Morocco – Algeria – Tunisia
To say these three countries have similarities is less accurate than to say that there are few things they do not share. The element that most binds them is the Atlas Mountains, and these, almost exclusively, give rise to what separates Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia from the rest of Africa. The countries’ shared histories and cultures are veils stretched across the range, the barrier between the Mediterranean and the Sahara, which rises east of Casablanca in Morocco and falls at Tunis, having spanned the entire north of Algeria. Had the countries not the elevation permitted by these often snow-capped peaks, they would largely consist of sand, save for the cooler coastal strips. (Whilst Algeria is predominantly desert, the vast majority of its population is to be found along the coast or in the mountains.)
The Phoenicians, Romans, Vandals, Byzantines, Arabs, Spanish, Ottomans and the French were drawn by the agricultural bounty permitted by cooler elevations in a sunny climate; and whilst the wine history of the Maghreb (the Arabic collective for the three countries) is not as old as the hills, it is as old as the first of these civilisations. It is a history which has seen fortunes wax and wane in a way shared by few other vinegrowing areas. Wine, having been a feature of life from around 1000 BC, fell out of favour with the introduction of Islam in the seventh century, only to be re-introduced by the French in an unprecedented way that rendered the three countries responsible for over 60 per cent of internationally traded wine in the early 1900s.
With the countries’ independence in the 1950s and 1960s came a reversal of fortune, leaving the Maghreb again a vinous backwater. The newly installed Islamic powers did not wish to see it promoted internally, and France chose to switch allegiance to her own produce. However, oddly, because of the rise of Islamic fundamentalism, wine is now experiencing a revival. The Muslim governments within each nation have faced (and still do, particularly in Algeria) hard-line opposition from those for whom wine, or rather abstinence, is at the heart of their cause. It seems that governmental defiance, and a drive for overseas revenue, has led to an improvement in the wines, albeit mostly on an export basis to date. However, with 25 to 40 per cent of the Muslim public in the Maghreb consuming alcohol (official figures are sketchy, some implausibly stating zero per cent), there are also substantial home markets to help support a push for development.
The makeup of the vineyards across the three countries is still a hangover from colonial times. They largely contain low-yielding bush vines of the varieties planted by the French (Carignan, Cincault, Grenache and Alicante Bouchet, with a smattering of others), though more recent plantings have been of international varieties (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Mourvèdre, Chardonnay, etc.). These now account for around 20 per cent of the vineyard area. New plantings are largely in Guyot style (trellised) for ease of picking and the increased volumes this method yields, and not for reasons of mechanised harvesting, as almost all grapes are still hand-picked due to the plentiful availability of cheap labour.
There are designated areas across the Maghreb that are considered of higher quality (AOG: Appellation d’Origine Garantie and AOC: Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée), but these delineations are broad and the producer is the more reliable barometer of quality in all cases. When, and if, the industry matures and individual superior plots are singled out, then appellation classifications may become more significant.
Wineries and winemaking practices, of course, differ from producer to producer, though much of the wine is still made in ‘caves’ (two-storey colonial buildings with banks of cement fermentors above similar cement storage vessels). Whilst some continue to use these out of convenience, others consider them viable because they are seen as no worse than new buildings with stainless steel tanks. (If sanitary conditions are good and temperature control is employed, then this can indeed be the case.) Oak ageing is on the rise, though the expense means that barrels are generally only to be found within higher quality cellars aimed at export markets.
Though the better sites are at cooler altitudes or on the coast, heat in the vineyard and winery is still a hazard for those wishing to produce good wine. However, such obstacles can be overcome by employing hot-climate practices in the vineyards (such as shading the developing grapes with leaf canopy) and diligent temperature control throughout the winemaking process. Whilst there are already good wines emerging, one or two producers are beginning to make great wines. These are coming from the people who have appreciated the conditions and realise that wine should not be made in the same way as in France, but are looking further afield to Australia, Chile and Argentina for inspiration – all warmer countries which, when they first aped the winemaking practices of France, restricted themselves to being considered no more than modest backwaters. Only time will tell whether Algeria, Morocco and Tunisia can follow in such footsteps and reach their true potential, as the political conditions are still, to put it mildly, unfavourable.
Although the three share similar potential, there are some significant differences, such as stage of development, political climate and, importantly, size.
