Morocco, a vineyard in full change

For 40 years, the Moroccan vineyard has been radically changing for the better. First, with a diversity of styles clearly displayed. Secondly, with the rehabilitation of forgotten vineyards. To our delight. Because do not forget that Morocco remains one of the cradles of the last wild vines. A Kingdom where the first wines were cultivated around the 6th century B.C., during the installations of the Phoenician and Greek counters.

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Today, thirteen wineries give Morocco its nobility back, sharing nearly 7,000 hectares of vines, for about 50 million bottles produced per year(1). There are even three AOCs and a few AOGs(2). Which delights our curiosity. From Meknes to Casablanca, an overview of a vineyard under the sign of sunshine.

The vineyard along the foothills of the Rif

We embarked with our campervan from Spain, aboard the ferry company FRS. It took us just one hour to cross from Tarifa to Tangier. And a little less than two hours to reach the region of Meknes, north, on a road network new and pleasant to drive on.

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Our first visit took us to between Rabat and Fès, to Domaine Castel (Société de Vinification et de Commercialisation du Maroc), one of the major players in the country. Suddenly arriving at the foot of Mount Zerhoun, facing the foothills of the Rif, where acres of vineyards stretch out as far as the eye can see, we had no more doubt : we were well arrived ! The show was grandiose.

Despite the altitude (700m), it was already 32°C at 10am during our visit mid-August. “The temperatures raised to 46-48°C in July”, Paul D’Herbes, the oenologist of the estate, told us. We visited the vineyard of 500 hectares, a single parcel, mainly planted in Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault, and worked in reasoned culture(3).

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In total, the Castel estate covers 1,400 hectares. One of the specialties of the estate – which produces a wide range of wines – is the Vin Gris, a delicious wine with a pale pink color, very refreshing and obtained by direct pressing of Grenache and Cinsault grapes.

Les Celliers de Meknès, on the initiative of Morocco’s first AOC

Welcome to the Celliers de Meknès, along the foothills of the Atlas. With 2,400 hectares of vineyards, it is the main – and unavoidable – actor of the Moroccan viticulture since the 50s.

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Thanks to the protection of the mountains, the region remains more temperate than others, with 34°C on average in summer, and strong climatic variations in winter. It is even not uncommon to see snow in January. A very specific terroir, with unique clay soils, that Brahim Zniber, founder of the Celliers de Meknes(4), has always wanted to highlight.

The Celliers de Meknès were thus the pioneers in the establishment of controlled origin appellations, with the creation in 2005 of the Coteaux de l’Atlas, the first Moroccan AOC. Then in 2012, with the first traditional method wine of the Kingdom and the creation of the AOC Crémant de l’Atlas.

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“We are also converting 400 hectares to organic farming since this year”, Josselin Desprez De Gesincourt, the export manager, said. An initiative to highlight and which is part of the revival of the Moroccan vineyard. The wines of Château Roslane, the iconic property of the Celliers de Meknès, are very promising, especially in red (Cabernet sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah). A very nice estate that can be visited and which will soon open a luxury hotel and a gourmet restaurant. A good excuse to come back.

The region of Rommani retrieves a name

Another beautiful discovery: the region of Rommani, in the province of Khemisset (halfway between Rabat and Fez). Probably one of the most promising terroirs of Morocco, with an average temperature of 5°C less than in Meknes.

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Here we visited the Hacienda des Cigognes, the wine pioneer of Rommani. A domain initiated by the Moullablad family, established in the region since 1914. In the 90s, Abdeslam Moullablad and his son Karim, the current owner, replanted the vineyard on these former viticultural lands, thus giving life back to viticulture in the region.

The new cellar, under construction, already has sumptuous vaults, called “cathedrals”. A cellar shape in height, typical in Morocco, allowing a better ventilation of the buildings and playing the role of a natural thermal regulator. The tanks are mainly concrete, for a wine production focused on the fruit and with more freshness. The whole complex is very impressive. However, we will have to wait a few more months before seeing the first vintage in bottle… which we are already longing to taste!

