When looking at all the great wine regions of the world, Tunisia is rarely among those included. Its location on the northern coast of Africa might strike you as making it too hot for wine production, and the fact that it’s a predominantly Muslim country might make you think that winemaking would be taboo. Neither of those assumptions are correct. Tunisia actually has a very long history of winemaking, dating back over 2000 years, and it continues to make over 40 million litres of wine each year. So what is Tunisian wine all about? And what does it taste like?
It might feel like a cliché, but I’m going to refer to the concept of ‘terroir’ when talking about Tunisian wine because I feel that one of these elements outweighs the others. Terroir is usually defined – most simply – as climate, soil and the human element. After a week exploring Tunisian wine country, I feel that the ‘human element’ – the people – are in fact the central pillar of Tunisian wine. In order to explain why, I’ll break down the anatomy of Tunisian winemaking:
Terroir element 1: Tunisia’s wine climate
The majority of Tunisia’s wine production is in Cap Bon, a north-eastern peninsula about 100km from the capital Tunis. It has a warm, Mediterranean climate with a maritime influence, similar to parts of Sicily. The winters are mild (average 10˚C) and the summers are pleasantly warm (average 28˚C) with the Mediterranean rainfall pattern of dry summers and rainfall in winter (on average 350mm per year).
This is all quite nice for grape growing. However Cap Bon and Tunisia do have one strange weather phenomenon – the Sirocco wind. It is rare, but it just so happens that we got lucky (or unlucky?) and experienced the Sirocco on our trip there in August. The Sirocco is a hot wind from the Sahara Desert which, when mild, simply acts like a hairdryer, giving a warm blast of dry heat that reduces any humidity in the grapes (there’s a small level of humidity there, especially near the coast). When it is a fierce Sirocco though, (which is what we experienced as you’ll see from the video below) it can shoot temperatures up to over 40˚C. The risk is that it will burn or dehydrate the grapes (or flowers depending on the season). Fortunately, a harsh Sirocco wind is rare.
Despite the Sirocco, Tunisia has a very pleasant climate for growing grapes. The only limiting factor is the heat, meaning Tunisia isn’t apt for very delicate varieties that need cool nights.
Visiting the vineyards of Domaine Neferis where they are harvesting Chardonnay and we can see a couple bunches affected by the Saharan Sirocco wind 🌬🍇
Posted by 80 Harvests on Wednesday, August 9, 2017
Terroir element 2: Tunisia’s soils
The soils of Cap Bon are a mixture of clay, sand and limestone-calcareous soils. These soils are perfectly suitable for vine-growing and allow good drainage for heavy rain but also maintain some of the moisture throughout the drought periods in the summer. While soils may well be the focus for some wine regions in the world – Champagne and Jerez, for example – it certainly isn’t the priority in Tunisia. Vineyards are rarely separated into soil parcels and soil studies aren’t particularly common. Viticulture is more focused on keeping plants healthy with the right balance of nutrients in the soils. Organic viticulture is possible, but not common.
Terroir element 3: Tunisia’s people
Tunisia has a long but turbulent history of winemaking, and I believe it is only the brave resolve of the wine producers that make wine a reality today. Winemaking in this area dates back to around 814 BC, in the Punic period, when Carthaginians lived in the region.
Ancient Carthage was known for its wine production and was in fact home to the world’s first documented viticulturist – Mago (or Magon). Mago was an agronomist who wrote a long guide to agronomy and viticultural practices in Ancient Carthage some time before 146BC. When the Romans sacked Carthage, they stole Mago’s book and took it to Rome, where it was translated from Punic to Greek and Latin versions, fragments of which still exist today. Mago’s book included advice on how to plant and prune vines, where to plant, according to the topography of the land (it was his suggestion to plant on north-facing slopes to protect vines from the heat of the African sun), and how to make wine. The Phoenicians and the work of Mago were instrumental in developing the Roman and Ancient Greek culture of winemaking, which spread across Europe some centuries later.
While the roots of viticulture run deep in Tunisia, its modern history was limited by the 1800 years of Muslim rule since 7 AD, which put a halt to winemaking – although never completely wiping it out – until 1881, when the French conquered Tunisia. Always game for a knees-up, the French occupation may have revived the wine industry at the time, but there were several hurdles through which wine producers still had to jump.
When the French left in 1956, they dropped their imports of Tunisian wine and the French experts returned back to France – leaving a void in knowledge and a glut of wine. The next fifty years were, to say the least, tumultuous, with dictatorships, revolutions and regime changes. However since the late 90s, Tunisia’s modern-day wine industry has been recovering its wine heritage and there are a few brave individuals who have invested in modern wineries and businesses.
Winemaking isn’t a money-spinner in Tunisia, at least not yet. So I was quite curious as to why the owners of wineries have these businesses and when I asked the owners of the two wineries we visited – Ceptunes and Neferis – their answer was the same. Out of passion for sharing good times and joy. It wasn’t necessarily a passion for pristine or terroir-driven wines, but rather for the enjoyment of wines, moments of sharing with your friends and family. Both families have other business endeavours and jobs which help them cover the expense of running their wineries, but they continue to champion wine in Tunisia because it gave them and all their loved ones pleasure. I believe is a very noble reason.
This generous attitude towards hospitality in Tunisia is my greatest takeaway from our visit. Everywhere we went, we were presented with plate after plate of food. Tunisia certainly has a foodie culture, but more than that, the people want to share their very best with their guests and give them as much pleasure as they can (which is, quite rightly, experienced through food and wine).
