Exploring the History of Wine in Morocco

Winemaking in Morocco dates back to Phoenician times. This North African nation is producing wines in the foothills of the coastal Atlas Mountains.
The vineyards at Ouled Thaleb / Photo courtesy Ouled Thaleb

While many travelers to Morocco return home with treasures from the souk (marketplaces) and stories of stays in luxurious riads (palaces) in Marrakech or tent camps in the Sahara, few bring back tales of local wine. Most meals there, especially those eaten outside hotels or high-end restaurants, are accompanied solely by Maghrebi mint tea.

Winemaking in this North African nation dates back to Phoenician times, and the tradition continued through the Roman era. The art of enology was lost here in the 7th century due to Islamic bans on alcohol, but French colonization in the 19th and early 20th centuries heralded the return of both winemaking and social drinking.

By the 1950s, Morocco was one of the largest wine exporting countries in the world, but after the country gained independence in 1956, many vineyards were abandoned or plowed over. In the 1990s, King Hassan II appealed to French investors and wine experts to return the industry to its former glory.

Despite the notion of Morocco as a hot country with a desert climate, most vineyards are in the foothills of the coastal Atlas Mountains. The relatively high altitudes and the cooling effect of the nearby ocean preserve acidity in grapes and help create balanced wines.

Today, the country produces about 40 million bottles of wine annually, but only about 5 percent is exported. There are seven wine regions containing a total of 14 AOGs (guaranteed appellation of origin) and 2 AOCs (controlled appellation of origin).

Harvesting grapes by hand at Ouled Thaleb / Photo courtesy Ouled Thaleb
Harvesting grapes by hand at Ouled Thaleb / Photo courtesy Ouled Thaleb

Six of the seven regions are clustered on or near the Atlantic coast, to the southwest of Spain and Gibraltar, near Meknes, Rabat and Casablanca. The remaining region is farther east, bordering Algeria and the Mediterranean Sea.

Despite the notion of Morocco as a hot country with a desert climate, most vineyards are in the foothills of the coastal Atlas Mountains. The relatively high altitudes and the cooling effect of the nearby ocean preserve acidity in grapes and help create balanced wines.

About 75 percent of wines made here are red, predominantly Rhône varieties like Syrah, Grenache and Carignan, as well as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Rosé and Vin Gris—a style of greyish-pink blush wine—are produced, as are austere whites made from Chenin Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and more full-bodied Chardonnay.

The Historical Cradles of Wine

While most wineries are owned by French companies and employ French winemakers and viticulturists, one notable exception is Spanish winemaker Albert Costa of Priorat’s Vall Llach.

Costa is working on a project with Les Celliers de Meknès, whose vines sit at about 2,300 feet above sea level. Other notable producers include Bernard Magrez, Domaine de Sahari and Thalvin-Domaine des Ouled Thaleb, which is the oldest winery in the country, established in 1923. Thalvin Alain Graillot Syrocco is a 100-percent Syrah crafted by a winemaker, Graillot, better known for his Crozes-Hermitage.

Tara Patrick, wine director at Mourad, a Michelin-starred Moroccan restaurant in San Francisco, offers a tasting menu that incudes Moroccan wine, which Patrick says comes as a surprise to some diners.

She says, “they are often intrigued and inquisitive, as few have experienced Moroccan wines before… [the] correlation between the food and the wine provides an easy segue for the guest to venture to explore wines from Morocco.”

Published on February 22, 2017
Topics: Wine History
About the Author
Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen
Entertaining and Lifestyle Editors

Mike DeSimone and Jeff Jenssen are Wine Enthusiast's Entertaining and Lifestyle Editors. DeSimone tastes wine from Israel and the Mediterranean Basin, while Jenssen tastes wine from Eastern Europe, including the former the Soviet Union and Yugoslavia. Both co-authored Wines of California, Wines of the Southern Hemisphere, and The Fire Island Cookbook. Wine educators and presenters, both gentlemen serve as frequent guests on national and local television. Email: mikeandjeff@wineenthusiast.net



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