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Video: Moroccan winemaker thrives

Despite Muslim prohibitions, wine produced and sold from vineyards older than Roman times.

At the headquarters of Morocco's largest winemaker, Les Celliers de Meknes, export manager Jean-Pierre Dehut inspects a barrel of the latest vintage. (Solana Pyne/GlobalPost)

MEKNES, Morocco — Asked to brainstorm unlikely business plans, you might devise something more improbable than a winery in Muslim Morocco — perhaps a boat dealership for Bedouins? a sex shop in the Vatican? — but the list wouldn’t be long.

More surprising still is the fact that Morocco’s oldest winery, Celliers de Meknes, has made a brisk business of selling booze in a country where 98 percent of the population is forbidden to drink alcoholic beverages.

“We are tolerated,” said Jean-Pierre Dehut, the export manager for Celliers de Meknes. “But the tolerance requires that we stay within certain boundaries.”

Technically, those boundaries demarcate a zone so small it could squeeze the winery out of business. Moroccan law prohibits selling alcohol to Muslims — all but 2 percent of the country's 35 million people — and equally forbids Muslims from buying the stuff. Luckily for winemakers like Dehut , the rules are seldom enforced.

Taking a line that would make any legal pragmatist proud, Dehut concludes, “If it were illegal, we wouldn’t exist anymore.”

That’s been a profitable supposition to make. The Celliers de Meknes sells some 30 million bottles of wine per year — 25 million of them right here in Morocco. The winery puts out bottles under esteemed appellations such as Guerrouane, Beni M’Tir and Les Coteaux de L’Atlas — the last trademark being Morocco’s only Appellation d’Origine Controlee (AOC), a French system that ensures wines come from the precise geographical location advertised on their bottles.

But Dehut said the biggest domestic seller by far — 17 million bottles per year — is called Maghrebi, plastic-capped ultra-cheap stuff that has more in common with Colt 45 than it does Cabernet.

“It’s an ordinary wine that’s intended for Monsieur Tout le Monde,” Dehut said, using a phrase that literally means “Mr. Everybody,” but which may render better in English as “Joe Sixpack.”

Morocco ranks far below the top three wine-producing countries Spain, France and Italy, which each grow more than 2 million tons of grapes per year, according to the California-based Wine Institute, a trade group that monitors the wine industry.

At just under a million tons annually, the United States stands in sixth place behind Turkey and China. Morocco, producing just 310,000 tons annually, ranks 30th worldwide.