The Mountain Times

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Vineyards in Africa face challenges in climate and culture

The continent of Africa has very little surface area suitable for wine-growing. Almost all is too hot or too humid to grow quality grapes with the exception of South Africa.

In the parts of Africa that lie in the Northern Hemisphere, the entire coast of the Mediterranean Sea is above the 30th parallel and, therefore at least theoretically, should be good wine growing territory. But the lack of water in these northern fringes of the Sahara Desert is problematic. While relatively little water is needed for grape growing, a basic supply is essential. Also a climatic hurdle is the absence of any significant maritime cooling as the Mediterranean does not get as cold as other oceans and the prevailing winds bring more hot inland air than cooling sea breezes.

Lastly, northern Africa is predominantly Muslim and the consumption of alcohol is doctrinally opposed and religiously not tolerated. (Ironically, the word alcohol originated from Arabic.)

However there are a number of wineries that produce wine for the local communities of Christians, as well as tourists or for export. The most active production is found in lands that were under French control in the early 20th century: Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia, collectively also known as the Maghreb. Libya is still strictly opposed to alcohol, and in Egypt despite a long history of wine making by the large Coptic Christian minority there is only a small wine industry in the Nile Delta under state control.

Algeria was a French overseas department until its independence in 1962 and during those times was a major source of basic table wine for France with a production of over 200 million cases of wine a year. But those days are gone and although Algeria remains the second largest wine producing country in Africa, its wines are rather marginal and barely a shadow of days past. With the Sahara and the forbidding Atlas Mountains inland to the south, the grape growing that is left is confined to the Mediterranean coast and northern mountain slopes where the climatic conditions are the least hot.

The majority of the wines are red and typically very high in alcohol with low acidity. All of the three countries in the Maghreb have the French appellation system still in place with several designated AOC or AOG regions. The top growing varieties for the area are Carignan, Grenache, Cinsault, and Muscat. While it might be hard to find a bottle of wine labeled 'Made in Algeria' there are still plenty of French blended wines that get a portion of their grapes from there.

Tagged: Wine Experiments, South Africa