Getting to Know Moroccan Wines

Getting to know Moroccan wines by Allison Levine, first appeared on Nov. 26, 2015 in the Napa Valley Register.

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Wine from Morocco may seem like a strange concept to many. After all, because Morocco is a Muslim country, it is easy to assume that wine does not exist there. But in fact, Morocco is the second largest producer of wine in the Muslim countries. They produce 40 million bottles of wine per year, of which 38 million bottles are consumed in Morocco. There are 15 appellations in Morocco and 34 grapes grown.

Morocco is not in the Middle East. It is located on the northwest tip of Africa, across the sea from Spain. The Atlantic Ocean is on one side and the Mediterranean Sea on the other, with the 14,000-foot Atlas Mountains running through Morocco. Morocco enjoys a Mediterranean climate with a cooling breeze. In effect, located at the same latitude as Santa Barbara, Didier Pariente describes it as “a lot like California in the sense that you can ski, surf and drink wine all in one day.”

For more than a decade, importer/distributor Pariente has been a champion of Moroccan wine, dedicated to exposing Morocco as a winemaking country. Raised in France and Israel by Moroccan parents, he first tasted Moroccan wines in France in the late 1990s. In 2004, Pariente went to Morocco for the first time with the idea of bringing the wine with him to the U.S. He imported his first container in 2009 and moved to California in 2010. Today, he imports two wines from Morocco and distributes to 20 states through his company Nomadic Distribution.

Pariente is passionate about the wine, the culture and the history of Morocco. He is quick to point out some interesting facts: “98 percent of the population is forbidden to drink and there are only 3 million tourists in Morocco, so who is drinking the wine?” he asked and then answered, “locals.” Wine is a part of the Moroccan lifestyle, showing the more liberal side of Muslim culture.

Another fact that Pariente points out is that Morocco is the only Muslim country producing kosher wine. While the Jewish population in Morocco used to be the largest in North Africa, it is a very small population now, and they are not the ones consuming all of this kosher wine. Of the 300,000 bottles of kosher wine produced in Morocco, it is consumed in Morocco by the Muslim community.

The Phoenicians first brought wine to the area 2,500 years ago. The Romans were the first to export to Italy. And the French and Spanish colonizers who settled in North Africa in the early 1800s planted vines with Bordeaux and Spanish grapes. When the phylloxera crisis hit Europe in the late 1800s, many French relocated to Morocco to make wine.

At the time, there were 54 winemaking facilities, but from 1960 to 1990, there was no growth as many of the French left Morocco and the government took over the vineyards. But in 1990, the king of Morocco, who was friends with the mayor of Bordeaux, saw the potential of the vineyards. The king worked out good lease deals for French winemakers who started to return to Morocco.

There are only 10 wineries in Morocco and they all have French winemakers. However, no foreigners can own land in Morocco so the Frenchmen are only there to make the wine. One of the wineries, which is imported by Pariente, is Ouled Thaleb.

Ouled Thaleb, which means Son of the Preachers, is a tribe that has been making wine since 1923, making them the oldest still-functioning winery in Morocco. Located 20 miles northeast of Casablanca, the winery is in the Zenata region, which faces the Atlantic Ocean. One of the vineyards is planted on the hillsides of Ben-Slimane on the coast.

Enjoying a Mediterranean climate, the soil is similar to the Medoc region with sandy shale and gravel sand. Farther inland is the vineyard that sits at a 2,000-foot altitude with dark rich clay soils. With warm days with cool nights, this vineyard enjoys a continental climate with maritime influence and is home to vines that are 40 to 70 years old. In both vineyards, the grapes are grown organically and are dry-farmed.

Ouled Thaleb produces eight wines that are available in the United States. The Moroccan White Blend is made of 60 percent faranah, an indigenous grape, and 40 percent clairette. It is stainless steel fermented and is fresh and aromatic with notes of spearmint, elderflower, white peach and pear. This white blend is a great alternative to pinot gris but has more weight because it spends six months on the lees.

The Moroccan Rosé consists of 60 percent syrah, 30 percent grenache and 20 percent cinsault, fermented in stainless steel. With notes of raspberry and rose petal, the wine is savory with a bright acidity.

The Moroccan Red Blend is made of 70 percent cabernet sauvignon and 30 percent grenache and is aged for 10 months in French oak. The medium body wine is juicy with notes of black cherries, plums, spices and vanilla.

The Moroccan Syrah is 100 percent syrah and is fermented in concrete and then aged for 12 months in new French oak barrels. This juicy wine has notes of dark blackberry and blueberry.

There is also a sauvignon blanc, an un-oaked chardonnay, and Medaillon, made with 60 percent cabernet sauvignon, 30 percent merlot and 10 percent syrah, and Ait Souala made with 50 percent arinornoa, 20 percent tannat and 25 percent malbec.

The wines of Ouled Thaleb were named Wine & Spirits Value Brand of the Year in 2014 and the 2012 Medaillon was named No. 96 in Wine Enthusiast Magazine’s Top 100 in 2015. “I think we have just scratched the surface by introducing the world of Moroccan wine,” explains Pariente. “Morocco is an interesting place and they are making good wine. And what makes Moroccan wine so fascinating is that it leads to a discussion of other things. It opens dialogues about politics, culture, religion and, of course, the world of wine.”