Discovering the wines of Tunisia

Friday, 22 December, 2017
Amanda Barnes
On a crossroads between the Mediterranean, Africa and the Arabic world, Tunisia is a unique wine country indeed.

Tunisia 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?

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, 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.

What stands out in Tunisia is their fondness for rosé - over 65% of the production is pink. It feels appropriate for the generally warm weather in Tunisia and the spicy and flavourful cuisine. Out of the red wines, the most popular and successful varieties in Tunisia are Syrah and Carignan, which are often blended with other Mediterranean grapes. While there are several different white wines on offer, the most popular and traditional is Muscat - which is produced in both sweet and dry styles. The sweet styles are the most traditional, and hark back to Tunisia’s long heritage of raisin wine (drying the grapes after harvest) - the ancient technique used there since the Carthaginians.