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 Filed as : Regional Spotlight~ Rest of World

Wine And Revolution

Apr 11, 2011
Wine And Revolution
Tunisia has much to teach the rest of the world about life and wine.

tunisian_wineA few things we generally accept as truth: Muslims don't consume alcohol; Muslims and Jews can't live peacefully in one place; and South Africa is the only country on that continent that makes tasty wine.

All false--at least so far as Tunisia is concerned.

While your knowledge of Tunisia may be limited to its being one of the early hotspots--along with Egypt--in a recent series of revolutions and popular uprisings, there's much more worth learning about this inverted-teardrop-shaped strip of land nestled between Algeria and Libya. For example, did you know that this corner of the world has made wine since the days Hannibal first set out to conquer Rome? Wine is still firmly ingrained in everyday Tunisian life, even with its largely Muslim population.

Recently, we met Philippe-Andre Boujnah, whose family owns Le Poisson Wines in Tunisia (poisson is the French word for fish, a symbol of good luck in Tunisia). The winery makes several different blends and styles, and a few of its selections--including a very tasty Provence-style rosé for about $10--are soon to arrive on U.S. shores.

Boujnah set us straight about several things Tunisian: That it's a secular country; that his Jewish family, like Muslims in the country, are Tunisian first and foremost--religion comes second; and that the largely peaceful overthrow of the government could have been much, much worse.

Read on for our full interview with Boujnah to learn about this fascinating country's wine history--as well as get an up-close look at the revolution sweeping through North Africa and the Middle East. You might even develop a taste for Tunisian wines.

Bottlenotes: Tell us a little about Tunisia's winemaking history. What do you tell people who are surprised to hear that wine is made there?

Philippe-Andre Boujnah: I start by saying that yes, there is wine in Tunisia, and it's been part of the culture for quite a while now--especially since it was a French colony. When a lot of the French came in the late 19th century, they brought with them vines and grapes to plant, and to make wines that they could blend with their own French wines or start viticulture in Tunisia. It kind of stayed after Tunisia got its independence. Originally they planted grapes like Cinsault and Carignan, which are nice grapes, but they're more used for blending or a base for rosé. That stayed and a lot of noble varieties were introduced after independence, especially in the '60s. So now you have all the varieties you can think of, similar to the Rhône valley. And there are a lot of Italian varieties like Sangiovese.

That's pretty much it in terms of what's been happening the past 100 years. But before that, wine was kind of invented around Tunisia. Two thousand or 3,000 years ago, the Phoenicians and Carthaginians were making wine in Tunisia. Even though it can be considered New World since it's new to the U.S., it's still Old World because it's kind of where the origins of wine are. Not Tunisia specifically, but just that region.

What are some of the main differences between the seven different winegrowing regions in Tunisia?
They're not extremely different. You have three main differences: You have the coastal region on the peninsula which has a lot of vineyards--it's a bit more even soil, rocky, a little flat. But still fertile with a lot of different varieties. And then more inland are hills and valleys and more alluvial soils. You have a little bit of altitude and some vineyards at lower levels. I think Tunisia is where you can make a lot of good wine, but it would be presumptuous to try and make great wine--though some of ours and those of our competitors are very, very good. It's not a place that can really be recognized by a terroir, so to speak. It's more about the blends, the rosé--it's more about simple, clean wine. You're not going to be able to have your heavy, Rioja-type of wine from Tunisia. It doesn't have that type of soil or the labor that comes with creating wine like that.

Is wine a part of everyday life for Tunisians, much the way that is for the French? Absolutely. Unless someone is extremely religious and doesn't drink--maybe some older men after they go to Mecca, after they do the Hajj and they cleanse, they stop drinking alcohol. But most people are not very religious at all in Tunisia. It's quite secular and people enjoy wine on a daily basis. People get together at a friend's house and drink a few bottles of wine. The fishermen drink at sea--it's part of their culture.

You're not really allowed to drink in public. In the cafes where you drink coffee and smoke hookah pipes, they don't sell alcohol. And the supermarkets don't sell alcohol on Fridays. But aside from that, every restaurant has and promotes Tunisian wine.

Tell us about how your family came to own a winery in Tunisia.
My father is an entrepreneur, and he was always a businessman looking for the next thing. He started out as an engineer and then did film distribution and production. He also had a pasta factory, and even owned a hair salon at a time. In 1985 he had been working with this winery, and they were selling it. It was a 100-year-old winery at the time, started in 1885 by a French colonist. His sons and grandsons who inherited the winery had kept making wine, but the wine they were famous for was not doing that well, and became known as the peasant wine of Tunisia. It was known as not being very good and being cheap--but it still sold a lot.

My father and some entrepreneurs formed a group and bought the business to try and rebuild it, then sell it off. But my father became passionate about it and decided to keep it. He got a new enologist and restructured the company and, in doing so, he ended up making really good wine. The wine that was infamous as the cheap wine of Tunisia, even though the price didn't change that much, it ended up being a very good wine. He just made sure that the wines became consistent year after year. He just kind of stuck to it. Now it's really his main business, and we are the number-one private winemakers in Tunisia.