If I had to sum up my experience in Tunisian wine country in one word, it would be generosity. The wines, due to the warm climate and bountiful sunshine, are generous in both fruit flavours and alcohol, and the experience of drinking them in Tunisia with locals gives you a whole new concept of what generosity is.
Discovering Tunisia’s wine region – the video
Now you’ve read my impressions, come with us to Tunisia and discover the terroir yourself through our video visiting the wine region:
What to drink in Tunisia: Tunisian wines to try
Syrah is one of those grapes that can suit almost any climate, but it performs especially well in Mediterranean climates like that of Cap Bon. Rumour* has it that the French used to use North African Syrah to give a boost to their own wines. Tunisian Syrah is full-bodied with generous alcohol, plenty of bright and cooked black fruit notes, and it has smoother tannin structure, making it very easy to pair with food.
- Magnifique Syrah 2014: This simple Syrah is a bargain with lots of berry fruit notes, a soft, fleshy mouth feel and a bitter sweet cherry in the finish. Simple and pleasing.
This is one of the older varieties planted in Tunisia and therefore you’ll find older vines. Carignan is another of those Mediterranean varieties that can withstand the heat and maintain some acidity, which is why it performs particularly well in Tunisia.
- Selian 2013: With 36 months in barrels there’s plenty of barrel spice and perfume on the nose, but there’s also an intensity of fruit coming from the low-yielding (500kg/hectare), 80-year-old vines which deliver lots of dark berry fruit notes and a kick of spice and lively acidity. Decant this one so you can blow off a bit of the oak and see the wilder Carignan character underneath.
Red blends were certainly a highlight for me in Tunisia – the warm climate means that everything ripens (and sometimes overripens) and so the winemaker really benefits from being able to blend with different components. Some of my favourites included Syrah, Carignan and Touriga Nacional.
- Domaine Neferis 2008: This Carignan-Syrah blend is made in the style of Amarone where the grapes are dried for almost two months to gain concentration. The wine has a deep colour and an intense and perfumed nose with aromas of sultanas. There’s an evident sweetness but the wine has a real bite and tannin and is very full-bodied. Attractive, long finish. This is the sort of wine you should drink with dark chocolate, although we imbibed it over lunch with plenty of savoury Tunisian dishes too…
- Didona Mornag 2013: One of my favourite wines on the trip – a Syrah and Touriga Nacional blend with an inky character and meaty, dark fruit aromas. Lots of dark fruit and tannins that bite. Great food wine.
- Didona 2009: Given its age, you’d be surprised how much life is left in this Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon blend, which still feels young with pleasant acidity, abundant perfume and warm, Mediterranean fruit aromas. This was another stand-out wine this time because it was so silky and lively.
Dry Muscat and white blends
Most of the Muscat in Tunisia ends up as sweet wine, but I tasted some rather lovely dry Muscat wines that offered flirtatious floral and fruit aromas and had a rather pleasing aromatic simplicity on the finish. There is nothing complex about dry Muscat and it is usually vinified in stainless-steel tanks, but it offers a very enjoyable aperitif wine.
- Domaine Neferis Muscat-Chardonnay 2015: Sunshine in a glass – jasmine, tropical banana and preserved lemon aromas. This is an aromatic, light and attractive white wine.
Ceptunes Chardonnay 2016: This is a bright and simple Chardonnay with lots of white peach on the nose and a slight effervescence in the mouth. Fresh, attractive, easy-drinking white wine.
- Didona 2011: This is a blend of Chardonnay and Vermentino that has spent around 9 months in oak giving it a richness in the mouth. However there is still quite a bite to this wine and is has a lovely dry, fresh finish.
Ceptunes Muscat 2016: Picked slightly late, although vinified dry and with that trademark bitterness in the finish, this Muscat is profusely aromatic with notes of orangeblossom. Bright and aromatic, coming from 25-year-old vines.
Late harvest and raisin wine (drying the grapes after harvest) is an ancient technique used in Tunisia since the Carthaginians.
Tunisians love to drink rosé, and pink wine makes up over 65% of their production. Most of the red varieties grown make their way into a rosé wine and they range from lightly coloured Provence-style rosé, to fuller-bodied dark pink versions. There’s no lack of rosé to try in Tunisia, and fortunately it lends itself well to the diverse cuisine.
- Selian 2015: This darker coloured rosé has a deep cherry aroma with hints of aromatic honey on the nose. It is smooth and appealing.
- Petale de Rosé 2015: A blend of Syrah and Merlot, this is a pretty bottle to look at – a diamante-encrusted label and pale pink wine inside. The wine is just as pretty, with bright strawberry and cranberry aromas and a fresh finish. Attractive aperitif-style rosé.
- Didona 2015: This Sangiovese rosé has a light delicate nose which continues onto a delicate mouthfeel. Bright, fresh and very drinkable!
*Rumour disclosure: There is little written about this period (I’m sure the French are quite keen to bury it) but while France was suffering the blight of phylloxera, the first world war, depression, poor vintages and then the second world war, it was supposedly quite common to bring in wines from Tunisia and Algeria to bolster their own. The fact that they were often bottled as ‘French wine’ caused plenty of controversies and when stocks in France recovered it was banned. What has remained from this legacy is the new French tendency towards making fuller-bodied, higher alcohol wines, perhaps because they acquiered a taste for it when blending in African wines. The story is detailed in Rod Phillip’s book on the History of French Wine.
Thank you very much to Travis Wine Imports for sponsoring our Tunisian leg of the journey and inspiring us to visit this beautiful wine country. Travis Wine Imports will soon be importing wine from Tunisia to the USA.