Jefford on Monday: Jasmine Into Wine?

We don't yet know to what extent Tunisia's Jasmine Revolution and the Arab Spring will change life in North Africa.

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What we do know is that something major is afoot in the Southern Mediterranean, and that there is now an expectation of democratic responsiveness in the region which never existed before.

Whether wine culture will play a larger role in North African societies than it has in recent years remains to be seen. What’s beyond doubt is the potential, particularly in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia.

Much of the Southern Hemisphere’s wine, remember, is produced in latitudes almost identical to those found in North Africa. The Adelaide Hills and Morocco’s Rabat lie on similar latitudes.

So do Argentina’s Mendoza and Libya’s Tripoli. Tunis and Algiers, indeed, lie further from the Equator than do Stellenbosch and Maipo.

Of course there are important differences.

The vast masses of water in the Great Southern Ocean, the Indian Ocean and the South Atlantic cool the vineyards of coastal Australia and South Africa, as the Pacific (and the Humboldt current) does Chile’s vines.

Mendoza itself lies under the Andes, at around 800 m, and many of its vineyards are higher still.

North Africa, though, has the Atlas Mountains, and plenty of high plateau land under the peaks. Altitude is key here.

The much-loved Bekaa Valley wines from Musar, Kefraya or Massaya, or the often fine wines which the Golan Heights Winery has produced over the last quarter century, are testament to that: both regions have an average altitude of around 1,000 m.

The 2010 Decanter World Wine Awards Over-£10 Syrah Trophy – one of the hardest fought in the entire competition – went to a 2008 Carmel Kayoumi Single Vineyard Shiraz from the Upper Galilee, grown at around 800m.

There is far more of such land in Algeria and Morocco than in either Israel or Lebanon.

In the early C20 French colonial era, North Africa dominated the international wine trade in the same way that shipments from Australia, South Africa, Chile and Argentina do today.

From a deeper historical perspective, wine was produced, drunk and enjoyed in North Africa for over 2,000 years before the birth of Muhammad in 570.

We don’t exactly know what wine from King Djoser’s ‘Horus on the Height of Heaven’ vineyard tasted like, but it might well have been the Lafite of its day.

A truly democratic North Africa is unlikely to be a chain of fundamentalist states. Indeed the hard-won acquisition of political liberty may be echoed with a measure of institutional secularism and confessional freedom.

Not every Muslim is a rigorous abstainer, just as not every Jew follows Jewish dietary strictures and not every Catholic spurns contraception.

Tolerance and pluralism are democratic assets, too.

Jefford on Monday

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Award-winning writer Andrew Jefford's Monday column on Decanter.com