Tunisian wines: The revival of an ancient vineyard

In this Muslim country where, paradoxically, wine culture has been going on since antiquity, this sector is a nugget for the economy. Especially since the wines have never been so good as today.

The jasmine revolution, this first Arab spring that swept the dictatorship of Ben Ali, will it redefine the relations between politics and viticulture Tunisian? Just as in the other Maghreb countries, wine is prohibited by the Muslim religion but entered the customs of the people; schizophrenia that dates back to the colonial period, where French and Italian winemakers revived a mass wine production, medical wines to improve blends with European wines then devastated by phylloxera. This resulted in table wines which, since the independence of Tunisia, have not recovered from the loss of these supplies.

It must be said that in the Maghreb, and especially in present-day Tunisia, the vine reigns since ancient times. Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, and Byzantines have always cultivated it. The Carthaginian Magon, the father of a famous agronomy treaty, continues to be celebrated through labels in his memory, symbol of the revival of Tunisian wines. Because this viticulture comes back from far!

Wine in Tunisia, an important economic sector

Collectivization, management by a state office, flight of European winemakers, mass production, Tunisian wine sank into mediocrity. The 90s will change everything, with a new qualitative policy, the injection of capital, the modernization of production tools, and the arrival of foreign investors through private partnerships, but especially the creation of high-end cuvées that win medals in international competitions.

The wines are consumed by 70% in Tunisia, by the tourists but also by the local population. The sudden drop in tourist numbers, attacks by Salafists who want to ban this liquid haram (sin), sacking groceries selling wine, attempts to hand-put the brief Islamic Ministry of Agriculture on the Vignerons de Carthage’s production tool, though of private law, was not made to clarify the future. But at a time when the wines have never been so good, the recent democratic shift is timely to crown the efforts.

With the departure of Islamists from power, there are grounds for hope. Viticulture is an important economic sector, with a mine of jobs and especially a source of taxes to bail out the coffers of a state in difficulty, pragmatism should prevail. Taxes are constantly increasing (VAT, consumption duty, exceptional rights on sparkling wines), which does not yet repel customers of supermarkets where all production is exposed, a free sale that disappears only in the period of Ramadan. With the adoption of the new constitution and the closure of the Islamist parenthesis, then the gradual return of tourists, Tunisia is moving towards more democracy and tolerance. The wine should be comforted.

THE TASTING OF TUNISIAN WINES

1 > THE CARTHAGE WINE GROWERS (UCCV)
Created in 1948, this union of nine cooperative wineries represents two-thirds of the national production. It is today a group at the forefront of viticultural and winemaking techniques, under the impulse of Belgacem D’Khili, oenologist engineer of Agro de Montpellier, the craftsman of a great success. Rehabilitation of the vineyard, the introduction of modern methods and efficient equipment, traceability, ISO certification, we are here in the 21st century. In addition to the production of its members, this union has areas such as Magon and Royal Azur (partnerships with the German group Langulht which initiated the introduction of pinot noir), Queen Elissa (with five partners including the Belgian Pierre Degroote) or Clupea. The cellar La Fontaine aux Mille Amphores is a former production unit of the colonial era, restored as a visit and tasting center, as well as a breeding ground for the great red wines and the brand new sparkling wine. A true testimony to the practices of the past in a site dedicated to wine tourism. The law, unfortunately, prohibits the sale of private individuals.

The wines of the domain:

M Brut 2011
The mousse is fine, the nose favors citrus, lemon, peach. Bright and fruity on a rather light background, a good aperitif wine. 
Rating: 13/20 
Price: 25-30 €

Muscat dry of Kelibia 2012
An aromatic characteristic of Muscat but without excess, rather on finesse, with rose, notes of exotic fruits, orange blossom. Light and cheerful mouth, refreshed by an almond spike. 
Rating: 14/20 
Price: 5 €

Domain Clipea AOC Mornag Chardonnay 2012
White fruit, smoky notes, hazelnut. Round and well-balanced mouth. 
Rating: 13/20 
Price: € 5

AOC Mornag Gris of Hammamet 2012
Grenache and Syrah. A light coral dress; a fruity and raspberry nose, with a grilled touch; the mouth is round, with fat, a lack of tone. 
Rating: 12/20 
Price: 5,50 €

AOC Mornag Vieux Magon red 2008
Syrah and Merlot, aged for 12 months in barrels. A nose of leather, licorice, black fruits, prunes, with a structured mouth, spicy tannins by a well-integrated woody. Good length. 
Rating: 15/20 
Price: 9 €

The Domains of Carthage Pinot black 2011
A nice fruity, on the black cherry, with small spices, minty notes. Full, velvety mouth with freshness and melted tannins. A very seductive success. 
Rating: 16/20 
Price: 6 €

