In present-day Tunisia, as throughout the Maghreb, the vine has been cultivated since ancient times. Yet, the Tunisian vineyard returns very strong after a long eventful period. Let's discover a viticulture where today seductive wine routes and new wine estates are flourishing, oh so promisingly. Tunisian wine seems to be better than ever, to our greatest happiness.
Phoenicians, Carthaginians, Romans, Byzantines: these people have always cultivated the vine in Tunisia, a country bathed in an ancient wine tradition. However, the arrival of Muslim power, from the seventh century caused the wine culture in the country to almost disappear for more than 1000 years.
It was not until 1881, with the establishment of the French protectorate of Tunisia, that the production of wine was finally revived(1). The independence of Tunisia in 1956 could also have been a definite end to the wine industry. It was not the case : viticulture has certainly diminished, but never ceased to exist.
And after a strong monopolistic period of the state, in the years 1980-1990, when the Central union of the wine cooperatives (UCCV) controlled more than 85% of the market, the years 1990-2000 were the theater of a radical change, with a new qualitative policy : the injection of capital, foreign investors (private partnerships), the modernization of infrastructure, and especially, the creation of delicious premium wines, which won medals in international competitions and restored the vine blazon of Tunisia. The renaissance of the Tunisian vineyard is underway, and it seems unstoppable.
We discovered with wonder Neferis estate, created in 2000 in Grombalia, in the governorate of Nabeul.
With a first vintage released in 2002, Neferis is one of those unmissable vineyards in Tunisia, which has managed to bring some old state vineyards, neglected in the 1990s, but with real potential, up to date.
The vines, which grow at 300 meters above sea level, are nestled in the valley of Khanguet Hojjej, where it enjoys fresh sea breezes offering an ideal climate for the growth of the plant. With 135 hectares of Carignan, Syrah, Merlot, Grenache, Marselan, Chardonnay, Viognier and Pedro Ximenez, Neferis estate produces very nice wines in AOC Sidi Salem, one of the seven appellations of origin of the country(2). There is also a very interesting production of olive oil.
We visited the outdoor winemaking unit, which with its state-of-the-art integrated cooling system, allows the production of 1.3 million bottles per year. Impressive. "Neferis is the ancient name of the valley, where Rome won Carthage 2,500 years ago", Ridha Charrada, the General Manager said. Adding : "Carthage was the granary of Rome, but also its cellar". All a symbol.
The estate's red wines, such as the 90-year-old vines Carignan aged for 18 months in barrels, goes very well with the spicy local cuisine.
As with the superb fish couscous!
In northwestern Tunisia, on the slopes of the Medjerda, the only river in the country Shadrapa estate is located. A pretty vineyard of 240 hectares, mainly planted with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Grenache Gris, Cinsault, Syrah and Chardonnay, which takes its name from the Phoenician god Shadrapa, the god of doctors, fertility and wine.
We were welcomed by Pilar Rodrigo Monzon, the Director of the estate, for a very exciting visit. "Tunisia has an extraordinary viticultural potential, with its silty clay-limestone soils and its Mediterranean climate", she told us, with stars in her eyes.
Created in 2004, in the same place where, according to the historians, the first French vineyard was planted in 1879, in the framework of a Franco-Tunisian partnership, the estate adjoins the superb village of Dougga, a World Heritage Site. Shadrapa estate is also home to a farm where sheep and cows are bred. A beautiful place, to be visited urgently!
The estate's rosé wines, mainly made from the Grenache grape variety, are delicious, producing refreshing and very precise wines. We loved these wines ! "70% of Tunisian wines are rosé wines", Pilar explained. A strong trend, which is partly explained by the sale of wine on the coast, in tourist restaurants, also confirmed by Bir-Drassen, a domain founded in 1932, whose old cellars still testify of the beautiful Tunisian wine tradition.
The country is rich in history and is full of many local products : Sejnane white truffles, Al Alaâ barbaric figs, Bouficha snails, Kebili olive oil, Smen negua (camel salted butter), Ben Glada turnips or eels from Lake Tunis...
Only a wine route was missing in order to combine the tasting of the best Tunisian wines and the discovery of the local heritage. It is now done, since March 7th 2018, with the creation of a new tourist wine route, the result of an Italian-Tunisian cooperation and supported by the European Union.
The originality of this trip lies in its cross-border nature between Tunisia and Sicily, which share a certain heritage. Following the footsteps of the father of viticulture in Tunisia, the agronomist Magon(3), the wine route stretches from the north-east of the country, from the suburbs of Tunis, to the wine region of Mornag (the largest of the seven AOC of the country), mixing archaeological sites and vineyards, all marked by well-designed and informative signage.
A beautiful way to discover the charms of Tunisia.
Thank you to Neferis, Shadrapa and Bir Drassen estates for their warm welcome. Thank you to Roberto Antonetti, President of ARTECH for his precious help in our search for vineyards in Tunisia.
(1) At the time, a large part of the wines produced in Tunisia were sent in bulk to France, to be blended with the local production and bottled under French labels, necessitated by a shortage of wine caused by Phylloxera ?
(2) The Tunisian vineyard has seven AOCs, 20% of which are labeled Premier Cru : AOC Grand Cru Mornag and Grand Mornag, 40 kilometers south of Tunis, AOC Thibar, in the governorate of Beja. AOC Coteaux d'Utique, north of Tunis, AOC Tebourba, in the regions of southern Tunis and Bizerte, AOC Sidi Salem, south of Tunis, and AOC Kelibia, in the governorate of Nabeul.
(3) The agronomist Magon, a Carthaginian of the second century BC J.-C., wrote the Encyclopédie agricole, in 28 books, which was one of the most important sources on the subject for several centuries. Wine practices noted in its agronomy treaty are still in use today.