Morocco: North Africa’s Great Wine Secret

22 February 2018

Domaine de Sahari Rosé

Many of us, I’ve discovered, don’t know much about Morocco. People generally realize that it’s a Muslim-majority country, and as such, they expect it to be part of the Middle East and entirely alcohol-free. In fact, Morocco is almost as close to New York as it is to Riyadh, and as I discovered, delicious wine is quite easy to find. And not just imports. Delicious local wine. This came as something of a shock even to me, a person quite accustomed to writing about wine from unexpected places.

Winemaking in Morocco dates back to the Phoenicians, and the Romans carried on the tradition. Reports conflict about what happened after the Arab invasions. My Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia states that “after more than 1,000 years of Muslim rule, winemaking died out.” But the history of Moroccan wine printed in La Sultana‘s menu claims that Morocco’s “strong Jewish community continued to produce wine in its gardens,” and that the Portuguese made wine around their enclaves on the coast. Either way, serious commercial winemaking didn’t reappear in Morocco until the French took over in the early 20th century.

Morocco briefly became something of a wine powerhouse, at least in terms of quantity, but after the country became independent in the 1950s, the local market shrank dramatically, and European rules hindered exports. It was only in the 1990s, when King Hassan II attracted foreign investment in the country’s vineyards, according to The Oxford Companion to Wine, that things began to turn around (the current king, Mohammed VI, continues his policies). Just seven years ago, in 2011, Morocco designated its first Appellation d’Origine Contrôlée (AOC), Les Coteaux de l’Atlas. So although winemaking in Morocco has ancient roots, the best wines available now are all new creations.

La Perle du Sud in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains

But wait a minute. Isn’t Morocco too hot and too dry for quality winemaking? The image “Morocco” conjures for many of us involves desert caravans and spice-filled souks. Not vineyards! But as I discovered, winters can be downright frigid, especially in the mountains — my driver took me through a snowstorm at one point — and even in the summer, cool Atlantic currents keep the coast temperate. Irrigation is a necessity, but that’s hardly unusual. And rocky Moroccan soil drains well. Vineyards that take advantage of either ocean breezes or high elevation to stay cool can produce very fine wine indeed.

Nowadays, Moroccan wines take pride-of-place on menus of restaurants that serve alcohol. One wine list I encountered offered some 34 different Moroccan bottlings, including a sparkler, whites, rosés, reds and vin gris, a sort of light rosé made by vinifying dark-skinned grapes as if you were making a white wine (i.e. with little to no skin contact).

The one sparkling wine I had, a La Perle du Sud Blanc de Blancs by Le Celliers de Meknès, Morocco’s largest winery, had an AOC designation (Crémant de l’Atlas), but it tasted like not-very-expensive Cava to me. Some of the whites, like the CB Initiales Domaine Thalvin Chardonnay from Benslimane (east of Casablanca), were balanced and delicious, but most were frankly disappointing. The worst was a funky Médaillon Sauvignon Blanc that tasted aggressively citrusy. It clashed horrifically with some seafood couscous, which brought out some sort of odd artificial cantaloupe note in the wine. Blergh. Be careful with the whites.

I only tried a handful of the spicy vin gris wines, but I liked all of them. The rosés also tended to be quite good, with classic strawberry fruit and juicy acids (it’s hard to really screw up a dry rosé, I think). The Domaine de Sahari Reserve rosé of Syrah is a good example, with powdery strawberry fruit, lemony acids, refined green peppercorn spice and a dry finish. I sipped it by a swimming pool as the call of the muezzin floated across the medina. It felt deliciously sacrilegious.

Château Roslane at La Grande Table Marocaine

Much as I enjoyed the vin gris and rosé, red is currently Morocco’s strong suit. Moroccan reds come in a range of styles, and all the ones I tried had reasonable balance. My favorite was the 2014 Château Roslane Premier Cru from the Coteaux de l’Atlas AOC, also by Le Celliers de Meknès. I tasted the wine in what is surely Morocco’s most exquisite restaurant, La Grande Table Marocaine in the Royal Mansour hotel. The setting didn’t hurt, but the wine would have been memorable anywhere. It tasted of ripe dark fruit — Morocco has no trouble ripening its grapes — and an almost minty freshness gave the fruit a lift, floating it atop refined white-pepper spice and serious but very well-integrated tannins. Very impressive.

