It’s not often that you see a camel in a vineyard, but wine has a long history in Morocco. That’s part of the reason Charles Mélia left behind his family’s Châteauneuf-du-Pape winery, Château de la Font Du Loup, for a section of North Africa where you’re more likely to see tree-climbing goats and kite surfing than grapevines. He tells us about his Moroccan winery, Domaine du Val d’Argan and the merits of camels over tractors.
What motivates a winemaker to leave France for Essaouira, Morocco?
The quality of life. [Laughs.] I wanted to get away from the strictness and rigidity of the French system. And in France, you work 24/7. I went to Paris at 19 to study law, but I spent most of my youth near Casablanca and have always spoken colloquial Arabic. Our Châteauneuf-du-Pape domaine is a little bit small, and the price of land is excessive there. So I visited wine regions like Argentina and New Zealand, then decided to do an experiment in Morocco. There’s less pressure here…I found the Essaouira region very agreeable, notably for the northern trade winds. And I specifically chose grapes from the southern Rhône valley, which aren’t used at all in Morocco. I began with five hectares, now I have 50. Val d’Argan’s still the smallest in the country, but we employ around 100 locals so, effectively, it’s an important enterprise.
Which grapes work well in Essaouira?
Grenache Blanc, Viognier, Muscat and Roussanne grapes grow best in this region’s dry, red soil.
You have three daughters.
Yes. My daughter Emmanuelle lives in Marrakech and makes sure all the luxury hotels like La Mamounia, Le Royal Mansour and Sofitel are stocked with our Roussanne and El Mogador [Sauvignon Blanc]. She takes care of all that. My youngest daughter, who’s 27, got married here at the Essaouira vineyard in September. My oldest runs Font du Loup, our vineyard in France.
Tell me about your camel and antique plow.
Well, Arabian camels are called dromedaries, and they only have one hump. Beyond that, it’s very simple. We’ve done organic agriculture here since the beginning [Val d’Argan became certified organic in 2006]. Comparable vineyards in France use horses to plow the vines, because it’s more ecological than gas-guzzling tractors. Here in Morocco, we have Arab horses, but dromedaries cope better with the heat, so I bought Goliath seven years ago, and now he’s part of the family. We love him. He plows the closest possible to the foot of the vine. Voilà.
How did you adapt to making wine in Morocco?
In the beginning, I planted my vines a little like I would’ve in Europe, meaning on three-tiered espaliers. The problem? Direct contact with sun can burn the grapes. So we’d cover them with herbs and branches for shelter. However, a more interesting defense mechanism is to grow the vines very low to the ground, and quite close to one another so their leaves protect the grapes. I’d seen this method locally but didn’t use it at Val d’Argan. It’s going to pass 85 degrees [Fahrenheit] today, and that second strategy fights more effectively against heat wave. I use it with all my new plants.
Since Morocco is a former French colony and alcohol is frowned upon, are there many native Moroccans making wine? Or is it mainly French transplants?
In the late ’90s, a few years after I arrived, I read an article in Le Matin newspaper about how His Majesty Hassan II was inviting French experts and investors here to revive the kingdom’s viticulture. But Brahim Zniber is definitely the primary reason this country’s winemaking sector didn’t disappear after gaining independence from France in 1956. Mr. Zniber, who was Moroccan, started Celliers de Meknès in the ’50s. For a long time, Meknès was the only winery in Morocco, and [its] still the largest. Moroccan vineyard owners work with the French specialists, though. For example, Celliers de Meknès brought a vintner over from Bordeaux, a guy called Jacques Poulin.
Taking into account the changes since Val d’Argan came on the scene in 1994, what do you see as the future for Moroccan wines?
I would say that Moroccan vineyards were rather “industrial” for a long time: big volume, big quantity. New boutique vineyards are popping up here now, Ferme Rouge about 10 years ago and two or three new little ones that are very good quality, too. So yes, there’s good development happening in terms of quality Moroccan viticulture. In fact, I think we’re at parity now. I’m just waiting for a visit from the big international critics to recognize that our wines are as good as the rest of the world’s.