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For now, we discovered the 98 hectares of vines of the estate, spread over two sites and mainly planted with Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Carignan and Tempranillo. The teams were in full harvest.

“In Morocco, it is the women who make the harvest, as well as the cutting and the other meticulous works of the vine”, Boris Bille (sommelier and founding member of the Association of the Sommeliers of Morocco(5)), expained to us during the visit.

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With the great variety of women’s tunics, all more colorful than the others, the vineyards had a festive atmosphere.

Another spearhead of the AOC Côtes de Rommani: La Ferme Rouge. Created in 1908, the estate is now in the hands of the French winemaker Jacques Poulain. “La Ferme Rouge enjoys a unique location in the heart of the Zaer region: 450m above sea level and 45km from the ocean, the vineyard still benefits from a strong Atlantic influence. It is also protected to the west by the valleys of the wadi Korifla and south by the foothills of the Middle Atlas”, Jacques explained.

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This estate of 300 hectares, planted in one piece, has a wealth of exceptional soils: ancient sands, schists, red and ferric clay, on clay-limestone subsoils. As for the wines, they are vinified and matured in an ultra modern winery. La Ferme Rouge has everything needed to make very nice wines.

Generous and gourmet red wines

Our stay ended 50 km north-east of Casablanca, at the Domaine des Ouled Taleb de Benslimane, operated by Thalvin company since 1968 and now in the hands of the Zniber family. This magnificent property, created in 1926, is the oldest winery still in operation in Morocco. Over the last few years, the estate has seen two talented French winemakers: Jacques Poulain (now at La Ferme Rouge) and Stéphane Mariot, director of the estate since 2011.

Thalvin is a great example of the potential of the Moroccan vineyard to produce generous and fruity red wines. Especially with the red grape Arinarnoa, a discovery for us.

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This cross between Tannat and Cabernet Sauvignon produces gourmet wines with notes of blackberry and blueberry. This 240-hectare estate is also planted with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier, Syrah, Grenache, Cinsault, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. Here too, it’s harvest time. And the enthusiasm of the workers around us, as well as the excitement that reigned over the property, was a pleasure to see!

We could not conclude this visit without mentioning Aït Souala, the former state wine cellar, which we had the chance to visit ; the cellar stopped its activity with the vintage 2011.

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An intense and emotional moment, in this ghostly place, which was, during the splendid period of the Moroccan vineyard (1970-1990), the the largest cooperative cellar in the world, with some 650,000 hL capacity.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Castel (Société de Vinification et de Commercialisation du Maroc), Celliers de Meknès, La Ferme Rouge, Thalvin and Hacienda des Cigognes, for their warm welcome. A huge thank you to Driss Mouhib, Josselin Desprez De Gesincourt and Boris Bille for organizing this colorful Moroccan program. Finally, thank you to Karim Moullablad and the team of the Hacienda des Cigognes for these beautiful traditional hats that were offered to us. A friendly nod to the traditional hats of the workers in the vineyard.

 

(1) 2016 figures.
(2) Morocco has three appellations of controlled origin (AOC): Coteaux de l’Atlas, Côtes de Rommani and Crémant de l’Atlas ; six main geographical designations of origin (AOG): Zaer, Zenata, Ben M’tir, Guerrouanne, Zemmour and Berkane.
(3) Rational culture is the application to viticulture of the concept of reasoned agriculture, ie global operations management approaches that aim, beyond compliance with regulations, to reinforce the positive impact of agricultural practices on the environment, also reducing their negative effects, without jeopardizing the economic profitability of farms.
(4) Brahim Zniber, who died in September 2016 at the age of 96, was a Moroccan businessman, farmer and winemaker, known as one of the pioneers of the revival of Moroccan viticulture.
(5) Created in 2012, the Association of Sommeliers of Morocco (ASMA) allowed the Kingdom to have the first association of sommeliers in Africa and to integrate the elite of international sommellerie. At its head, Michèle Chantôme, who is also secretary of the Association of International Sommeliers (ASI).