I wouldn’t rush out to organize a Moroccan wine tour just yet — the wineries are forbidden from selling directly to consumers, and so tasting rooms aren’t much of a thing (Château Roslane excepted). I’m also not convinced you’ll find too many Moroccan options in your local wine shop, though there is at least one importer in the U.S.

Nevertheless, Morocco is a stupendously beautiful country to visit that’s quite welcoming to tourists. I highly recommend going, unless you’re an introvert. You’ll be absolutely miserable there if you’re an introvert. For everyone else, it’s a delight, and while you’re there, you’re sure to find some surprisingly tasty local wines to take the edge off a day of haggling in the souks.

Name That Wine: On Location

9 February 2018

I’m especially excited about our latest two episodes of Name That Wine, the blind tasting-themed web series I started with my dear friend Liz. This time, we’re on location in one of our favorite Chicago wine shops, In Fine Spirits, and we’ve asked owner Jarran Conger to share some wines with stories.

In Episode 9, Jarran selects a delicious white from an unexpected location, and he tells us why he thinks women winemakers tend to be better than men:

And in Episode 10, Jarran shares a red with a surprising connection to our North Side Chicago neighborhood, Andersonville:

Both wines prove to be quite good values for the money, as is usually the case at In Fine Spirits. They’re worth seeking out!

If you like Name That Wine, please do hit the “Subscribe” button on the YouTube site. The more subscribers we get, the more interesting places we can shoot our show!

Pomerol: Making The Case For Merlot

29 January 2018

“If anyone orders Merlot I am leaving. I am NOT drinking any f***ing Merlot!” Those two little sentences from the 2004 film Sideways continue to f*** up Merlot to this day. Certain large California wineries didn’t do the grape any favors, producing all too much flabby, overripe, jammy, unbalanced Merlot. It’s understandable that it developed an unfortunate reputation in the United States.

At a recent Union des Grands Crus de Bordeaux tasting in Chicago, I mentioned that reputation to Eric Monneret, Managing Director of Château La Pointe in Bordeaux’s Pomerol appellation. He sighed and said, “In the U.S., people don’t believe that Merlot can be fresh. People can’t imagine a fresh Merlot. The window to the harvest is very short — Merlot becomes overcooked very quickly.” Grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon are more forgiving, he said, but Merlot — you have to be precise.

Dany Rolland

And I suspect that few places are as precise with their Merlot as Pomerol. “Merlot was born in Pomerol,” Dany Rolland, sister to Michel Rolland, explained to me. “It’s difficult to make elsewhere,” she said, though Pomerol’s neighbor, St-Émilion, might disagree.

The World Atlas of Wine also has kind words for Pomerol, saying that “…an astonishing number of small [Pomerol] properties, for an area no bigger than St-Julien, are generally agreed to be among the best in the whole of Bordeaux.” And if properties are among the best in Bordeaux, that means they’re among the best in the world. Not bad for poor old Merlot!

Unlike many of Bordeaux’s appellations, Pomerol is unclassified, which means that all wines from the region are simply Pomerol. The soil changes too frequently, it seems, and the terroir doesn’t necessarily follow vineyard boundaries. But as The Atlas explains, “Rather than being overwhelmed by the complications of Pomerol, it is worth knowing that the average standard here is very high.” So if you pick a Pomerol more or less at random, you’re likely to get something quite good. Unfortunately, as The Atlas goes on to say, it likely won’t be inexpensive.

I had the chance to taste six Pomerols at the tasting at Chicago’s Drake Hotel, and oh my, they really were a delight.

