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.
Guiding visitors through the Meknes bottling factory and vineyards on a rainy winter afternoon, Dehut explained that winemaking had taken root here long before Islam arrived. More than 2,500 years ago, the Carthaginians planted vineyards in the North African region that the conquering Romans continued to cultivate. A plague of aphids wiped out Morocco’s indigenous vines in the 19th century, but the French protectorate re-planted the country with Mediterranean varieties in the 20th century.
Now the Moroccan vineyards are coping with global warming, despite dire predictions from northern winemakers that wine producers in southern areas will not be able to continue with hotter weather.
During the colonial period, Morocco sent some 300 million bottles worth of wine to France in bulk. The abundant sunlight here produced sweeter grapes and stronger wine, which was used to boost the alcohol content of French-made vintages. “This was what we called ‘medicine wine,’” Dehut said.
But after the treaty of Rome banned the selling of such blended wine in 1957, the industry in Morocco was left on its own. And religious conservatives here would prefer to see it fade into history. A member of parliament from the wine-producing city of Meknes, Aboubakr Belkoura, said he’d like to see the region switch over to producing olives.
“To produce wine for export isn’t a problem, but what’s produced is consumed in large part by Moroccan Muslims,” said Belkoura, who is a member of the Islamist Party of Justice and Development.
“If we are a country of laws, we should respect the law,” he said. “What’s forbidden should be forbidden.”
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