We didn't have vineyards, since most of the farmers belong to co-ops. We just worked in a very sustainable way with farmers to select the best grapes we could from them. We buy the grapes and bring them in. Most of the wine is fresh, so it's year to year--we don't sell it three years down the road.

But now we [do own] some land...not just to plant some vineyards but also oats, wheat and citrus. That's a new project that's been happening. Hopefully our own vineyards will be ready in a few years, and maybe we'll do a reserve wine.

Your family is Jewish, but apparently that's not a problem in Tunisia?
It's never been a problem. It was at different points of history, the latest being the '60s, when my grandparents left the country. And, of course, after World War II. There were moments of exodus, then it was a generational thing. For example, I'm first-generation Tunisian, but my family could send me to America for schooling. But what happens is most people who do that don't come back to Tunisia--including me. [Ed. note: Boujnah is based in New York.] As soon as the older generations would have kids, they would go to school in France and then stay in France. That's an issue in a lot of developing countries: Those who can afford to leave for a better education do so, and then instead of coming back to help the country, they stay where they are. Hopefully the opposite will start happening because the life is good, and you don't have to deal with corruption or extremely low pay. Those are the main issues why a lot of the Jews left, but also probably a lot of them did associate with the French while they were here. The French gave them the chance to be French nationals during the early 1900s, and a lot of them did opt for that.

[But] it's never been a problem in terms of living over there. I've never felt threatened as a Jew. I've felt more threatened more from being white with blue eyes, but then they hear me speak Tunisian or Arabic.

In terms of the winemaking business, there are a couple other Jewish winemakers [in Tunisia]. My father never left Tunisia, but some others live in Paris or south of France. It's a Last of the Mohicans type of situation. There aren't many Jews left doing what he's doing.

Talk a little about the revolution. What were things like for your family and for the winery?
My family just tried to stay out of trouble. A lot of it was very frightening. But in the end, my father's choice to stay was that he couldn't lose face in front of his employees. The type of people leading the revolution were young, educated and hardworking, and some of his employees were definitely part of that revolution. Had he left the country out of fear, it wouldn't have been a good thing for the people he works with and deals with.

Some damage did come: The offices got destroyed, the computers were taken, and they tried to set fire to the roof, and they took all the bottles of wine that were in cases. But it was collateral damage. The revolutionaries weren't targeting the elite in Tunisia, but a very specific family--namely the president's. There was a lot of solidarity right from the start. It was a very peaceful revolution. People didn't feel threatened until the president actually did flee the country; he left because the army generals defied their command, which was to shoot at the demonstrators. [The president] left behind his presidential guard, sort of the secret police of the president--they were licensed to kill, above the law. Because they were threatened that if they were found in Tunisia they would be arrested or killed, they started acting as mercenaries and started causing as much as chaos as possible. They put on ski masks and stole police cars and ambulances, did drive-by shootings and would terrorize people in their homes. But eventually the army and the solidarity between the people and the army--people were guarding their own neighborhoods and would call the army when they saw suspects, and the army would send helicopters and Jeeps, and little by little were able to arrest what was left behind of the regime.

The revolution started with a frustrated fruit vendor who couldn't do business due to excessive government corruption. So, will things be different, now, for a winery such as yours?
Not that much. The revolutionary mobs destroyed things that belonged to the presidential family. [My father] never had to deal with corruption so much, it was that [the president's family] owned the businesses that bought his wine. A lot of the customers were associated with that corrupt, mafia family that owned more than 50% of the country. So if my father sold wine to a supermarket, it was owned by a nephew or a brother-in-law of the president. But that's because they owned everything. And some of those businesses were burned to the ground or don't have owners. That just says something about his revolution, and how efficient it was. It just got rid of the bad seeds, and all the good seeds are trying to form something that's a real democracy. Because of the confusion it might lead to a political party people aren't happy with, but not any kind of dictatorship.

Your family makes several million bottles of wine a year in a Muslim country. So, it's fair to say that most stereotypes about Muslims and alcohol aren't true?
They absolutely are not true. Tunisia has always been a very secular, forward-thinking country. Women are judges, lawyers and ministers in the government. Of course women drive, go to the beach, wear bathing suits.

You can't compare the Middle East and North Africa. The types of the things that the Saudis and Kuwaitis wear, you'd never see a North African wear something like that. If they dress traditional, it's more Bedouin.

Tunisia sells 30-40 million bottles of wine a year, 80% of it in the country, and there are only 10 million people in Tunisia--so obviously they drink wine. And there's great beer there, too. Morocco has a great wine culture. Lebanon and Turkey have great wine, too. Just because it's a Muslim country doesn't mean they don't enjoy the finer things in life.

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Apr 11, 2011
I was unaware of the wine in Tunsia but I can tell you that Morocco has some very good dry red wines grown in the Berber highlands. Yet another example of a muslim country with a long and strong wine tradition.

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