The MEMERI Economic Blog – 12/10/2007
Wines from the Arab world are experiencing something of a renaissance, with production and turnover growing and quality constantly improving – despite opposition from Islamic conservatives. „There are three factors favorable to wine consumption: money, democracy and peace. Even if the Arab world doesn’t always have all three, conditions are slowly but surely becoming more favorable in the region,“ French wine expert Denis Dubourdieu told AFP.
After a long eclipse due to nationalizations, war and the European ban on „blended“ wines, the viniculture is now in full bloom in Algeria, Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon, Morocco, Tunisia and soon in Syria.
These countries have 80,000 hectares under vines, producing 1.3 million hectoliters – which translates to 146 million bottles.
And with a turnover of $340 million and nearly 50,000 people directly or indirectly employed in the sector, prospects are looking rosy.
The director general of one of Egypt’s largest wine-makers, Lebanese Andre Hadji-Thomas, smiles as he remembers his 1998 visit to the Gianaclis estate, put up for sale 30 years after its nationalization by then-President Gamal Abdel-Nasser: „After uncorking a bottle, the Egyptian wine-maker of the estate revealed to us that, despite 20 years in the profession, as a good Muslim he had never touched a drop of wine!“
Not surprisingly this epoch of Egyptian wine-making was dubbed „Chateau Migraine.“ In the past seven years, Egypt has doubled its production to a total today of 8.5 million bottles, three-quarters of which is drunk by tourists. „If the product continues to improve, and tourism keeps booming, we will double production in the next five years,“ Hadji-Thomas predicts.
In Syria, the nationalizations of the 1960s equally undermined wine production. But recently one businessman, Johnny Saade, planted a vast estate near the port of Latakia which will start producing wines in two years time. And in Homs, it is a Dutch priest who oversees production.
In Lebanon, 15 years of Civil War hindered the industry, but now the country has 18 vineyards, compared with three in 1990, when the conflict ended.
„Given the intensity of the competition, our producers are banking on excellence, and our wines win awards worldwide,“ says Charles Ghostine, the chief executive of the Ksara vineyard, now celebrating its 150th birthday.
This would seem to have been a wise decision: With an output of just 7 million bottles, turnover in 2007 was up by 10 percent at $27 million, and exports stand at 40 percent.
War also affected pedigree-wine production in Jordan. After the Israeli occupation of the West Bank in 1967, and with it the loss of two Christian monastic orders at Cremisian and Latroun whose vines were tended to by Salesian and Trappist monks, new vineyards had to be set up north of Amman.
Their 2,000 hectoliters of Eagle and Zumot wines then found an unexpected market in the 1990s, as the Iraqis tried to get around the international embargo. Today, the Saint George brand still finds buyers among the Gulf monarchies, where wine is officially banned.
In the Maghreb, decolonization and the then-European Community’s ban on blended wines at the end of the 1950s dealt a fatal blow to wine production, notably in Algeria, which was once the world’s fourth-largest wine producer, at 18 million hectoliters.
These days, the Oran Province in Algeria, the Nabeul region of Tunisia and that of Meknes in Morocco produce the majority of Arab wine – with 13 million hectares and around 15 „appellations controlees“ (a designated quality mark), of which 20 percent are exported to Europe.
„It’s important to battle against the prejudices that surround Arab wines. Too many people still believe it’s like in colonial days when tankers full of mixed wines sailed across the Mediterranean to top up European wines,“ says Jean-Pierre Dehut, export director with Morocco’s largest wine producer, Cellars of Meknes.
This new gusto for wine alarms Islamists. In Morocco, their parliamentarians have suggested heavy taxes on alcoholic drinks and in Egypt, every year; the Muslim Brotherhood put forward proposals to ban wine… in vain.
The Daily Star, Lebanon, December 7, 2007