Fine wines flourishing in Muslim Morocco

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Vines 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,” says wine specialist Stephane Mariot.

“Here there is a microclimate which favours the production of ‘warm wines’, even though we aren’t far from the ocean,” adds the manager of Oulad Thaleb, a 2,000-hectare vineyard in Benslimane, 30 kilometres (18 miles) northeast of Casablanca, which he has run for five years.

The social climate in the North African county is less propitious, however, with the election of the Islamist Party of Justice and Development in 2011, and the fact that Moroccan law prohibits the sale of alcohol to Muslims, who make up 98 percent of the population.

In practice though 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 around 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,” says Mariot.

Annual output currently stands at about 400,000 hectolitres, 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, neighbouring Algeria, whose vineyards were cultivated for a much longer period during French colonial rule, produces 500,000 hectolitres on average, and Lebanon, with its ancient viticulture dating to the pre-Roman era, fills about six million bottles annually.

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

Already it has one Appellation d’Origine Controlee — controlled designation of origin, or officially recognised 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.

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