North Africa is not a region renowned for its white wine. In fact, many white wine drinkers may not be aware that wine making in North African countries such as Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria dates back to pre-Roman times.
Large scale viticulture arrived in the region thanks to the French who occupied North Africa in the last few centuries. They brought their expertise to the region and for several centuries wine was produced in volume with much of it being exported back to France for blending with French wines.
However, when the North African nations gained independence in the middle of the last century the wine industry almost disappeared along with the colonists. Before the French left, Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia between them were responsible for around two thirds of the world’s wine trade. Without the French expertise and organisation, however, wine production floundered and almost died out.
However, thanks to European intervention and investment the Moroccan and Tunisian wine industries are recovering. Both are perhaps better known for red wine and pale pink “blush wine”. Tunisia is producing some enjoyable white wine but its star product is a sweet white. The nation’s wonderful sweet Muscat has been produced since Carthaginian times and continues to be Tunisia’s speciality white wine.
Unfortunately, in comparison with Morocco and Tunisia, Algeria’s wine renaissance hasn’t quite happened yet. Algeria was once the biggest wine exporter in the world but the existence of the State Monopoly, which still has tight control over production, has precluded European investment and therefore prevented much needed modernisation of its wine industry.
Morocco is regarded as the North African country with the greatest potential to produce quality wines. It has good natural conditions for wine production such as high mountains and the cooling breezes from the Atlantic Ocean which prevent the vineyards from getting too hot.
The country is divided into five different wine regions: the East; Meknes/Fes; the Northern Plain; Rabat/Casablanca and El-Jadida. Within these five regions are 14 areas with AOG or Appellation d’Origine Garantie status and one AOC region, Coteaux de l’Atlas 1er cru.
Despite the potential for fresh, crisp white wine Morocco’s wine industry is dominated by red wine. As of 2005 white wine accounted for just three per cent of Morocco’s wine production while rose wine and vin gris blush wine made up about 20 per cent of wine production. Traditionally, white wine production in Morocco concentrates on Muscat and Clairette Blanche grapes. However, there have been some experiments with international white wine grapes such as Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Chenin Blanc. The difficulty with these grapes is that they need to be picked early to ensure the resulting wine is sufficiently fresh and crisp.
The quality of Moroccan wine continues to improve thanks the largely French investment. Several wine companies based in Bordeaux have entered into long term partnerships with the state-run agricultural company SODEA including William Pitters, Groupe Castel and Taillan. The French enjoy drinking North African wine and in 2005 the Castel branded wine Boulaouane was France’s best-selling overseas wine.
White wine production is also in the minority in Tunisia. Despite its reputation for sweet whites, red and rose wine dominate wine production with white wine forming around 10 per cent of the volume produced. The most common white wine grapes used are Chardonnay, Muscat of Alexandria and Pedro Ximenez.
Tunisia has inherited the Appellation Controlee system from its French colonists and the country has seven AOCs. Most of the wine production is centred around Cap Bon, otherwise known as Kelibia AOC, on the country’s east coast.
The coolest wine producing regions are on the coast. Thanks to ocean breezes and cool clay soils the area around Bizerte in the north produces some reasonable quality whites as well as some excellent sweet Muscat. The sandy soils of Cap Bon on the north eastern coast are best known for dry Muscat.
Much of the white wine produced in Tunisia and Morocco is exported. Both countries are dominated by the Muslim religion so only small amounts of wine are drunk by each country’s population. The French have long been used to drinking North African wine and large amounts of Morocco and Tunisia’s wine production is exported there.
North African wine is more difficult to track down in the UK. However, some North African white wine is available. Next Wine is offering a Tunisian Chardonnay from the Morgan Hills region. The Domaine Clipea 2010 is described as an “elegant” Chardonnay packed with flavour and a powerful finish. Careful searching will find you a handful of wine merchants offering Tunisian and Moroccan wine for sale. Alternatively, book your next summer holiday in one of the many North African beach resorts and try the local white wine in its indigenous surroundings.
Image by NASA.