Winemaking in a Muslim country

Marketplace Staff Feb 19, 2008

Winemaking in a Muslim country

Marketplace Staff Feb 19, 2008


Kai Ryssdal: The Moroccan wine industry all but disappeared at the end of French colonial rule, but now it’s going through a renaissance.

Meknes, the capital of the Moroccan wine industry, celebrated a “festival of the vine” at the end of last year, provoking a storm of protest from Islamist politicians and the popular press.

There’s even talk of Morocco joining Chile, California and South Africa as one of the producers of the New World. John Laurenson reports from Meknes on the delicate business of making wine in a Muslim country.

John Laurenson: A livestock market in the run-up to the Muslim festival of Aid, when most Moroccan fathers take a knife and sacrifice a sheep. Morocco is a deeply Muslim country and alcohol is forbidden in Islam, so selling wine to Moroccans is illegal.

Well, that’s what the law says anyway. In fact, sales are booming and Moroccan wineries are turning out 40 million bottles a year, sold in Europe, but above all, in Morocco itself. Islam or no Islam, Morocco is becoming a new wine “El Dorado.”

A freshly-uncorked rosŽ flows freely at the Chateau Roslane just outside Meknes. It has just been given the official status of a wine chateau, a first in Morocco. Around it, 2,000 acres of vineyards.

The high altitude and dry, sunny climate make this a good wine-growing region. The Celliers de Meknes, the company that owns the Chateau Roslane, says it is reviving a tradition that goes back to the Romans.

But life was easier for wine producers under the Caesars. The Celliers de Meknes is the biggest wine producer in Morocco. But there is no sign — not even a name — outside their head office in the center of Meknes that might draw attention or provoke hostility.

Mehdi Bouchaara, organizer of the Meknes vine festival, is similarly modest about his company’s ambitions.

Mehdi Bouchaara: Our objective is not to say that tomorrow we want each Moroccan to drink wines. We know it’s not possible and anyway we don’t want to. There are people who drink wine and we try to be able to have this product given to them on good conditions.

[sound of Friday prayers]

Friday prayers. The faithful can’t all fit in the mosque and spread into the surrounding streets. In elections in September, the Islamist Justice and Development Party — the PJD — won the largest number of seats in parliament.

The leader of that parliamentary group, Mustapha Ramid, was outraged by Mr. Bouchaara’s Vine Festival. Wine, he believes, is a menace for Morocco:

Mustapha Ramid: Among the poor in this country, there are people who work all day and spend everything they’ve earned on wine at night. Our prisons are full of murderers and rapists who have acted under the influence of drink. In Islam, we say that alcohol is “oum al khaba•th” — the mother of evil.

A bar in Meknes full of Moroccans. Whatever the law says, there are a lot of drinks being poured. Curtains are drawn over the small barred windows. Mustapha Ramid says if his compatriots can’t be educated out of drinking then, in five years or so, they should start closing down places like this. Ramid is on a collision course with the alcohol industry, retailers and some men in very high places.

Those men include Morocco’s King and Commander of the Faithful, His Majesty Mohammed VI. He owns a chain of large supermarkets like this one. They sell alcohol — albeit in a separate part of the store with separate tills and a separate entrance. I ask the wine producer Mehdi Bouchaara if Morocco isn’t a bit hypocritical when it comes to wine.

“Hypocrisy? No,” he says. “This is tolerance.”

In Meknes, I’m John Laurenson for Marketplace.

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