2015 Château La Pointe: Mr. Monneret told me that in 2015, the Merlot was strong and fresh (sometimes, it’s just one or the other). And certainly his wine was both. A blend of 85% Merlot and 15% Cabernet Franc, it had an aroma of fresh dark cherries mixed with some spiciness and a light vanilla note, and it tasted very well-balanced, moving slowly and deliberately from rich, ripe dark-red fruit to ample acids and spice. There was a delectable chewiness to the wine at first. I suspect that will lessen as time goes on, but the wine is a pleasure to drink even now.

Eric Monneret

2015 Château Le Bon Pasteur: The Rolland family used to own this château, but Michel sold it in 2013. Nevertheless, Dany still serves as the winemaker. She told me that 2015 was a sunny vintage that had rain at just the right time. This Pomerol, a blend of 80% Merlot and 20% Cabernet Franc, had an aroma dominated by mocha, with a cherry note underneath. It tasted rich with chocolate-covered cherries, leavened with hint of coffee-like bitterness. A shaft of acids and spice kept the wine tight, and it had a long, fresh finish. The tannins sneaked up on me, meaning that they were more-than-usually well integrated.

2015 Château Beauregard: This château’s representative was ill at the time of the tasting, so we didn’t have the chance to chat. It’s too bad, because this wine smelled particularly fresh, with the dark-cherry fruit and vanilla notes buoyed by a bright leafiness. It tasted wonderfully fresh as well, with round fruit and supple tannins. All that freshness likely comes from the higher percentage of Cabernet Franc — this bottling is 70% Merlot, 26% Cabernet Franc and 4% Cabernet Sauvignon. Cheerful and refined.

2015 Château Rouget: This château has fallen into the hands of Burgundians! The only Burgundian château-owners in Bordeaux, according to Edouard Labruyère, who represents a family of winemakers going back some 250 years. The Labruyères bought Rouget in 1994, and they farm the vineyards totally organically. “As a Burgundian,” he confided, “I use whole [grape] clusters — I don’t de-stem.” His crazy Burgundian techniques seem to be working, even in Bordeaux. His Pomerol’s aroma had an almost electric tension between ripe dark cherries and bright freshness. It tasted big and juicy and fresh, and the finish went on for ages.

François Estager

2015 Château La Cabanne: Owner François Estager went all-in with Merlot in 2015. Well, almost — his wine is 95% Merlot blended with 5% Cabernet Franc. I loved its aroma of dark cherries mixed with a bit of chocolate and a violet-like perfume. This wine also moved with slow grace, changing effortlessly from ripe fruit to focused spice to supple tannins to a fresh eucalyptus finish. “Zowie,” I wrote in my notebook. You could surely age this, but it’s gorgeous now.

2015 Château Gazin: Gazin’s Technical Director Mikaël Obert used the same blend as La Cabanne. In some years, he explained, he uses a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon too, but in 2015 it didn’t ripen as well, so it ended up in the château’s second-label wine. He also uses just 15% new oak, because he prefers “for the grapes to express their personality, not the barrel.” There was that dark cherry aroma again mingled with dark chocolate, and the flavor was lush and velvety. It moved seamlessly and luxuriously from fruit to spice to a finish of dusty mocha. Or rather, I thought that was the finish, until it moved yet again, on to some eucalyptus freshness. Very polished, and very delicious.

The point of all these tasting notes is that Merlot can be ever so much more than a flabby jam bomb. I most certainly am drinking some f***ing Merlot, and I suggest you do the same. Especially if it’s Pomerol.

The Eye-Opening Experience Of Blind Tasting

15 January 2018

I still get a little nervous before every shoot of Name That Wine, a blind tasting-themed web series I recently started with my friend Liz Barrett. There are so many wines in the world, and attempting to identify where a wine comes from and what it’s made out of, based just on how it looks, how it smells and how it tastes, is a daunting business. There’s no surer way to decimate your ego as a wine writer than to go down in raging flames in a blind tasting. Indeed, for every success I’ve had on Name That Wine, I’ve had at least two spectacular failures.

