Benslimane - 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, 30km 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% 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% 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,"
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 in March last year, an association of Moroccan
sommeliers was set up in Marrakesh bringing together 20 wine experts.
In the central Meknes region, nestled between the Rif Mountains
and the Middle Atlas, there is evidence that wine production dates back some 2 500
But the industry was transformed during the time of the
protectorate (1912-1956), when the kingdom served as a haven for migrating
French winemakers after the phylloxera pest decimated Europe's vineyards around
the turn of the 20th century.
As in Algeria and Tunisia, the French planted vineyards
extensively, with Morocco's annual production exceeding three million
hectolitres in the 1950s.
The main grape varieties used to produce the country's red
wines are those commonly found around the Mediterranean, such as Grenache,
Syrah, Cabernet-Sauvignon and Merlot.
Mariot, the manager of Oulad Thaleb, boasts that the domain,
which he says has the oldest wine cellar in use in the kingdom, built by a
Belgian firm in 1923, produces one of Morocco's "most popular wines".
Standing by a barrel, he casts a proud eye on the vintage,
describing it as a "warm and virile wine".
No special restrictions
Abderrahim Zahid, a businessman and self-styled "lover
of fine Moroccan wines" who sells them abroad, says the country now
produces "a mature wine which we can be proud of".
Morocco's wine industry now employs up to 20 000 people,
according to unofficial figures, and generated about $170m in 2011.
But the remarkable progress made by the sector in recent
years has taken place within a sensitive social environment.
While alcohol production is permitted by state law, and
supermarkets and bars enforce no special restrictions on Muslim customers,
officially the sale and gift of alcoholic drinks to Muslims is illegal. They
are unavailable during Islamic festivals, including throughout the holy month
Separately, the Islamist-led government decided last year to
raise taxes on alcoholic drinks from 450 dirhams ( $53) per hectolitre to more
than 500 dirhams.
So far this has not noticeably deterred consumption among
Morocco's population of 35 million, although economic realities certainly
influence local drinking habits.
The wine favoured by Moroccans is a cheap red called
Moghrabi, which comes in plastic bottles and costs 30 dirhams (less than €3)