Morocco might have a desert but it ain’t dry!
The call to prayer echoed over the snake charmers at sunset while peddlers of peacocks bargained with men donned in traditional djellabas. Meat grilled with the signature Ras el Hanout spice spiraled over olive stands and fresh fruit stalls while skittish monkeys scampered sheepishly around the toes of their masters. Gazing over the intoxicating Djemaa El Fna square at Le Marrakchi Bar, I raised my glass filled not with the standard sweet mint tea consumed by every Morrocan aged three to ninety-three but a dark cherry cabernet sauvignon graced with anise and aged in French oak.
When I first put Morocco on my bucket list, I had in mind getting lost in the 9,400 alleys of Fes, riding a camel in the Sahara and bargaining for the perfect carpet in a Marrakech souk. But my focus soon changed when I learned wineries have sprouted up throughout this predominantly Muslim country. Who would have thought that olive trees and noble grape varietals thrive side by side in the agricultural basket of northeastern Morocco? In fact, this former French protectorate is the second largest producer of wine in the Arab world next to Algeria. Morocco boasts over 50,000 hectares of vines, (20,000 acres) and corks over fifty-five million bottles per year.
When did this all begin you ask? As usual, we have the Carthaginians and the Romans to thank. In this corner of Africa, 2500 BC marks the birth of wine followed by a very long hiatus aided by the rise of Islam until the early twentieth century. When the French arrived in 1912 partnerships between famed regions like Bordeaux began to increase and voilà, wineries popped up near the Atlantic and at the base of the Mid-Atlas Mountains. Before the E.U. changed laws regulating wine, bulk wine was exported for blending to countries like France and Spain. Now, eighty percent of the wines reside locally while the remaining twenty percent are exported to Europe for immediate consumption.
Though drinking alcohol is forbidden in Islam, the Kingdom of Morocco has a more liberal stance regarding wine consumption and tolerates its presence more than other Muslim countries like Saudi Arabia. Either way, Moroccans like wine and mostly the red ones which make a perfect match for their signature dish, tagine. Moreover, it’s the only wine available on menus save the honorary French label or two.
Our first stop was the oldest winery in Morocco, Domaine Ouleb Thalvin. Established in 1923, this winery is en route from Casablanca to Rabat making it an ideal stop for lunch (and a drive by one of the King’s many palaces). Their restaurant, Le Ryad de Vigneron, holds no license for tastings so put your big panties on and order a bottle. A tree lined path guided us to a serene pool surrounded by barrel-tables and flowering plants. It was a beautiful day in December so we sat outside, sank into a bright Viognier and listened to the doves murmur in the palms. If you are staying for their three-course lunch, this lemongrass, floral wine will complement their catch of the day or salad with warm brie cheese. Walk off your lunch with a brief stroll around the grounds and get a look at the vines close up.
Domaine Ouleb Thalvin is now part of the collective Celliers de Meknes owned by Diana Holding. Celliers de Meknes Estates, comprised of over 3200 hectares of vineyards, is the largest producer in Morocco and sports a range of brand names and price points. The patriarch of these vines was the late Brahim Zniber who not only created the first appellation d’origine contrôlée (A.O.C.) called “Les Coteaux de l’Atlas” (and designated as a Premier Cru) but was instrumental in revitalizing the wine industry as a whole. A pioneer in Morrocan agriculture, Zniber acquired businesses in olive trees, citrus fruits, poultry and horses while founding an agricultural trade organization. The owner of the seventh largest privately owned company in Morocco, Zniber also contributed to the creation of appellations of origin garantie (A.O.G.’s) Guerrouane and Beni M’Tir where the majority of the estate’s grapes grow. Ample sunshine, rich soils, and moderate rainfall in addition to the terroir at the foothills of the Mid-Atlas Mountains create the perfect storm for winning vintages year after year.
After several wrong turns in a rain storm, a chat with local farmers and a pack of wild dogs later, we splashed through mud puddles into Chateau Roslane located in the heart of Meknes. This elegant structure is the mothership of the Celliers de Meknes project and sits nestled between Ben M’Tir and Guerrouane. It hosts an upscale boutique hotel, restaurant and spa complete with a traditional Moroccan hammam. The grounds offer a large pool surrounded by fire pits and pergolas -the perfect getaway to sample wines while gazing out at the vineyards and organic gardens. Rooms run $375-475 in the high season with some featuring an actual barrel for a bathtub.
We lunched at L’Oliverair, beginning with the sparkling wine, Le Perle, and an amuse bouche, crème of turnip. I followed with foie gras and duck dressed over a carrot puree paired with the CB Signature, a red blend of Carmenere, Petite Verdot and Marsellan. Just as tasty and a little less rich, my companion ordered a carpaccio of vegetables (which was frankly too pretty to eat) and a light, savory Sea Bass accompanied by a crisp, pear flavored Medallion Sauvignon Blanc. The lunch finished off with a tour of their immense production facility that houses sleeping giants of stainless steel, conveyor tables and pneumatic presses, all managed by computerized dashboard that looked extremely intimidating. Older vintages rest in caves locked with Spanish balustrade while hundreds of oak barrels doze to the meditative lullaby of a Moorish water fountain.
Our last stop was the Chateau Roslane wine shop where we loaded up for our 14-day road trip. This turned out to be a great plan as the prices were much cheaper than at restaurants and hotels around Morocco, ($15 versus $45). Note, wineries are not open on Sunday. Check to see if their wine shop is open before you plan your visit Chateau Roslane.
Another resource is to purchase wine at the Carrefour supermarkets. Generally, the alcohol section has a separate entrance so don’t go looking for it next to the cheese and crackers. The one we stopped at had a huge selection of Moroccan wines to choose from as well as a smattering of French wines. Restaurants don’t mind if you bring your own wine to accompany with lunch or dinner, just be sure to ask in advance.
In Ouzazarte, (the Hollywood of Morocco) we lunched on tender, herbal infused camel burgers with an organic carignan, “Azayi” that we had bought at Roslane. The blueberry, tobacco and earthy notes gave way to firm tannins and a smokey finish. Our other favorite wine pairing was in Fes, where we dined at our hotel, Riad Fes. The La Ferme Rouge “Ithaque” (A.O.C. Les Côtes de Rommani) paired beautifully with my roasted quail pastilla dusted with cinnamon and almonds. My companion leaned into lamb tagine cooked to perfection with cloves, garlic, and a myriad of local herbs. An excellent example of Moroccan terroir, this Syrah-Tempranillo blend possessed bright mulberry and mocha notes graced by hints of cassis and soft tannins. So whether you are wandering the blue alleys of Chefchouen, kite-boarding in Essouria or camping in Erg Chebbi, bring an extra suitcase to ship home some lovely souvenirs from Morocco. These wines are hard to find in the U.S. And don’t forget to say “Shukran” to your host.