These days, we don't spend much time thinking about Morocco as a wine country, particularly with its large Islamic population. However, 2,500 years ago, it and much of the rest of North Africa completed an arc of wine growing regions around the Mediterranean that wove through Italy, Greece, Turkey and into Africa. As the phylloxera bug ravaged vine of Europe in the late 1800s, French winemakers turned their sites to North Africa, sometimes secretly producing "French" wines in Morocco. It was a significant exporter of wine until 1956, when the country gained its independence, shaking French colonial reign.
Now, wine production is back on track in this mountainous country, with international investment (mostly from France) pumping new life into old vineyards, and expanding Morocco's winemaking regions. According to the winemaker Ouled Thaleb (a brand which dates to 1923), Morocco is now the largest producer of wine in the Arab world, producing 40 million bottles per year (most consumed domestically).
There are five designated wine regions in Morocco, with 14 AOG's (Appelation of Origin Guaranteed) and one AOC (Appellation of Origin Controlled) established at 2001. Most of the grapes grown are classic French varietals, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah overtaking classic Cinsault, Grenach and Carignan plantings. You'll also find Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc and Sauvignon Blanc common in some regions. A few regional varieties, including a grape called Faranah, are also cultivated.
Ouled Thaleb's vines are located in AOG Zenata in the Rabat/Casablanca region. The mountainous property, 10 miles northeast of Casablanca, benefits from cooling breezes off the Atlantic. Celliers de Meknes (the largest wine producer in the country) and Thalvin-Doumaine Ouled Thaleb are the only Moroccan producers currently available in the U.S., and have been for about five years.
As part of a new U.S. marketing push, Ouled Thaleb sent over its most recent imports (brought to the U.S. by Exotic Imports LLC) to sample. One nice touch: Though the wines are not certified organic, vineyards are plowed and weeded by hand, and no herbicides or fungicides are applied to the vines.
Ouled Thaleb Moroccan White Blend 2012: (AOG Zenata) The reality is, we drink wines from "exotic" locales like Morocco to experience something we can't experience from France or Italy or California. This intriguing blend features 60% Faranah, a native grape, blended with Clairette Blanche, a variety commonly found in southern France, though barely used outside of table wines and some Chateauneuf-du-Pape wines. The result is a fresh, bright, eminantly drinkable white wine with tropical, sensual aromatics of grapefruit, mango, violet and a hint of mint. On the palate it is fresh and bright, with solid acids and subtle grassy notes. Drink on its own, with soft cheeses or baked tilapia. $14 4/5 stars
Moroccan Red Blend 2012: (AOG Zenata) Cabernet (70%) dominates the nose on this deep ruby-red blend, aged 10 months in oak barrels. The aromatics are bright and vibrant, warm with earth, spice and oak. A hint of green tea and red raspberry round out the overtones. On the mouth it unexpectedly mild in its tannins and medium acids for a Cabernet blend (the other 30% is Grenache). Black cherry and plum define the fruits on a brief, tight finish. A solid table wine, it's ideal to pair with burgers or pizza. Note: This has a composite / plastic cork where as the previous two bottles had real corks, which were slightly dry. It's uncertain, though, which closure is providing better protection for the wines. $14 3/5 stars
Medaillon Ouled Thaleb 2011: (AOG Zenata) Color: A deep, inky red, almost opaque. Nose: Warm Cabernet aromatic, black currant, not overly complex, mild pepper and oak. Mouth: brash, slightly sour open, vegetal notes a significant amount of heat on the open despite moderate alcohol. Lightweight on the mid palate, medium finish, low acids, medium tannins (more grape than barrel). A nice chewiness. A second drink releases blackberry, black pepper, cigar. Despite being only 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, the grape dominates, with Merlot close behind, and Shiraz adding some spice. Best with grilled steaks, baked potatoes, hamburgers or lamb tagine. $16 2/5 stars
Syrah Ouled Thaleb 2010: (AOG Zenata) A deep brick-burgundy red, opaque at the center. Nose: warm earth, ripe banana, black plum. Pleasing, complex aromatics. Mouth: Classic Shiraz notes of fruit, black pepper, baking spice, black cherry. Bright medium oak tannins. Long clean finish, medium to light weight on the mid-palate and bright back palate finish. Some herbal/vegetal notes, but not overpowering. Pair with roast meats, wild game, lamb stews. $16 4/5 stars
Ouled Thaleb Moroccan Rosé 2012: (AOG Zenata) Rosés have come back into vogue again, thanks to an increasing number of producers taking their time and making them the way they should be made (brief skin contact, rather than blending a bottle of red with a bottle of white), and emphasizing the dry potential of rosé over the sweet. This blend of three red grapes (60% Grenache, 20% Syrah, 20% Cinsault) results in a fairly classic light salmon/rose gold with an astringent, dry result. On the nose it is fairly aromatic with floral and red bitter berry notes (raspberry, cranberry). On the palate there is a savory, herbaceous quality, with a mineral astringency at the end. Drink on its own or pair with grilled fish, oysters or grilled octopus. $14 2/5 stars
Ouled Thaleb Sauvignon Blanc 2012: (AOG Zenata) This 100% Sauvignon Blanc undergoes low-temperature fermentation in stainless steel tanks, and receives no oak. The result is a perfectly pleasant white wine, rich in tropical and vegetal aromatics, which might not be to everyone's taste. Notes of green pepper, mango, papaya and jalapeño compete for attention. On the palate the tropical fruits: Banana, mango, papaya shine through a bright acidity and mineral finish. It's worth experimenting with this smooth, slightly funky wine. Pair with rich cheeses, sliced charceuterie and pickled vegetables. $16 3/5 stars
Thirsty for more? Check out National Spirits Examiner or NY Drinks Examiner.
Do you have a cocktail trend, new product, bar or teahouse you'd like me to review? Want to give me a heads-up on your favorite hot spot? Please email me at NYDrinksExaminer AT gmail.com. Or follow me on Twitter @roberthp.
FTC Disclaimer: The author sometimes receives product samples for review, which carry no cash value and cannot be re-sold, and sometimes attends press events such as lunches or cocktail parties, designed to promote a given product. The author is not paid by any alcohol manufacturer, retailer or distributor, or provided compensation apart from revenue from an assigning publishing company for editorial publication. Opinions are the author's own. By the way, you should be 21 or older to read this page. Author received sample bottles to taste and review, and now really, really wants to go to Morocco.