AOC 1st Pet Coteaux of Tebourba Clos Lansarine 2007
Grenache, Carignan et Syrah, was raised 6 months ago in foutts. A pickled joli, with notes of figue, a discreet boise, of small spices. Bouche pleine et puissante, with fruit, from tannins grillés et arrondis. At point. 
Note: 15/20 
Prix: € 10

AOC Mornag Grand Cru Domaine Queen Elissa Château Elissa 2008
Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. Beautiful black fruit, pepper, licorice, around and relaxed mouth, grilled fruit, spicy tannins. Good expressive length. 
Rating: 16/20 
Price: 8 €

2 > DOMAIN NEFERIS
This is the Italian leg that defines the style. The former colonial estate of the Rosières family – the buildings date back to 1893 – whose grapes went into a cooperative was taken over by Calatrasi, a Sicilian winery, in partnership with a Tunisian agricultural development company. With the advice of technicians Calatrasi, it’s a young Tunisian, Samia Belali, who is in charge of the field of 220 ha planted carignan, syrah, chardonnay, viognier, and Pedro Ximenez, after a start by Australian oenologists. The vineyard is nestled in a beautiful amphitheater, under the influence of refreshing sea breezes. After restructuring the vineyard, construction of an outdoor winemaking unit, the estate has taken its cruising pace since the first harvest in 2000. An experimental solar system provides air conditioning and cooling of musts. All wines are Sidi Salem appellation, they are unfortunately not yet imported into France.

The wines of the domain:

White Selian 1st Cru 2012
Chardonnay and Pedro Ximenez. Aromatic expression rather fine, with white fruit, a floral touch, grapefruit. Round mouth, very fruity, tonic and expressive finish, clean and well balanced. Rather successful. 
Rating: 14/20 
Price: 6 €

Beautiful white 2011
Chardonnay and Muscat. Very aromatic, with a musky note of rose and melon, an equally expressive mouth, roundness. A little final bitterness compensates for the lack of nervousness. 
Rating: 13/20 
Price: 7 €

Rosé Selian 2012
This is a rosé of modern style, rather attractive. 
Rating: 14/20 
Price: 6 €

Carignan 2010
Old vines, aging 70% in barrels of wine for 8 months, the rest in vats. A nose of leather, tobacco, black fruits candied, and grilled. Rich palate, the woody is well integrated, with velvety tannins, spicy and peppery. 
Rating: 15/20 
Price: 6 €

Carignan 1er cru Réserve 2007 
100% new oak barrels. A very vanilla nose, on roasted black fruits. Structured mouth, with bold, powerful and spicy tannins, still marked by the barrel, a slightly dry finish. 
Rating: 15/20 
Price: 9 €

Beautiful red 2008
Eucalyptus, ripe cassis, licorice. Round and melted mouth, generous, with aromatic tannins, a well-opened finish. Nice expressive wine. 
Rating: 16/20 
Price: 9 €

Domain Neferis
Late harvest of syrah and carignan. A style reminiscent of the Amarone of Valpolicella, with fig, roasted grapes, and raspberry jam. Opulent and velvety mouth, with peppery tannins, coated with a well-balanced sweetness. An original wine, to open on a game. 
Rating: 17/20 
Price: 25 €

3> DOMAIN KURUBIS
Located on slopes overlooking the sea near Korba, in the AOC Mornag, the Kurubi terroir is made of sandy and sandy soils, 22 hectares, planted with Syrah, Merlot, Mourvèdre, Chardonnay and Muscat, in a microclimate refreshed by the sea winds. It is a French viticulturist of Diois, Didier Cornillon, who has joined here with a Tunisian family involved in viticulture for several generations. The vineyard is worked, the harvest is manual, the grapes are cooled before fermentation, the cellar is fully thermoregulated. The first vintage released: 2005.

The wines of the domain:
K from Kurubis 

Chardonnay. An effervescent that reflects the expertise of Didier Cornillon, with a fine mousse, fine floral notes, brightened by brioche, a light, and aromatic mouth. 
Rating: 14/20 
Price: 25-30 €

Rosé Soltane 2012
Syrah, Merlot, and Mourvèdre. Aromatic, on fresh red fruit, with a supple, open mouth. 
Rating: 12/20 
Price: 5-6 €

White soltane 2012
Muscat dry. The nose on citrus zests, rose water; aromatic mouth, supple, a little tense in the finish. Good aperitif. 
Rating: 13/20 
Price: 6 €

