Fine wines flourishing in Muslim Morocco

Blessed with an ideal environment for growing grapes, the ‘land of vines’ makes more than 40 million bottles of wine a year, most of which are consumed locally, despite a less ideal social climate

By Omar Brouksy  /  AFP, BENSLIMANE, Morocco

Sun, Jul 07, 2013 - Page 14

V ines stretch to the horizon under the hot summer sun in a vineyard near Casablanca, one of the oldest in Morocco, where despite the pressures from a conservative Muslim society, wine production — and consumption — is flourishing.

“In Morocco, we are undeniably in a land of vines,” wine specialist Stephane Mariot said.

“Here, there is a microclimate which favors the production of ‘warm wines,’ even though we aren’t far from the ocean,” added the manager of Oulad Thaleb, a 2,000 hectare vineyard in Benslimane, 30km northeast of Casablanca, which he has run for five years.

However, the social climate in the North African county is less propitious, with the Islamist Party of Justice and Development winning power in 2011 and Moroccan law prohibiting the sale of alcohol to Muslims, who make up 98 percent of the population.

Yet in practice, alcohol is tolerated and well-stocked supermarkets do a brisk trade in the main cities, where there is a growing appetite for decent wine.

According to some estimates, 85 percent of domestic production is drunk locally, while about half of total output is considered good quality.

“Morocco today produces some good wine, mostly for the domestic market, but a part of it for export, particularly to France,” Mariot said.

Annual output currently stands at about 400,000 hectoliters, or more than 40 million bottles of wine, industry sources say, making the former French protectorate the second-biggest producer in the Arab world.

By comparison, Algeria, where vineyards were cultivated for a much longer period during French colonial rule, produces 500,000 hectoliters on average, and Lebanon, with its ancient viticulture dating to the pre-Roman era, fills about 6 million bottles annually.

Some of Morocco’s wine regions — such as Boulaouane, Benslimane, Berkane and Guerrouane — are gaining notoriety.

The country already has one Appellation d’Origine Controlee — controlled designation of origin, or officially recognized region — named “Les Coteaux de l’Atlas” and 14 areas with guaranteed designation of origin status, most of them concentrated around Meknes, as well as Casablanca and Essaouira.

In March last year, an association of Moroccan sommeliers was set up in Marrakesh, bringing together 20 wine experts.

In the central Meknes region, nestled between the Rif Mountains and the Middle Atlas, there is evidence of wine production dating back about 2,500 years.

However, the industry was transformed during the time of the protectorate — from 1912 to 1956 — when the kingdom served as a haven for migrating French winemakers after the phylloxera pest decimated Europe’s vineyards at about the turn of the 20th century.

As in Algeria and Tunisia, the French planted vineyards extensively, with Morocco’s annual production exceeding 3 million hectoliters in the 1950s.

The main grape varieties used to produce the country’s red wines are those commonly found around the Mediterranean, such as Grenache, Syrah, Cabernet-Sauvignon and Merlot.

Mariot boasts that the domain, which he said has the oldest wine cellar in use in the kingdom — built by a Belgian firm in 1923 — produces one of Morocco’s “most popular wines.”

Standing by a barrel, he cast a proud eye on the vintage, describing it as a “warm and virile wine.”

Abderrahim Zahid, a businessman and self-styled “lover of fine Moroccan wines” who sells them abroad, said the country now produces “a mature wine which we can be proud of.”

Morocco’s wine industry now employs up to 20,000 people, according to unofficial figures, and generated about US$170 million in 2011.

However, the remarkable progress made by the sector in recent years has taken place within a sensitive social environment.

While alcohol production is permitted by state law, and supermarkets and bars enforce no special restrictions on Muslim customers, officially, the sale and gift of alcoholic drinks to Muslims is illegal. They are unavailable during Islamic festivals, including throughout the holy month of Ramadan.

Separately, the Islamist-led government last year decided to raise taxes on alcoholic drinks from 450 dirhams (US$53) per hectoliter to more than 500 dirhams.

So far, this has not noticeably deterred consumption among Morocco’s population of 35 million, although economic realities certainly influence local drinking habits: The wine favored by most Moroccans is a cheap red called Moghrabi, which comes in a plastic bottle and costs 30 dirhams a liter.