My first thought after reading the invitation that arrived in my inbox was “Moroccan wines? You must be kidding me.” Then, I recalled that nearly four years ago I was pleasantly surprised by a tasting of Turkish wines—another unexpected source of fine wines. So, I typed “yes,” and clicked send.
A few weeks later, I found myself sitting next to 43-year-old, French-born winemaker Stephane Mariot of Domaine Ouled Thaleb in Manhattan’s French-Moroccan Barbes restaurant.
Mariot told me that although Morocco is a Muslim country, it has a long history of winemaking and drinking. Moroccans have produced wines for centuries. Its vineyards attracted French winemakers towards the close of the 19th century when the Phylloxera louse destroyed vineyards throughout France. (Morocco became a protectorate of France from 1912 until it gained independence in 1956.)
In 1923, Domaine Ouled Thaleb was created in the coastal Zenata region, between Casablanca and Rabat. It is named for the tribe that owned the vineyard land and worked at the winery. After independence, the government confiscated all vineyards, causing the French to flee and the wine industry to collapse.
But rejuvenation began in the 1990s when King Hussein II, who studied law at the University of Bordeaux, enticed Bordeaux wine producers with attractive terms to replant the vineyards and begin producing Moroccan wine. Following the French system of appellations, Morocco has 14 Appellations of Origin Guaranteed (AOG), and Zenata is one. Mariot said today 37 million of the 40 million bottles produced annually in Morocco are consumed domestically.
Mariot presented the 2014 Domaine Ouled Thaleb Moroccan White Blend composed of 60 percent faranah, an indigenous grape, and 40 percent clairette, a grape grown in the Rhone and Mediterranean areas of France. Its pronounced floral and tropical fruit aromas reminded me of France’s viognier-based white wines, and the pineapple flavor had almost no acidity or alcohol impact. It was pleasant with Barbes’ Briouats (Moroccan pastry shells filled with chicken and almonds) and Zaalouk (roasted eggplant, tomato, garlic, arugula and balsamic vinaigrette.) 85 points. At approximately $14, it is an ideal warm weather party wine.
The 2014 Ouled Thaleb Chardonnay and 2012 Moroccan Red Blend wines were much less successful. But the 2013 Domaine Ouled Thaleb Medaillon struck an upbeat chord with its 90 percent cabernet sauvignon and 10 percent syrah blend. This composition is part of Bordeaux’s history: For centuries, Bordeaux winemakers brought syrah from the Rhone Valley to boost their cabernet sauvignon in weak vintages.
The 2013 Medaillon, needed no boosting. It was aged for one year in a mix of new and slightly used barrels; its blackberry-scented and-flavored wine glided on soft tannins. A few months later, another bottle displayed the same characteristics, along with a mild peppery note, and a touch of vanilla from the oak barrel aging. 89 points. Expect to pay about $17.
As Mariot poured the 2012 Ouled Thaleb Ait Souala he said it was named for the largest winery in Africa, and made from a blend of 25 percent each tannat and malbec, and 50 percent arinarona (created from crossbreeding tannat and cabernet sauvignon.) Its two years of aging in a mix of oak barrels and concrete tanks yielded pleasant blackberry and black olive aromas and flavors with a touch of herbaceousness. The concrete vats preserved the wine’s fresh black fruit character, making it a pleasing pairing with Barbes’ Tagine Chicken. 88 points. Expect to pay about $23.
The 2013 Ouled Thaleb Signature is composed of grape varieties many wine consumers are unfamiliar with: Carmenere, Petit Verdot and Marselan.
Carmenere was once grown in Bordeaux, but is now identified with Chile, where for more than a century it was thought to be merlot. It contributes black-fruit flavor and body, and is 15 percent of Signature’s blend.
Petit Verdot is grown in Bordeaux, principally in the vineyards of St. Estephe, Pauillac, St. Julien and Margaux. It contributes blueberry aroma and flavor, and viscosity. It’s 35 percent of the blend.
Marselan is the least-known grape in this blend. It was created in 1961 by Frenchman Paul Truel at the agricultural research station near Marseillan. He crossed cabernet sauvignon with grenache, with the hope it would have the finesse of cabernet sauvignon and the heat tolerance of grenache. I’ve tasted Marselan grown in southern France and Uruguay, and found it to have a profile of medium body, with blueberry and black-cherry aromas and tastes. In this wine, it’s 50 percent of the blend.
Mariot’s combination resulted in a black-cherry color, pronounced blackberry and black-cherry aromas, and a medium body that cloaked itself in blackberry flavors with very soft tannins and scarce acidity. While it is not structured for aging, it has an appeal for immediate consumption. At our luncheon, it was delightful with a dish of lamb, chicken and merguez on a bed of couscous. And a few months later, another bottle paired perfectly with my pan-seared loin lamb chops and sautéed mushrooms. 90 points. Expect to pay about $24.
If there is a grape that is most suited to Morocco’s desert climate, it is syrah. Domaine Ouled Thaleb’s vineyards are near the Atlantic Ocean, giving the vines a breath of cool air as the sun sets. The 2012 Domaine Ouled Thaleb Syrah has a black-cherry hue; its black-cherry and blackberry aroma is commanding, but surprisingly missing is syrah’s black-pepper marker. The ripe blackberry flavor is more pronounced, and has a fuller mouthfeel than any of the other Ouled Thaleb wines. But its tannins remain softer and silkier than any other pure syrah wine I can recall. 90 points. Expect to pay about $18.
As I finished the tasting, I was pleased by the consistent profile of ripe fruit flavors, soft tannins and mild acidity that made the wines immediately drinkable. Add the reasonable prices, and you have a selection of wines that will create conversation with your guests, and partner with summer foods ranging from chilled chicken and pasta salads to platters of prosciutto, salami, and grilled peppers to barbecued chicken legs, salmon and tuna steaks served with a side of couscous.
And you’ll have quite the conversation starter when you tell your guests the wine is from Morocco!
Along with the good value and quality of the Domaine Ouled Thaleb wines, noted Rhone Valley winemaker Alain Graillot is also making wine in Morocco. Graillot’s pure syrah, Croze-Hermitage is sought after by collectors and restaurateurs. Now he is organically farming syrah in Morocco’s Zenata AOG. It’s labeled Syrocco (a merging of syrah and Morocco.)
Photos: John Foy