SHANGHAI | 20 Dec, 2020
Northen Africa On The Rise
Get a new perspective on African wines – focusing on the north
Wine is not exactly at the top of the list in African alcohol consumption, and the wine that is consumed on the continent isn’t always the kind of wine fans of crushed grape juice would expect – in other words - palm wine is big in Africa. Nonetheless there are three countries in Northern Africa that possess a history of wine growing and they are eager to take their tradition into a fruitful future.
Northern Africa’s connection to wine is ancient. First it appeared in Egypt and then in the Mediterranean coastal regions of the ancient Phoenicians, who, after having been kicked out of the Levant settled in Carthage, which is more or less the location of modern-day Tunisia. Another very important historical fact has left its enological mark on the continent: the European colonialisation in Africa that began in 1814, after the British took South Africa from the Dutch. The French, Germans and Portuguese followed. By the end of the 19th century, Africa was almost completely controlled by Europeans and they arrived thirsty. The rise of Islam in northern Africa threatened to put a damper on wine growing, yet largely due to colonial French influence, Algeria and Morocco, as well as Tunisia maintained vibrant wine growing cultures.
Despite South Africa being more established and marking one of the export strongest wine nations, North Africa's leading wine growing countries provide their own style in the wine industry.
First up is Algeria, the largest of the three. Its oldest overseas territory, the birthplace of the Foreign Legion and with a huge wine industry vital to France’s own. As India was the jewel in the crown of Britain’s old empire so was Algeria to France. However the number of wineries has come down drastically. The reason seems somewhat obvious: following the Algerian independence in 1962 the wine industry was hit hard by the loss of the French settlers and the French army who provided a sizable domestic market for wine. France also greatly reduced the amount of exports it was accepting. With the evolution of a more traditonal muslim mindset that gradually followed after the French had left, the Algerian government thought it was inappropriate for an Islamic country to be so economically dependent on alcohol production and encouraged vineyard owners to convert their land into other agriculzural crops. During the civil war between 1991 and 2002 the situation even took a turn to the worse. A lot of winery owners and their families were threatened to death if they kept their wineries running, therefore it lead to the closure of basically all the remaining wineries across the country. Since the turn of the 21st century, efforts are underway to revive the Algerian wine industry but so far very little Algerian wine is on the international market.
During the peak of Algerian wine production, the main grapes of the region were Carignan, Cinsault and Alicante Bouschet, all brought over from the motherland. In recent times, Clairette blanche and Ugni blanc have become the dominant grape variety with some smaller plantings of Chardonnay and the main Bordeaux grapes. Algerian wines are distinguished through their over ripe fruit, high alcohol and low acidity. The grapes in Algeria often go through a short fermentation process and are bottled after little to no oak ageing.
Runner up is Morocco. Being the second biggest wine producer in the Arab world the country is considered to have best potential for producing quality wine. This is mostly because of its climate: having the cooling influence of the Atlantic as well as its high mountains provides perfect conditions for aromatic and beautifully structured wines.
Similar to Algeria also in Morocco large-scale commercial viticulture was introduced by French colonists. And although much of the winemaking expertise left Morocco at the time of the country's independence in 1956, the wine industry continued to be significant through to the 1960's, until the EEC introduced quotas in 1967 which led to enormous reductions in exports. Due to a combination of these trade restrictions and rising competition from other Mediterranean countries much of the country's wine production turned uneconomical. Slowly vast areas of Morocco’s vineyards were replaced with other crops, until eventually the majority of the vineyards was taken over by the Moroccan state in the 1980's.
A decade later though Moroccan wine production started to improve due to foreign investment. This was possible thanks to King Hassan II, an open minded ruler who did not ban wine production for the sake of Sharia law. He himself graduated from the University of Bordeaux and made it his personal goal to revive his country's wine industry. Several Bordeaux wineries entered into partnerships, which have been quite successful in restoring the industry.
The Moroccan wine industry is ruled predominantly by red wines. Most of the country’s reds are made of Carignan, Alicante, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsaut, Grenache, Syrah, and Merlot. The country’s white wine selection features varietals and blends of Muscat Clairette Blanche, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Chenin Blanc.
The third contender is Tunisia. This country's wine industry was broadly similar to Algeria until the early 2000's. Nowadays, the wine industry still has a strong French flavour, a natural conclusion after the Tunisia’s years as a French protectorate. Most of Tunisia's wine production has been in the hands of the state for a long time which was slow in introducing modern methods. There was no much investment, either.
Since the turn of the century though, an aggressive drive for exports has led to a number of very promising privately owned partnerships between locals and foreign companies, employing modern methods of vine growing and winemaking.
The mix of grapes in Tunisia is similar to those of the other two countries, with Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache and other traditional varieties dominating. However, partnerships are also concentrating on international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. These result in very promising full-bodied red wines and, probably, in those lies the future.
The fact that there is a lot going on in the Maghreb shows that grapes can be another agricultural economic force on the vast, resourcefully rich and culturally diverse continent. And who knows, maybe even the rest of African wines – think countries like Uganda or Ghana, who recently started growing wine - will join forces with the North and the South and take the wine world by storm.