Friday, February 24, 2017

Morocco's Booming Wine Industry

Visitors to Morocco are often surprised by the availability of good local wines. Yet, the soils of modern Morocco have a winemaking history that goes back to the time its introduction by the Phoenicians and its subsequent expansion during the Roman era

 Over the centuries, vineyards periodically appeared and disappeared in Morocco, but the immigration of French wine-growers, plagued by phylloxera in 1880 in their native France, brought about a rebirth and expansion of Morocco's vineyards. French colonists introduced large-scale viticulture to both Morocco and Algeria and at the time of independence in 1956, there were 55,000 hectares (140,000 acres) under production. With the departure of the French went much of the expertise and although the wine trade continued to be significant into the 1960s, quality decreased.

The introduction by the EEC in 1967 of quotas led to significant reductions in exports Europe. With a combination of the restricted access to the traditional market, and competition from overproduction in other Mediterranean countries, much of the wine production became uneconomical, and a significant portion of Morocco's vineyards were replaced with other crops.

The Moroccan state took over much of the production between 1973 to1984, however the introduction of measures such as fixed prices for grapes, irrespective of quality and poor management of the vineyards impacted on quality and competitiveness.  In the early 1990s, there was 40,000 hectares (99,000 acres) of vineyards in Morocco, of which 13,000 hectares (32,000 acres) were planted with vines for wine production (rather than for table grape or raisin production), and of these vineyards, more than half had old or diseased vines of low productivity.

In the 1990s, during the rule of Hassan II, the Moroccan wine production started to improve due to foreign (primarily French) investment and know-how. King Hassan II appealed to French investors and wine experts to return the industry to its former peak. This was achieved by offering foreign wine companies the possibility for long-term lease of vineyards from the state agricultural company SODEA. Several large Bordeaux-based wine companies, including Groupe Castel, William Pitters and Taillan, entered into partnerships which have been quite successful in reviving the Moroccan wine industry. As an example, the Castel brand Boulaouane was the best-selling foreign wine in France as of 2005, and the vineyard area had expanded to 50,000 hectares (120,000 acres) in the early 2000s. Some smaller investors came into the market and offered higher quality wines.

Despite the notion of Morocco as a hot country with a desert climate, most vineyards are in the foothills of the coastal Atlas Mountains. The relatively high altitudes and the cooling effect of the nearby ocean preserves acidity in grapes and helps create balanced wines.

Today, the country produces about 40 million bottles of wine annually, but only about 5 percent is exported. The industry employs about 10,000 people. There are seven wine regions containing a total of 14 AOGs (guaranteed appellation of origin) and 2 AOCs (controlled appellation of origin).

Six of the seven regions are clustered on or near the Atlantic coast, to the southwest of Spain and Gibraltar, near Meknes, Rabat and Casablanca. The remaining region is farther east, bordering Algeria and the Mediterranean Sea.

About 75 percent of wines made here are red, predominantly Rhône varieties like Syrah, Grenache and Carignan, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Rosé and Vin Gris—a style of greyish-pink blush wine—are produced, as are austere whites made from Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and more full-bodied Chardonnay.

One of the best regions for making wine in Morocco is the Ouled Thaleb Estate, situated 20 miles northeast of Casablanca, which clearly demonstrates a similarity with the soil of Bordeaux and particularly, the Medoc region. The soil consists of sandy shale and gravel sand, and like the Medoc region, the estate is in close proximity to the sea. Located on the Ben-Slimane plateau, it faces the Atlantic Ocean and is swept by west winds which leave their maritime influence on the region.

Thalvin, in partnership with landowners in Rommani, a region of rolling hills situated at the base of the Atlas Mountains (at an altitude of 2000 feet), have planted vines where the black soil, its chalky clay subsoil and the emerging rock supply the very particular qualities desired for the making of quality wines. Grapes are hand picked and there is no use of herbicide or fungicide, so technically these grapes are grown organically.

Located 120 kilometres inlands from Rabat, in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains , the region of Meknes, by virtue of its altitude, its amount of sunshine and its mild temperatures, is the favourite country for vineyards in Morocco.

Cradle of the Designation of Geographic Origin (AOG) are the areas of Guerrouane, Beni M'tir and of the Designation of Controlled Origin (AOC) area of "Les Coteaux de l'Atlas". This region is now home to more than 60% of the Moroccan wine production. It is also the base for the now well-known "Les Celliers de Meknes" who, in June 2004, created the first Moroccan "Chateau" - Chateau Roslane.

Morocco has become the second biggest producer of wine in the Arab world, after Algeria. In the last few years the availability of wine in restaurants has improved as has the quality of the wine.

Moroccan law does not prohibit the production of beer and alcohol, but only their sale to Muslim customers. Wine can be purchased at very reasonable prices in supermarkets and an increasing number of restaurants. Alcohol is not generally available during Islamic festivals including Ramadan, except in some outlets aimed primarily at non-Muslims.

Moroccan supermarkets stock most Moroccan wines

Although more religious Moroccans dislike the wine industry, the burgeoning middle-class see moderate consumption of wine as acceptable. 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, points out that 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.’

Oualed Thaleb workers at the harvest

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.’


1 comment:

Abd Rahman said...

Whether or not alcohol is "allowed" in the Quran is something much debated by those Muslims who drink and those who do not.

When I lived in the UK I drank far too much, how I kept down a job I do not know. Alcohol is great and so are many other drugs, however there are far too many people who cannot handle either. I prefer this quote from the Quran.

"They question you about strong drink and games of chance. Say: In both is great abuse and usefulness for mankind; but the abusive side of them is greater than their usefulness." (2. Al-Baqarah :219).