A Wine Oasis
Two weeks in a Muslim country in the Sahara desert: but to heck with the heat and the incomprehensible language — my biggest worry was that I was going to suffer wine-withdrawal.
Well, it turns out that a large quantity of wine is made in Morocco. But that’s not all good news. Under Islam, consuming wine is generally frowned upon, to the extent that many grape-growers surround their vineyards with a concealing ring of olive trees for the sake of discretion. There is no wine culture, and hence little incentive to produce good wines.
My first taste of Moroccan wine was in a Berber tent camp in the desert. I was surprised to find wines offered with dinner, but also intrigued: the bottles were made in Morocco, and in the heat (over 50°C), the prospect of a cold glass of rosé was enticing. Alas, this wine was both poorly made and obviously stored in the bright sunshine since then: it was baked, sour, and nearly tasteless.
As my journey went on, I continued to sample, but nearly always had the same disappointing experience. Waiters and restaurateurs, like all merchants in Morocco, are highly enthusiastic about their offerings (“Best quality!”), but caveat emptor, my friend, caveat emptor.
I did finally find some wines worth drinking. Domaine de la Zouina (“zouina” means “beautiful” in Arabic) is located near the city of Meknes, nestled between the Rif and Atlas mountain ranges in the northern part of the country. Wines have been made here since Phoenician times, but the Domaine’s heritage is in Bordeaux, for its founders ran Châteaux de Fieuzal and Larrivet Haut-Brion, and winemaker Guillaume Constant made wine at Château Gilet in St-Emilion before being seduced by the sunshine and terroir of northern Africa.
One of the advantages Guillaume treasures about making wine in a frontier area is freedom. He can experiment with unusual varietals and blends forbidden in France. The Domaine grows mostly Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay, but also lesser-known grapes such as Sauvignon Gris, Vermentino, Mourvèdre, Marselan and Caladoc. No pesticides are necessary because there are no grape-threatening insects, and vintage quality is quite constant from year to year because so is the weather.
The heat and sunshine make different winemaking techniques necessary. For example, canopy thinning, common in Bordeaux to maximize grape ripening, is unheard of here: these grapes need all the cover they can get, to avoid sunburn and premature ripening.
Sixty-nine hectares of vines, planted in 2001 on Morocco’s classic red-clay-and-limestone soil, produce about 400,000 bottles per year, mostly red and rosé, at two quality levels: the basic Volubilia, and the higher-end Epicuria line. Almost all of the production is consumed in Morocco, mostly in hotels and upper-end restaurants, but also by the general populace — in the privacy of their homes. If you find yourself in Morocco, these should be your wines of choice.
84 Volubilia Rouge 2009
A blend of 50% Cab Sauv, 40% Syrah, and 10% Tempranillo. Bright candy-apple red with fresh cherry-pie aroma. Fresh and fruity with a touch of leather, made for early drinking.
79 Volubilia Gris 2011
A rosé made with 80% Caladoc, a hybrid of Cab Sauv and Grenache popular in Languedoc. Pale salmon colour, nose of candy floss and tangerine; slightly watery strawberry flavours.
89 Epicuria Syrah 2005
From the Dalia Negra Madura vineyard at 828 meters altitude. Medium-deep brick red, nose of dried cherries with a hint of black pepper, good Syrah typicity; stood up well to spicy food.
91 Epicuria Chardonnay 2010
Medium brown-gold with a nose of fresh apples and nice toasty oak (aged 19 months in barrel). Buttery, with brilliant acidity, this was a delightful surprise and my favourite of the tasting.
92 Epicuria Cabernet Sauvignon 2005
100% Cab Sauv, a deep brick red with a classic cassis nose and some raspberry thrown in for good measure. Warm blackberries in the mouth, delicious, easily the best wine I tasted in Morocco.