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).

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