Fortunately for me, my self-esteem isn’t closely associated with my blind-tasting skills, and filming Name That Wine has been a hoot. What a learning experience! Some of the lessons I’ve learned so far:

Trust my instincts. In a recent episode we filmed, I had reason to suspect that a wine was Old World (European), and yet in the end, I went with New Zealand. What? Why did I do that?? Argh! I realize now that I was thinking about what the wine shop owner would most likely have chosen for our tasting. I was doing as much psychology as analyzing the wine itself, and while that might sometimes be helpful, that kind of thinking has bitten me in the backside more often than not. From now on, I have to pay more attention to the wine than who chose it.

I’ve got blind spots. Egad, do I have blind spots. In one episode we were presented with a Tempranillo, but Spain never even crossed my mind. And that wine I thought was from the Old World but then decided was from New Zealand? It was from Spain. I’ve been to Spain several times, but I realize that I’ve never been to Spanish wine country. That makes a huge difference. I also realize that I haven’t written about Spanish wines in ages and ages. Which is so odd, because I love Spanish wine. Clearly, it’s time to reacquaint myself with it.

There are lots of delicious non-odd wines out there: This likely isn’t news to anyone but me, but it’s something that bears repeating. Wines that everyone has heard of — Champagne, Argentine Malbec, Rioja — are not famous by accident. They are famous because they are very frequently very delicious. If you’re reading this blog, it’s likely because you too enjoy ferreting out unusual treasures, and certainly we should continue to do that. But if we ignore the famous names, we deny ourselves some of the world’s great vinous pleasures.

If you’ve never tried a blind tasting yourself, I can’t recommend it highly enough. Even if you think you know little about wine, a blind tasting can be great fun and easy to organize.

A blind tasting is a great way to learn more about the kind of wine you like. For example, let’s say you always gravitate towards Cabernet Sauvignon. You might purchase three Cabs — your favorite, one that’s less expensive and one that’s more expensive — and do a little comparing. Can you pick out your favorite? What is it about that Cab that makes it your favorite? And heck, throw a curveball or two into the mix, and add in a Malbec or Nero d’Avola or some other hearty red. Can you differentiate it from the others?

Or let’s say you’re not sure what kind of wine you like, but you know you prefer white. Assemble a German Riesling, a New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc, a Chablis, a California Chardonnay and an Alsatian Gewürztraminer. Bag them and mix them up, and have someone else number the bags, open the wines and pour. With that selection, the traits you value in a white wine should become clear.

If it’s reds you prefer, purchase a New Zealand Pinot Noir, a French Pinot Noir, a Spanish Garnacha, an Argentine Malbec, a Washington Syrah and a California Cabernet. And have a party! The results should be most illuminating.

Tasting the wine and thinking about what precisely you like or dislike is immensely helpful, particularly when you’re faced with an unfamiliar wine list or when you’re in a large wine shop. Do you prize juicy acidity? A lush, round mouthfeel, perhaps? Or maybe minerality? Or sweetness or dryness?

I’ve discovered that in whites, though I adore all sorts of different kinds, there are two that I love above all others. I love whites with a note of butter and/or popcorn balanced with bright acids (like white Burgundy), and I love whites that have ripe fruit, or even sweetness, mixed with sharp acids and spice (including wines like Mosel Rieslings as well as Sauternes). In sparkling wines I seek toasty, bready notes paired with pinprick bubbles. Rosés that I love are lusciously fruity but bone-dry, with a strong shaft of minerality. In reds, I look for ripe, cool, clear fruit; focused acids; and notes of mocha and/or sweet tobacco really float my boat.

If you haven’t made a study of wine but you know what it is you like, you’ll never be lost. A good sommelier or wine store employee can direct you to exactly what you’re looking for, as long as you can give them a little guidance.

So what is it you look for in a wine? Have you tried doing a blind tasting yourself? I would love to hear about either or both in the comments below! And if you haven’t already, please subscribe to the Name That Wine channel on YouTube. It’s the red button. Thank you!

« Previous PageNext Page »