Algeria is the North African country to begin with when considering size. It is impossible to avoid superlatives in a country that could fit most of Western Europe within its borders, and its wine history is one peppered with large numbers too, though these have diminished in 2009 from their peak in the early 1900s: 500 million down to 15 million gallons produced; 400,000 down to 32,000 hectares under vine; 3,000 down to just 70 wineries left. It was once the world’s fifth largest wine producer and the biggest exporter, and wine vied with oil for the top spot in export revenue. Most spectators may not mourn the loss of what was mostly bulk wine that poured into France to beef up the lower end of the market, but few stop to consider that this was because the Maghreb ’s wines were more palatable than some of the basic French fare at the time. If similar developments that have since taken place in France to improve its own everyday wines were to be applied in Algeria, non-partisan drinkers worldwide could well generate overseas demand again, conditions permitting.
Caught in the eye of the storm during the civil war (1994 – 2002), Algeria’s production dwindled to a trickle. It was at the heart of the argument that Islamic militants had with the government. In the early stages of the conflict all of the country’s growers were issued with death threats that stated that if they harvested their grapes then they, and their families, would be killed. This led to the closure of 300 wineries and the virtual collapse of the industry. A handful of growers did dare to pick, but the threat wasn’t carried out. However there were certainly those killed during the conflict because of their connection with grape growing and winemaking. The government stepped in, further nationalising the vineyards, but also assisting the private growers from whom it still buys (the majority in the country) with loans and grants, as well as providing training to improve vineyard health and grape quality. In addition, the ONCV (Office National de Commercialisation des Produits Viti-vinicoles – the state-owned wine producer) has itself planted over 5,000 hectares of new vineyards with international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Sangiovese and Merlot amongst others, in a bid for exports. The investment has continued into the wineries with a modernisation programme that began in the early 2000s with the installation of chilling equipment and modern presses and pumps. As of 2009 the programme has yet to introduce significant changes to methods of wine storage and transferral (within the wineries and beyond to the new bottling halls) which, if carried out, would undoubtedly further improve quality.
Although the ONCV is thought of as a state monopoly, others have begun to produce and bottle wine, but to date with limited success. That is except for a venture involving a partnership involving Gérard Depardieu, Bernard Magrez and the ONCV. This unfortunately only lasted for one vintage with the release of the 2002 Domaine Saint-Augustin ‘Cuvée Monica’. The partnership was dissolved for reasons undisclosed, even though the wine was considered a success (notably by the critic Robert Parker, who awarded it 91-94 points). Its release gave a brief glimpse of what was possible, and there are now plans afoot within the ONCV to emulate its success.
Until the early 2000s, the state of Tunisia’s wine industry was broadly similar to that of Algeria, with a virtual state monopoly dominating exports and home markets. Since then an aggressive drive for exports has led to a number of very promising privately-owned partnerships between locals and foreign companies, employing modern methods of vine growing and winemaking. The turnaround owes much to a more enlightened approach by the state owned UCCV (Union Central des Coopératives Viticoles), which began to demonstrate what could be achieved in the late 1990s with a significant modernisation programme.
This move to encourage private producers somewhat mirrors a change in the Moroccan market, where a similar number of partnerships have emerged. However, unlike in Morocco, imports of foreign wines are not allowed, giving home producers access to an internal market without competition. A change of law permitting imports in 2009 may see the advances of these producers a little curtailed, if the not insubstantial home market expresses its curiosity.
The mix of grapes is similar to those of the other two countries, with Carignan, Cincault, Grenache and other traditional varieties making up the bulk planted, largely for gris, rosé and red, though partnerships are also concentrating on international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, the last of these showing particularly impressive results.
The better vineyards are located within the Cap Bon area, the peninsula to the east of Tunis. Here, some elevation is assisted by a maritime climate, allowing a longer growing season and cooler nights. Mornag is an appellation to look out for, although, as with all three countries, appellation matters less than the name of the producer.
Morocco, in terms of volume of quality wine, now leads the Maghreb. The number of overseas partnerships is similar to that in Tunisia, though most are longer established and larger. More significantly, one of the country’s best producers is its largest. This is a reversal of the position in the 1990s, where the state accounted for 80 per cent of production. Les Celliers de Meknes, a family-owned concern, has taken the top spot by applying modern methods in the vineyards and wineries, and by treating the home market as being just as important as its exports.
The majority of the best vineyards are situated on a plateau between the low Atlas Mountains and the Zerhoun range, at elevations of 600m to 1,000m, around Meknes and Fes. Also, there are other producers (notably Thalvin) using the cooler coastal climate to their advantage.