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Wine Sector in Islamic Morocco

April 8, 2009

MEKNES, Morocco – On paper, wine is ‘haram,’ or forbidden to Muslims, but Morocco has become one of the largest winemakers in the Muslim world, with the equivalent of 35 million bottles produced last year. Wine brings the state millions in sales tax, even though Islam appears to be on the rise politically

The gently rolling hills planted thick with vineyards are an unlikely sight for a Muslim country set partly in the deserts and palms of North Africa. Yet the grapes, and the wine they produce, are thriving in Morocco despite Islam’s ban on alcohol consumption.

Morocco has become one of the largest winemakers in the Muslim world, with the equivalent of 35 million bottles produced last year. Wine brings the state millions in sales tax, even though Islam appears to be on the rise politically.

“Morocco is a country of tolerance,” said Mehdi Bouchaara, the deputy general manager at the Celliers de Meknes, the country’s largest winemaker, which bottles over 85 percent of the national output. “It’s everybody’s personal choice whether to drink or not.”

The Celliers have flourished on this tolerance. The firm now cultivates 2,100 hectares of vineyards, bottling everything from entry-level table wine to homemade champagne and high-end claret; its Chateau Roslane claret is aged in a vaulted cellar packed with oak barrels imported from France. The winery now dwarfs virtually any other producer in Europe.

Wine is haram on paper

On paper, wine is “haram,” or forbidden to Muslims. But Bouchaara said the firm’s distribution is legal since it only sells to traders authorized by the state, who in turn officially sell exclusively to non-Muslim tourists.

Statistics, however, show that Moroccans consume on average 1 liter of wine per person each year, and the Moroccan state itself is the largest owner of the country’s 12,000 hectares of vineyards.

The paradox illustrates Morocco’s delicate balancing act. The rapidly modernizing country thrives on tourism and trade with Europe, but its people remain deeply conservative. Morocco’s ruler, King Mohammed VI, is also “commander of the believers” and protector of the faith. Islamists authorized to take part in politics are the second-largest force in Parliament, while support for non-authorized groups is believed to be even larger.

Despite this uncertain setting for wine culture, the Celliers’ owner, Brahim Zniber, is among the country’s richest people. His group employs 6,500 people, nearly all of them Muslim, and revenues rose to 225 million euros last year. Its three biggest sources of income are wine production with the Celliers de Meknes, hard liquor imports and Coca-Cola bottling.

Zniber’s latest ventures, in addition to a new Moroccan champagne, include plans to build a luxury hotel offering the country’s first “vinotherapy” spa resort, with health-care creams and baths based on grape products.

But the group has also tested the limits of the gray zone it operates in. The wine festival it helped promote in 2007 caused protests in nearby Meknes, a deeply religious city of 500,000 run until recently by an Islamist mayor.

“The festival was an unnecessary provocation,” said Aboubakr Belkora, the former mayor who was slammed by his own Islamist group, the Justice and Development Party, for halfheartedly authorizing the gathering in the center of town.

The ex-mayor said that “for religious reasons,” he uprooted about 100 hectares of vineyards from his own fields but has no qualms with others making or drinking wine.

Others feel there is some hypocrisy to the practice.

Hassan, a restaurant manager, said he wasn’t allowed a license to serve alcoholic drinks because he is Muslim. “But everyone knows we serve wine with our food,” he said, pointing at the restaurant’s patrons, both foreign and Moroccan, sipping their wine over dinner.

Another owner in Meknes, who also requested anonymity because of his practices, said he serves wine in tinted glasses, keeps bottles out of sight, and tells clients to say they were drinking soft drinks if questioned. “Police rarely come, and if they do they never look inside the glass,” he said.

These practices reflect a much more lenient culture than in other Muslim countries.

27 million bottles per year

Within Morocco’s more favorable context, the Celliers winery sells 27 million bottles per year, mostly inside the country. Two million bottles head to Europe or the United States and the firm is planting another 800 hectares of grapes to meet new demand from China, said Jean-Pierre Dehut, a former liquor-store owner in Belgium hired as the Celliers’ export manager.

By the size of the huge new bottling plant it is building and the 450 people it employs, the Celliers is more on-par with the new, industrial-scaled wine businesses in Australia, Chile or California than with Europe’s often family-owned domains. But Dehut stressed that Morocco has made wine for at least 2,500 years, since the Phoenicians colonized its coast. “This country exported wine to Rome during the Roman Empire,” he said.

Winemaking soared during the French colonial era, which lasted more than 50 years until the country’s independence in 1956.

By then, hundreds of vineyards planted with French vines Ğ mostly centered on the sunny plateau around Meknes in northern Morocco Ğ churned out some 300 million hectoliters each year.

AP

2 comments

  1. Ha, read that too.

    “On paper, wine is “haram,” or forbidden to Muslims. But Bouchaara said the firm’s distribution is legal since it only sells to traders authorized by the state, who in turn officially sell exclusively to non-Muslim tourists.”

    Yeah, right. Only tourists buy the wine…


  2. Hi, good post. I have been thinking about this topic,so thanks for sharing. I will likely be subscribing to your blog. Keep up great writing



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