Portugal, in all its splendor

With 837 km of coastline(1), sumptuous forests (oak, pine, carob), cities one more beautiful than the next (Porto, Lisbon, Madeira, Sintra) and a generally temperate climate with an Atlantic influence, Portugal is a country that you can only fall in love with.

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Currently the 11th largest producer of wine, the Portuguese vineyard covers 190,000 hectares of vines(2) and represents some 600 million liters of wine (2.24% of the world production). Let’s embark together on a journey from north to south – between the 42° and the 36° parallels north – aboard our motorhome, also ready for adventure.

The vineyard of the Upper Douro valley, a student’s dream

Known all around the world for its Port wines – of which France is the world’s largest consumer by volume by the way – the Upper Douro produces two appellations of origin, Port and Douro (for still wines).

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Why did we stop here you might ask. Because since I entered the world of wine ten years ago, I dreamt of discovering the magic of the first delimited and regulated wine-growing region in the world, classified as a world heritage site by the UNESCO since 2001, with its steep terraced vineyards, plunging into the water of the Douro. 

So if you are in the area, stop at Vila Nova de Gaia, just in front of Porto. In addition to its old pedestrian streets, its small hidden restaurants and its colorful port, visiting a cellar is unavoidable here.

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Indeed, the large estates of the Douro – the quinta – have always had a cellar in Vila Nova de Gaia for the aging of their wines. Its strategic position, along the river, has been the main route of the wine trade since the 17th century, under the impetus of the British.

We visited the Ferreira wine cellar, the only Porto winery to remain in Portuguese hands since it was founded in 1751. Built on the foundations of a former convent, Ferreira is one of the most special cellars to visit. A bewitching smell of wet wood, mixed with that of very sweet wine, reigned in the atmosphere throughout our visit. A nice addition to the pleasure of tasting the white and red Port wines of the domain.

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There are many ways to discover the Upper Douro region: by road, like us, by train, by boat, or even by helicopter. Arriving from the north, we stopped on the right bank of the river, between Regua and Pinhão, at Quinta do Crasto.

A magnificent property of 135 hectares overlooking the Douro, 74 of which are planted with vines. Dating back to 1615, Quinta do Crasto enjoys exceptional conditions for the production of fine wines (and extra virgin olive oils).

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The tasting of the wines had shown us that the region is not only a land of Porto, but also a great terroir for the production of elegant, solar and well-structured red wines.

Bucelas, prince of Portuguese wine

Going down to the south, we stopped in Bucelas, near Lisbon. Here, the vineyard is nicknamed the “prince of Portuguese wine” and is famous for its production of dry white wine from the Arinto grape variety.

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A grape cultivated and developed locally by the Romans for more than 2,000 years. It was also the only white wine in Portugal for many centuries.

Welcome to Quinta Da Murta, a small paradise of 27 hectares, lost in the hills of Bucelas. “The land of Bucelas is unique, with its limestone and marl soils and a hill facing south-east, ideal for the production of fresh and tense wines”, Franck Bodin, the owner of the estate, explained. Quinta Da Murta favors biodynamic and natural winemaking, using indigenous yeasts. The grass grows naturally between the rows of vines.

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And only the manure of the neighbor’s horse is used to improve the health of the vines. The Arinto wine of the estate, crispy and fresh, was delicious. You can even book the venue for your wedding.

The Setúbal peninsula, a promising oeno-touristic destination

We could not visit Portugal without going along its coastline. Nothing better than a sea breath full of iodine, mixed with the caress of the sun and a glass of wine in hand, to recharge your batteries!

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We decided on visiting the peninsula of Setúbal(3). This region, whose vineyard has gained renown in recent decades, also has a unique nature, with the Arrábida and Marinho Luis Saldanha National Parks, as well as the Sado Natural Reserve. All the ingredients to make it a favorite oeno-touristic destination.

