- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 8, 2009

MEKNES, Morocco | 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 more than 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 cultivates 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.

On paper, wine is “haram,” or forbidden to Muslims. But Mr. Bouchaara said the firm's distribution is all legal because 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 (about a quart) of wine per person each year, and the Moroccan state itself is the largest owner of the country's 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 thought 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 nearly $340 million last year. Its three biggest sources of income are wine production with the Celliers de Meknes, hard liquor imports and Coca-Cola bottling.

Mr. 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.

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, Mr. Belkora was removed in January by the Interior Ministry because of allegations of mismanagement and graft. He denies the accusations, saying they were politically motivated.

Mr. 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 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 … you just don't need to advertise it,” he said.

Others find there is some hypocrisy to the practice.

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 hard-line Iran and 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.

Morocco's 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 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 Mr. 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 soared during the French colonial era, which lasted more than 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 about 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 Celliers' Mr. 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.

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

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