White Kurubis 2012
Chardonnay, 10 months old undergrowth. Smoky and honeyed notes, with white flowers, very ripe white fruit, buttered notes. Round mouth, still marked by the woody, a honeyed, and grilled finish. 
Rating: 13/20 
Price: 8 €

Red Soltane 2010
70% Merlot, 30% Syrah, partially matured in barrels. Nose licorice, black fruit, menthol notes. Mouth well built, with a discreet oak, finally softened on licorice and pepper tannins. 
Rating: 15/20 
Price: 6 €

Red Kurubis 2012
66% Syrah, 34% Mourvèdre, matured in barrels 10 months. The nose of tapenade, cachou, grilled black fruit, intense toasty notes. Powerful palate, with ripe and aromatic tannins, still woody, peppery finish. 
Rating: 16/20 
Price: 8 €

Kaprice 2011
Syrah, 12 to 14 months of barrels. Very licorice nose, black olive, pepper, candied blackcurrant. Concentrated mouth, tannic but velvety, suave, and spicy finish.
Note: 16/20 
Prix: € 12

Cuvée S 2006
Late harvest of muscatel, barely 800 bottles but a beautiful aromatic palette on the date, dry apricot, notes of sweet spices, cinnamon and saffron, orange blossom. Rich, voluptuous mouth, well balanced by a tonic acidity. 
Rating: 17/20 
Price: 15 €

4> DOMAINE SHADRAPA
An estate of the Castel empire, in association with a Tunisian brewery, which does not do in half measure. 250 ha of vines planted in 2004, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache Gris, and Chardonnay in the Medjerda hillside region. Under the guidance of oenologist Olivier Spillebout, manual harvesting, technical vinification, the wines present since the first vintage released (2010) a universalist style, well in the tradition of homemade products. The wines are well represented in Tunisian shelves and on local restaurant cards.

The wines of the domain:
White Vinum 2011 
Linden tree notes, white peach, exotic fruits; aromatic mouth with amandées notes, a little warm. 
Rating: 12/20 
Price: € 7.50

Phénicia white 2011
Chardonnay. A mature white fruit, slightly spicy, honey notes, round in the mouth, with fat, a slightly bitter finish that restores balance. 
Rating: 13/20 
Price: € 11

Domain Shadrapa white 2010
Chardonnay. Toasted nose and vanilla, marked by a wooded leaning; round and mature mouth, wrapped in this woody. The whole leans towards heaviness. 
Rating: 12/20 
Price: approx. $ 3.25

Red Vinum 2009
A roasted red fruit, with licorice notes. The palate is supple and generous, with round, peppery tannins. 
Rating: 13/20 
Price: € 7.50

Domain Phénicia red 2008
Cabernet and Merlot. The nose of cocoa, spices, grilled red fruits. The palate has structure, with fat, a finish on warm, and evolved notes. 
Rating: 14/20 
Price: € 11

Domaine Shadrapa red 2008
Very oaky, with vanilla notes supported, on a ripe fruity but masked. Rich, generous mouth, with tannins wrapped in wood, flattering. 
Rating: 13/20 
Price: approx. € 3.60

5> CAVES CEPTUNES
A Tunisian-Swiss producer who, since 2001, has been producing the very affordable Jour et Nuit series in three colors – wines of good quality for the price – and some more elaborate wines like Château Maria, Clos de Carthage, and the top Didona range. The grapes come from partnerships with local winemakers. The underground cellar is equipped with modern and efficient equipment.

The wines of the domain:
AOC Sidi Salem Didona white 2009 
Chardonnay, oak barrels. A nose weighed down by the oak, with ripe white fruit, spicy notes. The mouth is in the same line, ample and generous. 
Rating: 12/20 
Price: 7 €

THE TUNISIAN WINE IN FIGURES: Seven AOCs on the French model

The vineyard today occupies 14,000 hectares (17,000 in 2001), in decrease because the grubbing is not compensated; the production is 35,000 hl on average. The Tunisian wine law is modeled on the French model, with seven AOCs (Mornag, Grand Cru Mornag, Thibar, Coteaux d’Utica, Coteaux de Tebourba, Sidi Salem, Kelibia), mainly located around Cap Bon, Tunis and Bizerte, with soils mostly clay-limestone or sandy, climates tempered by the maritime influence. The labels are attributed with primary importance to the tasting that awards the distinction Premier Cru or Grand Cru. The grapes come from imports: carignan, grenache, mourvèdre, merlot, cabernet, syrah for the reds; Chardonnay, Muscat, Viognier, Sauvignon for the whites. Native grape varieties such as Razegui or Ahmar bou Ahmar, Turky, Bidh Hmem and Sakasly are rather table grapes. Per capita, wine consumption is 2.2 liters per year.

By Pierre Casamayor

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