Grape seeds dating from the eighth century BC. J.-C. have even been found there, attesting to the ancestral culture of wine in the valley.

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We discovered Serras de Grândola, a family estate of 6.5 hectares, just 13 km from the beaches.

Here, Jacinta, the oenologist, and Manuel, her husband, combine wine and tourism to the delight of visitors. “Slightly hilly soils made of sand are perfectly suited to the production of white grapes”, Jacinta explained. Their Verdelho, a delicate white wine aged in stainless steel vats on its lees, is a delight.

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Then discover the six rooms of the complex, for a change of scenery guaranteed. No neighbors for miles around, the place is perfect for a moment of relaxation out of time.

Quinta dos Vales, “the winemaker experience“

Welcome to Estombar, in the south of Portugal where we met with Karl Heinz Stock, founder of Quinta dos Vales.

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Former banker in real estate, of German origin, Karl completely changed his life a few years ago, becoming a recognized artist, with his sculptures of generous curves and bright colors. In 2006, he had the idea of combining art and wine and planted a vineyard of 20 hectares on his property ; where many of his art pieces are exhibited. A very nice idea! Quinta dos Vales was born. 

But the concept does not stop there. “We all have to be proactive and stay ahead of the market, so I have been working on a new project”, Karl said. A concept he named The Winemaker Experience.

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The idea : to give the possibility to any person having no prior knowledge of wine to produce his own wine by attending classes throughout the year… living on the estate, in his own individual residence!

“The concept is for any budding winemaker whose dream is to wake up in the morning with a view of his vines, in an atmosphere that only a vineyard can offer, and to relax at the end of the day, with a glass (or two) of his own wine ».

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The concept has just been created. To follow.

Quinta Do Francês, the nice story of the French of the Algarve

We ended our stay at the Algarve, the southernmost region of Portugal, to discover a French couple as passionate as they are charming. Fátima Santos and her husband Patrick Agostini, are the founders and owners of Quinta Do Francês, created from scratch in 2002 with 8 hectares of vines.

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Patrick, the oenologist and winemaker of the estate, has a fascinating history. Being a doctor specialized in research against cancerous diseases, his specialization (rare in Europe) led him a few years ago to move his suitcases to Portugal with his wife. A country from which they never left. “It’s a country we both love for its calmness and joie de vivre, and where I come from”, Fátima told us.

Very quickly – and as passionate about wine as he was – Patrick decided to look for a plot to plant a vineyard. He found a valley with unique soils for the region: clay, limestone, sandstone and shale, perfect for the elaboration of great red wines.

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With perseverance and learning, he became a talented winemaker… and at the same time succeeded in keeping his activity as a researcher in cancer diseases. Impressive! His iconic red wine, a blend of Trincadeira, Aragonês, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, is a delight. A wine made for aging many years.

Portugal is definitely a great player in the world of wine and is full of wines as generous as they are varied. So go (re)discover this vineyard with a thousand facets.

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Without forgetting to lose yourself in the oak forests, these trees with a famous bark, which alone, produces the corks of 75% of the bottles of wine in the world using this material.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Quinta do Crasto, Ferreira, Quinta Da Murta, Serras de Grândola, Quinta dos Vales and Quinta do Francês for their warm welcome.

 

(1) The Portuguese coast has 837 km of coast without the islands, but 1,793 km with Madeira and the Azores.
(2) Source OIV 2017 – Portugal had the world’s 11th vineyard in 2016 and the 5th in Europe with 190,000 hectares. The cultivated areas are in strong reductions as the country still had 231,000 ha of vines in 2012.
(3) The peninsula of Setúbal includes the Appellations of Origin Palmela and Setúbal and the designation of regional wines “Península de Setúbal”. The name “Setúbal” is reserved for Moscatel wines from Setúbal and Moscatel Roxo.