This is the summer of wine writing from summers gone by, translation, I did this interview over a year ago with the owner/winemaker of Le Poisson, a Tunisian Winery during an event at Maslow 6. For a variety of reasons, mostly related to work, I never wrote up the piece but my memory of the wines and the evening is still crystal clear.
My favorite wine of the group was the Gris 2009 which I saw on wine-searcher is available for a very reasonable price in Manhattan at bottlerocket.
Jean Boujnah and I had a long chat over a glass of the gris on a nice June evening. We went between French and English and he was charming and informative. I knew nothing about Tunisian wines before the conversation and have not tasted too many since then either.
A little history is needed before we get into the chat with Jean Boujnah though because most people know precious little about wines from North Africa.
Wines have been made in Tunisia for centuries, since the Phoenicians in fact and since Carthage was the city on the hill. Carthage was destroyed by the Romans in 148 BC after the third Punic war. I’m actually reading a book on the Punic Wars this summer by Adrian Goldsworthy, fascinating stuff. After the Muslim takeover of Tunisia, wine production was forbidden for almost 1000 years. The French brought it back when Tunisia was a French colony in the 1800s. Initially the wines were exported to France and blended with French wines. After independence in 1956, Tunisia had it’s own wine industry for almost a decade until the vineyards were nationalized in 1964.
Today, there are a number of regions with AOC appellations. The climate is sunny with little rainfall but tempered by sea breezes. French grapes were planted including Carignan, Cinsault and Muscat.
Boujnah bought his winery in 1985 but it is a very old winery, started in 1885 by Rene Lavau, a French immigrant. He told me he got into the wine business “par hazard” or by accident. He bought the company initially for the real estate but then discovered that he loved the business and cherished the 80 people who worked there. Once he caught the bug, he was hooked and he has never looked back. The winery is the second largest in Tunisia, producing seven million bottles a year. While they own many vineyards they do have to buy grapes as well. Boujnah isn’t worried about the quality control however because they have been working with the same growers for years.
In terms of markets, the export a bit to France around 100,000 bottles and to Belgium, Sweden, and the USA. They make a number of wines including the Gris which is a blend of Grenache, Cinsault and Mourvedre. It’s a great wine for fish, as an aperitif or with a lighter meal. It is done with the saignee method.
Boujnah said his goal was to make a wine that you could have two or three bottles of and not have a headache in the morning. He is interested in the quality of the products and is trying to move the winemaking towards a more organic process.
Boujnah who is an entrepreneur told me that he works “avec plaisir” and wasn’t looking at the economic side of the business as much as the quality and pleasure that he is getting from the business.
Boujnah wants to improve the image of Tunisian wines which he says were not necessarily made with strict standards in the past, all that has changed now. He is very interested in the quality and hygiene of his wineries and the frankness of his wines.
Boujnah thinks that Carignan from Tunisia, especially old vine Carignan is a very powerful and interesting grape. I’d be interested to try a mono-varietal of that but haven’t yet had the chance.
I’d also love to go to Tunisia, a beautiful country with beaches and interesting architecture. The closest I’ve come is Morocco, another country in North Africa with a long wine tradition.
This interview took place before the Arab Spring uprisings. I haven’t been able to find out much information about what affect it has had on the industry there. Here is a post from Decanter back in May about the topic.
North African wines have been on my mind because I am working on a project, not wine related with Morocco. It’s fascinating area and one that has a definite charm. I loved Morocco, shopping in the souk and the desert. I didn’t buy this tunic but I did buy great tangines with which I may a mean chicken