Rock the Casbah - Let's Drink Moroccan Wine!

Cask aging at Ouled Thaleb
Cask aging at Ouled Thaleb

For obvious climatic and cultural reasons, the Arab world isn’t often considered a major player in wine production. Those who are familiar with the relatively few wines made in Arab countries choose Lebanon as their go-to destination, with prestigious wineries such as Chateau Musar, Chateau Kefraya and Chateau Massaya to name some.

However, wine production also has a rich history in Morocco, where it has been made for 2,500 years, enjoying a wealth of soil diversity and temperate microclimates ideal for growing balanced wine grapes. This was not lost on the French and Spanish colonizers who settled in North Africa in the early 1800s and planted vines with Bordeaux and Spanish grapes. In the French Colonial era, winemakers looked to Morocco to keep “secret” vineyards, hidden from their oppressors in France. Because of this, when the phylloxera crisis hit Europe in the late 19th century, many French winemakers knew to relocate and plant vines in Morocco to continue production. Today, Morocco is the largest producer of wines in the Arab world, with some 40 million bottles produced domestically. Though when it gained independence from France in 1956, most of the importing ceased. Now precious few of those bottles, only 3 million, seem to acquire a foreign passport. That is slowly starting to change.

Harvesting grapes by hand at Ouled Thaleb
Harvesting grapes by hand at Ouled Thaleb

For now, one of the scant handful of producers imported to the US is Domaine Ouleb Thaleb. The winery was established in 1923 in the hillsides of Benslimane in the Zenata region, just northeast of Casablanca, where it faces the Atlantic Ocean. The winery is famous for leading a domestic wine revival in the 1990s, which focuses on mostly French grape varietals for marketability. While the term “handmade” is vastly overused, it is apt in describing these wines, where the organic vineyards are ploughed and weeded without the use of machines.

They are a food-friendly bunch, meant for casual sipping. It’s definitely worth seeking them out cooking a big meal, and tasting them over the course of a night, especially at such affordable price points! Santé!

Domaine Ouleb Thaleb picks:

Camel plowing at Ouled Thaleb
Camel plowing at Ouled Thaleb

2012 Moroccan White Blend: 60% Faranah (an indigenous grape) and 40% Clairette, all stainless steel fermentation. A fresh, aromatic wine with flavors of golden apple, white peach, pear and elderflower. Tastes very similar to Spanish Albariño from the Rias Baixas region, though perhaps slightly less perfumed. $14

2011 Unoaked Chardonnay: 100% Chardonnay, fermented in concrete tanks. Green apple and pear with a slight baking spice finish, though has a good mineral and acidic balance. Very reminiscent of the Chablis style, but you’ll find it for much less! $16

2012 Moroccan Rosé: 60% Syrah, 30% Grenache, 20% Cinsault, fermented in stainless steel. Watermelon and raspberry fruits, with the Syrah’s influence of spice and enough weight to satisfy red wine drinkers. Refreshing, with just the right hit of acidity in the finish. A really solid, food-friendly rosé. $14

Ouled Thaleb
Ouled Thaleb

2012 Moroccan Red Blend: 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Grenache, 10 months in oak. The Grenache is an interesting choice for the secondary grape, and adds a pop of luscious black cherries and plums to the more earthy tones of the Cabernet. Juicy, with a surprising vanilla creaminess in the finish not usually found in wines of this price range. $14

2011 Medaillon: 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, 10% Syrah, aged in concrete and new oak barrels. Very inky, with dark fruit flavors (think black cherry, black currants) and a hint of spice. Fans of fruit-forward California meritage blends will be drawn to this style. $16

2010 Syrah: 100% Syrah, aged in concrete and 12 months new French oak barrels. Dark blackberry and blueberry, with a pleasant waft of smoked meat and spice. Very juicy, begging for a roast lamb dinner (can probably match some of the trickier herbs to go with it too.) $16