A wine fair in the Moroccan city of Meknes caused some Muslims in
the country to react with fury. At the same time, winemaking in Morocco
is enjoying a rebirth. RUPERT JOY explores the tensions and successes
On Friday 16 November 2007, the city of Meknes on the edge of Morocco’s Middle Atlas mountains played host to a French-style fête des vignes to celebrate the region’s viticultural heritage and its modern-day wines. The city’s vast imperial palace and massive walls were built in the late Ismael to rival King Louis XIV’s Versailles. Today, the region is the centre of a burgeoning wine business employing 10,000 people, and the tourist office is even considering creating a wine circuit for visitors.
The event sparked a major row in Morocco. The city, whose mayor and MP are from
the Islamist Party for Justice and Development (PJD), is an Islamist stronghold. The PJD reacted with fury to such an event being held on the Muslim day of prayer, accusing the
authorities of ‘encouraging an industry prohibited by Islam’. The Prime Minister was
bombarded with letters claiming that Morocco was losing its Islamic identity. Press articles appeared attacking Brahim Zniber, owner of Celliers de Meknes, the country’s largest producer.The renaissance of the wine industry has highlighted cultural fault lines in Moroccan society. Morocco – al-Maghreb or ‘land of the setting sun’ – is the furthest west and, in many ways, the least Arab, of the Arabic-speaking countries. The present king’s father, Hassan II, likened it to a tree with its roots in Africa and branches in Europe. It is something of a hybrid. Over half its population is Berber in origin, its élite are educated in France, but it remains a profoundly Muslim country, whose kings claim descent from
the Prophet Mohammed.
With the giant horseshoe of the Atlas mountain range walling off the desert expanses of the interior, Morocco (unlike its neighbours Algeria and Tunisia) turns its back on the east Atlantic. Along the coast, winters are cold and summer evenings surprisingly brisk, creating cool microclimates Morocco’s viticultural history stretches back before Phoenician and Roman times to the country’s Berber origins. Much later, in the 9th century, the country’s first Arab dynasty is said to have given the Berber tribes around Meknes a dispensation to make wine. Then, despite Koranic strictures on consumption, grapes continued to be
grown and wine drunk in the Arab era. It was the Arabs, after all, who introduced distillation methods to Europe, bequeathed us the word al-kohl and left an Andalucian poetic legacy extolling the virtues of wine.
The heyday of Moroccan wine was the French colonial era. At its peak in the 1950s, the country had 55,000ha (hectares) of vineyards, producing 3 million hectolitres a year, mainly so-called vins médicins for beefing up anaemic French wines. At independence, Morocco
lost most of its winemaking expertise, its consumers and its main export market. By the 1990s, the vineyard area had dwindled to 8,000ha. King Hassan began Morocco’s wine
renaissance in the 1990s by attracting French investors who planted new vinesand transformed quality. Wine is now bigbusiness. Les Celliers de Meknes dominates production with 65% of the domestic market, producing a vast range of wines from vins ordinaires to its ‘premier cru’, Les Coteaux de l’Atlas. The company’s showcase, Château Roslane, at the heart of its Beni M’tir vineyards, contains a modern winery with a 70,000-hectolitre
air-conditioned cellar, pneumatic presses, bottling plant and hundreds of barriques.
French giant Castel, owner of UK retailers Oddbins and Nicolas, produces a
growing range of red wines from its 1,000 hectares of vines near Meknes and at Boulaouane. It exports 90% of its production, including the Halana varietal range. In recent years, several French producers, including Bernard Magrez, Gérard Depardieu and Alain Graillot, havejoined it. At his estate at Guerrouane,named Kahina after a legendary Berber
queen, Magrez says he ‘set out to make an exceptional wine, with very low yields
(just 18 hectolitres per hectare) and picking at optimum maturity, selecting grapes berry by berry’. Depardieu’s wine,made from old Grenache and Syrah vines near Meknes, is a 15.5% monster named Lumière. Alain Graillot, the renowned Crozes Hermitage producer, recently started a joint venture called Tandem with Jacques Poulain, a Bordelais winemaker and producer of high-quality wines based at Thalvin, not far from Casablanca. Graillot and Poulain selected parcels of Syrah vines, some 48 years old, from terroirs with a maritime influence at Rommani and Benslimane. So who is drinking all this wine? In theory, the sale of alcohol to Muslims is prohibited.
In practice, the law is seldom, if ever, applied and the past 15 years have seen a rapid increase in wine outlets; a branch of Nicolas has even opened in Rabat. Consumption is widespread – and not just among the French-educated élite. Ordinary Moroccans can be seen insupermarkets stocking up on plastic bottles of ‘rouge’. It is only at religious feasts such as Ramadan that restrictions are enforced. The statistics tell their own story. Of the 27 million bottles produced by Les Celliers de Meknes, some 26 million never leaves Morocco’s shores. Omar Aouad, the company’s director general, insists the Koran restricts, rather than prohibits, alcohol consumption and quotes verse 67, sura 16: ‘And from the fruit of the date palm and the vine you obtain intoxicating drink and wholesome food. Most surely there is a sign in this for those who ponder.’ This is hardly a wholehearted invitation to imbibe, but many feel it is enough to be dismissive of the Islamist lobby. ‘Some groups want to ban or limit consumption of alcohol,’ said one senior wine figure, ‘but such people are batted aside by our government like a cat swatting a mouse.’ Finding willing hands to make the wine doesn’t seem to be a major problem, either. Thalvin’s 30 permanent staff – supplemented by hundreds of male and female workers at harvest – are all locals. ‘Moroccans are very attached to the land and well-suited to cultivating and pruning vines,’ says Jacques Poulain. ‘There’s no taboo about wine. The people who work with me are all from the same tribe – the Oualed Thaleb. They’re proud of what they do. ‘Recently someone made a fuss about the sign outside our domaine, which says Thalvin – Terre des Vins. That’s the only problem I’ve had because of my profession in 11 years in Morocco. But I can’t speak for others. In Meknes, the mentality is very different.’ It is worth recalling how rapid the pace of change has been. ‘When I first arrived 11 years ago,’ says Poulain, ‘the middle class was much smaller. Now there’s a growing population of young affluent urban professionals who want to restaurant and you’ll see three quarters of the Moroccans there drinking wine.’
The Moulbled family, whose beautiful domaine in the Zaer Highlands produces
grapes for Tandem, exemplifies that change. Karim Moulbled’s grandfather was made qa’id (local chief) in 1914 by Moulay Abdul Hafid, Morocco’s then ruler. When Karim’s father Abdeslam obtained the farm in 1971 from a departing Frenchman, wine business was so poor that he grubbed up the vines. Nowadays, not only is wine thriving but social attitudes have been transformed, as Karim told me over a lunch of mouthwateringly tender mechoui (baby lamb).
‘My grandfather had four wives, my father had two wives, I have one wife, and my son has none.’ Could Morocco ever become a major wine producer or make a successful ‘cult’ wine like Lebanon’s Château Musar? Most Lebanese wine is made by the Christian population, and for this reason, Saïd Lamrani of Bourchanin & Cie, Moroccan distributor for drinks giant Diageo, is doubtful. ‘Technically, yes. But, in practice, no; unlike Lebanon, Morocco is and will always be a Muslim country.
Written by RUPERT JOY