Talking Tunisian—Wine, That Is

Talking Tunisian—Wine, That Is

In the December 1, 2010 issue of Wine Enthusiast, “New Wines From the Old World” shone a spotlight on Tunisian wine production. Wines of this arid country have a long and fascinating history, but are now being made and marketed specifically to attract American consumers, thanks largely to the efforts of Le Poisson wines. WE sat down with Philippe-Andre Boujnah, Le Poisson’s importer, to taste Tunisian wines in New York’s Maslow6 wine shop and discuss winemaking in the other “Old World.”

Wine Enthusiast: There seems to be very little information on Tunisian winemaking available to consumers in the U.S. Even online, there are just bits and pieces of information out there.
Philippe-Andre Boujnah: It’s true. There are a few Web sites, but they don’t often get updated. There is often just a homepage. People aren’t as computer-forward in Tunisia, though that’s changing. But in Tunisia, all things move at a slower pace. We’ve been exporting Tunisian wines in one form or another for a good while, especially to Europe. This is the first time we’re targeting US consumers. We wanted to try this first and see what the reception would be like. We’re very proud of the reception, by restaurants and by people drinking it.

WE: What changes have been made to bring Tunisian wine to the US market for the first time?
PAB: In the last 10 years, many regulations have been put in place, changes have been made to make the wines of Tunisia approachable, desirable. There has been privatization, allowing the wines to be produced in the appropriate way, stored in the appropriate way. Everything is done according to French norms, we are based on that system. Most of the wines in Tunisia are produced by a co-op subsidized by the government, known as the UCCV, which stands for Union Centrale des Coopératives Viticoles. The co-op has about six to eight wineries and they produce more than 20 types of wines. Most of the wine is made at that co-op, and is regulated by the government.

WE: Tell me about the wines developed for the U.S. The label you’ve designed is specifically for the American market?
PAB: Yes. In many cultures, the fish is a lucky symbol. We went with le poisson, a fish, as our symbol because it resonates with Christians, Jews and Muslims. [The wine bottles have a silver fish pendant attached.] Also, our wines are made to be taken with food. They are wines that pair easily with food, especially seafood. Fish is a staple of our Mediterranean diet, so that played a part in choosing the design as well. The fish is a big symbol in Tunisian culture. In Tunisia, everyone has a silver fish in their house. It’s lucky. In the case of Greek wines, when there was a boom and many wines first came to the US, you couldn’t pronounce the wines, it was embarrassing in restaurants, difficult to say the names—so I wanted to make something people would not forget.

WE: Can you tell us about Tunisian cuisine and pairing Tunisian wines with food?
The gris is one of our more popular wines [a 70% Grenache, 20% Cinsault and 10%
Mourvèdre blend], and it pairs well with fish. In the States, they put this under the rosé category because of its blush color. Tunisian food doesn’t display a sweet and salty flavor profile like you have in Morocco; you feel more of a French and Italian influence. Probably the best couscous can be found in Tunisia—it’s all savory, tomato-based, a lot of fish stews-so our wines are very food-friendly and drinkable. You don’t find couscous with almonds and raisins in Tunisia, for example. But I want people to try Tunisian wines with foods that aren’t Tunisian. Actually, olive oil is the biggest export out of Tunisia; tourists are probably the biggest import.

WE: Have you noticed an increase in tourism in Tunisia? Could that be prompting the move to reach out to American consumers now?
Tunisia has always been a great tourist spot. It’s mostly European tourists, of course. It’s so close. But Tunisia has got great beaches, great hospitality. It’s family friendly, and fairly liberal. The French influence is still there. There are a couple of tour companies that are organizing wine trips to the region now, but it’s not like you see the great chateau. You will see the farmers working the land, it is a very organic and is interesting to see.

WE: Can tourists enjoy wine openly in Tunisia?
Tourists can drink in Tunisia, especially at the resorts and some upscale restaurants. The European influence is everywhere. You can see it at the beach, in the cuisine. It’s Mediterranean, really. You can also buy some wines in Tunisian grocery stores. [Due to religious restrictions] people in Tunisia don’t drink like in Europe or in the U.S.—but it is permitted, yes.

WE: Your father [Jean Boujnah] is the winemaker behind the brand. Tell us about him.
My father is very entrepreneurial. He looked at the winery more like a business. He didn’t want to go buying land first and knew it was difficult to have consistency with different parcels of land. The government along with the co-op [UCCV] owns the better pieces of land anyway, and that’s how he gets the best grapes. Before the winery, he brought in foreign films, even hair salons. Then he moved on to wine. Nearly 100 years after it was founded, he bought the Lavau winery with several other partners under the group S.I.C.O.B., and renamed it Les Celliers De Montfleury. Of course, Tunisian winemaking goes back far further.

WE: Yes, the Phoenicians were early winemakers.
We should talk about Magon, the agronomist, a Phoenician who first saw the benefits of wine culture over 2000 years ago. He wrote the treatise [Treatise of Agronomy Viticulture] that became the winemaking handbook. Did you know that the old name for Tunisia is Ifriqya, which they in turn used to name the entire continent? Ifriqya became Africa!

WE: So it all comes back to Tunisia?
[Laughs.] Tunisia is a marvelous country. It’s a model for the Arabic world. Our [first] president [Habib Bourguiba, who was President of Tunisia from 1957-87] was married to a French woman, so the wine culture is there to stay.

Le Poisson wines are available at wine shops and restaurants in NY, NJ and FL with CT, GA, PA and Washington D.C. on the horizon. 

Published on November 4, 2010