bottles of beer or a 24-bottle crate of soft drinks.

Despite these choice-cost comparisons, the purported health benefits and appeal of wine makes its consumption a growing social phenomenon.

“You must realise that regardless of their pocket-power, most Nigerians are aspirational social animals,” says Dele Martins, a Lagos-based business executive.

Like most other wine-friendly parts of the world, the dynamic of the Nigerian wine scene combines both the esoteric and the obvious, especially with brand names like 1662 and Just Wines. Driving this dynamic forward is the potent mix of opportunity, passion and the pursuit of profit. After all the wine business is a global game: free trade, but no free drinks.

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