Image: Omar Zayou
Alfred de Montesquiou
Omar Zayou, cellar master at the Chateau Roslane near Meknes in northern Morocco, holds a bottle of the winery's new Moroccan-made champagne, Sunday, March 8.
updated 4/5/2009 6:41:32 PM ET 2009-04-05T22:41:32

The gently rolling hills planted thick with vineyards are an unlikely sight for a Muslim country partly set 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 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 (5,189 acres) of vineyards, bottling anything from entry-level table wine to homemade champagne and even a high-end claret, Chateau Roslane, aged in a vaulted cellar packed with oak barrels imported from France. The winery now dwarfs virtually any other producer in Europe.

Sold to non-Muslim tourists
On paper, wine is "Haram," or forbidden to Muslims. But Bouchaara said the firm's distribution is all 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 (a quarter of a gallon) of wine per person each year, and the Moroccan state itself is the largest owner of the country's 12,000 hectares (29,652 acres) of vineyards.

The paradox illustrates Morocco's delicate balancing act.

The fast-modernizing country thrives on tourism and trade with Europe, but its people remain deeply conservative. The country'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 one of the country's richest people. His group employs 6,500 people, nearly all of them Muslim, and revenues rose to $225 million 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 include the new Moroccan champagne and plans to build a luxury hotel offering the country's first "vinotherapy" spa resort, with health care creams and baths based on grape products.

Wine festival prompts protests
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.

Elected in 2003, Belkora was removed this past January by the Interior Ministry because of allegations of mismanagement and graft. He denies the accusations, saying they were politically motivated. Belkora doesn't think he was punished because of the wine festival, but views authorities as wary of the Islamists' growing political clout.

"They don't want us to be too successful," he contended, noting that the administration picked his replacement from outside Islamist ranks.

The ex-mayor said that "for religious reasons," he uprooted about 100 hectares (247 acres) of vineyards from his own fields but has no qualms with others making or drinking wine.

"There has always been an acceptance in Morocco, for wine, for homosexuality... you just don't need to advertise it," he said in an interview.

Others find there is some hypocrisy to the practice.

Police 'never look inside the glass'
Hassan, a restaurant manager, who did not provide his last name, 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 served wine in tinted glasses, kept bottles out of sight, and told 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.

Alcohol is completely forbidden in hardline Iran or Saudi Arabia. In Sudan, offenders regularly get sentenced to lashings in court. Even in nearby Algeria, another large wine producer, alcohol consumption is fast shrinking to just the capital and a few exclusive tourist resorts.

Within Morocco's more favorable context, the Celliers winery sells 27 million bottles per year, mostly in Morocco. Two million bottles head to Europe or the United States. The firm is planting another 800 hectares (1,977 acres) 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 during French colonial era
Winemaking soared during the French colonial era, which lasted over 50 years until the country's independence in 1956.

By then, hundreds of vineyards planted with French vines — mostly centered on the sunny plateau around Meknes in northern Morocco — churned out some 300 million hectoliters (7.9 billion gallons) each year.

Grapes produce more sugar, hence more alcohol, when they get more sun. So Morocco's hefty African wines were known as "medicine spirits" because they were often used to boost the strength of better-known domains in colder climates.

When the European Union banned blending wine from elsewhere to its production, Morocco turned to creating its own labels. The king offered land at a bargain price to foreign wine growers, and Zniber, a Moroccan, created his own empire — tax free because Morocco has frozen taxation on agriculture until 2010.

Most of the group's dozen brands are cheap wines sold inside the country. But the Celliers also heavily invested in improving quality, conducting private research since Morocco's Agriculture Ministry won't sponsor studies on a near-forbidden product. The chief oenologist, a Moroccan, has nearly free reign to try out new techniques and grape varieties in the factory-like winery packed with stainless-steel vaults.

"Our top-end domain is now comparable to a good Bordeaux," said Dehut, referring to the famous red wines from southwestern France.

The comparison doesn't end there, with Zniber masterminding the creation of local wine "appellations," like in France, and proudly displaying Morocco's first self-styled "Chateau" — in practice a cathedral-sized concrete structure built as a winery in the 1920s.

State-of-the-art tasting lab
In the cellar under Chateau Roslane lie some 3,000 oak barrels to store and give tannins to the top red wines. The domain also counts a state-of-the-art tasting lab, landscaped gardens, reception halls lined with Moroccan carpets and artifacts, as well as a sampling room with a long oak table and leather chairs reminiscent of historic European mansions.

The underlying message seems clear: Morocco can take the best from Europe as well as from its own traditions.

"Many of my friends are astonished by the quality," said Dehut, popping open a bottle of the Celliers' new champagne-styled sparkly wine, "The Pearl of the South."

Still, the homemade champagne only sells in Morocco, meaning Muslims are most likely its largest buyers.

Copyright 2009 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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