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D - 9: Wines from Langue d'Oc on Cap Bon

Updated: Mar 26, 2021

A few weeks ago, I wrote about local grapes in Sicily and Sardinia. Some of them have roots back to the time when Greek and Phoenician colonists arrived on the islands (around 800 BC). What a disappointment then to find only grapes we know in Tunisia. Syrah, Carignan, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Grenache and Merlot for reds - remember from our wine tours in 2016 around Avignon? Chardonnay and Muscadet for whites. How did this happen? Where did the variety of ancient times go?

Modern vineyards on Cap Bon, the peninsula to the east of Carthage

Carthage had a long and distinguished tradition in wine making. It is not only documented in many letters from Roman travelers but also in mosaics found over time in the area. The number of scenes with reference to growing grapes, making wine or the God of Wine Bacchus are many-fold. Due to the arid climate, they are well preserved and allow us to get a good insight into the Roman wine culture. The wines were often “spiced” and blended with honey or raisin for the rich upper class. For the lower classes it was diluted to the point where it tasted more like vinegar. These wines were not comparable to the ones we drink today. Keeping them in amphorae was necessary to ship them to the rest of the Empire but it also exposed them to more oxidation than we think today is acceptable. The high sugar or raisin content slowed the oxidation down but did not fully stop it. It would be fun to visit a Roman tavern by time travel. I guess we would return every carafe served with the comment “the wine is corked” and then see the waiter wondering “what is a cork?” Ha! Things were different 2’000 years ago.

The triumph of Bacchus – have a look at the cats drawing his chariots! That is way cooler than owning a Jag!

The arrival of the Arabs by the end of the 7th century AD in Tunisia finished the wine business. Muslims were of course not allowed to drink but that was not the cause. For the first few hundred years they made no effort in converting the local Christian population. It was the collapse of the long-distance trading in the Mediterranean that finished the wine production off. Not only were the export markets gone, the local towns shrank by factor four or were deserted altogether. There were simply no buyers anymore. The wine tradition survived for a while in a few Christian monasteries (you need red wine for Mass) but over time these places withered away as the population converted slowly to Islam. Christians paid taxes. Muslim did not. For more than 1’200 years, there was no wine production in Tunisia. The Ottoman Empire which took Tunisia under its wings in the 16th century made wine production even illegal.

It was re-introduced when Tunisia became a French protectorate in 1881. Paris used the excuse of Tunisia’s default on external debt to invade and “liberate” the country from Ottoman rule. Rather quickly, the French Republic invited Europeans and gave them land on which they re-started the wine business. With French grapes of course. Luckily the flow of European settlers never reached the extent it did in Algeria. This saved Tunisia from a lot of future troubles. The country remained a kingdom protected by France. It did not become a fully integrated colony The wine production was for the French market. It was affordable, mass produced table wine.

Wines from Tunisia

Today, Tunisia has 14’000 hectares of vineyards and is smack in the middle between Corsica with 8’000 hectares and Sardinia with 20’000. It produces about 40 million liters of wine, two thirds are Rosés. Roughly half is consumed by the tourists who come mostly from Europe, the rest exported to the European Union. Most recently trials started to launch new, heavier red wines like the Langue D’Oc wines. Given climate, soil and grapes there is no reason why this should not succeed..

As I said, I never had any wine from Tunisia thus cannot recommend any. But I now know enough to make some educated guesses when putting the wine list for week 4 together. We will definitely wait with stocking until we arrived in Tabarka in Tunisia. Am specifically interested in the new reds!

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