The Season for Fine Wine: Reviving the Moroccan Wine Trade

Backpackers, jet-setters, and repeat travelers will agree, there’s no place quite like Morocco. The culturally rich and picturesque North African country is truly a vacationist’s dream.  From the stunning beaches of Asilah and Essaouira to the hustle and bustle of the historic medinas of Fes and Marrakech, the scenic landscape of Chefchaouen and Jebel Toubkal to the modern comforts of Casablanca—the country has something to offer to the most finicky of travelers.

But there’s definitely more to Morocco than its top tourist destinations. Nestled in its gently sloping hills and fertile plains are some of the country’s best wineries. Join us here at Singapore Wine Vault as we explore the wonderful world of Moroccan wine.

Tracing the Roots of Moroccan Winemaking

Morocco’s history of viticulture can be traced back to the arrival of the early Phoenicians in 800-600 BCE. Though little is known about winemaking during this period, historical writings indicate that by the time the Ancient Romans entered the scene in 300 BCE, the local wine trade was already up and running. Under Roman rule, winemaking became even more widespread. For centuries, the industry flourished. Then, everything came to a rather sudden, almost complete, halt.

In 680 CE, Islam was introduced to Morocco when Umayyad general, Uqba ibn Nafi, led the first Arab invasion in the country. This brought about the religious conversion of 99 percent (%) of Morocco’s population. Because Islam strictly prohibited alcohol consumption, wine production decreased and the local wine trade flagged.

In the end, it took the influx of French colonists in the early 20th century to turn things around for the Moroccan wine industry.

Winemaking under French Rule

As the early stirrings of the First World War threatened to wreak havoc in Europe, countries like France, Germany, and Britain began to take interest in Morocco. Eventually, the French prevailed, and its first colony in the North African country was established in 1912.

With wine lifestyle being an integral part of French culture, the colonists immediately began cultivating vineyards in the country. And while Morocco wasn’t as prolific in wine production as its neighbor, Algeria, it remained a key wine exporter until its emancipation in 1956. At the time of its independence, Morocco had 55,000 hectares of vine area.

The Post-French Production Dip

Initially, Morocco’s independence did little to affect its position in the global wine industry. Throughout most of the early 1960s, it continued exporting large amounts of wine to Europe. However, within the decade, the country’s wine production began suffering due to a lack of technical know-how.

Things took a turn for the worse in 1967, when the European Economic Community (EEC) began to limit wine importation in the continent. During this period, France and Italy had massive wine surpluses, so they could afford to sell liquor at very low prices. The Moroccan wine industry couldn’t compete with the price of these marked-down wines. As a result, many local winemakers began converting their land for cereal planting instead.

From 1973 to 1984, the state also took over most of the country’s vineyards. Poor handling combined with the low productivity of diseased vines brought the industry to the brink of collapse. In the 1990s, the Moroccan wine trade hit a new low when its vine area shrank to a mere 8,000 hectares.

An Industry Reborn

Fortunately for Morocco, its wine industry began to recover under the rule of King Hassan II. In the 1990s, the king, who graduated from the University of Bordeaux, began campaigning for the local wine trade. His campaigns brought in a number of foreign investors.

The state’s agricultural company, SODEA, also urged international wineries to lease Morocco’s many vineyards. Some of the most well-known Bordeaux organizations like Group Castel, William Pitters, and Taillan immediately sought joint ventures with local wine companies.

The renewed interest in Moroccan viticulture led to many improvements in the industry. By the early 2000s, the country’s vine area was already at 50,000 hectares. This number is still expected to grow in the next few years.

The Current Wine Industry

Today, Morocco’s wine production is at approximately 400,000 hectoliters a year. Not bad, considering how it had reached rock bottom just a couple of decades back. Morocco is also the second largest winemaking country in North Africa, just behind former wine giant, Algeria.

The Moroccan Landscape

At first glance, Morocco’s semi-arid climate may seem unsuitable for growing wine grapes; but the opposite is actually true. See, the country has the advantage of having both continental and maritime influences. Meaning, the cooling breeze drifting from the Atlantic, combined with the country’s high mountains, offsets the heat of the land.  

 

This is particularly true in the case of Morocco’s wine capital, Meknès. The fact that the land is in the middle of the Atlantic Coast and the Atlas highlands, gives it a beautifully balanced microclimate perfect for cultivating grapes. Vineyards in this region, are usually located at a height of 600 meters. There, vignerons employ vine trellising techniques paired with drip irrigation. The high calcium content of its lime-rich soils also permit crumbling, which is great for ventilation and ideal for making low-acidity wines.

Aside from Meknès, the country has four other prominent wine regions: The East, the Northern Plain, the El Jadida, and the Rabat/Casablanca regions.

The Wine doesn’t Fall Far from the Grape

The Moroccan wine industry is ruled predominantly by red wines. See, 75% of the country’s wine production is for reds, 20% is for vin gris and rosés, while only 3% is allotted for white wines. Most of the country’s reds are of the Carignan, Alicante, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsaut, Grenache, Syrah, and Merlot varieties. While the country’s white wine selection features varietals and blends of Muscat Clairette Blanche, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Chenin Blanc.

Indeed, there are a lot of amazing locally made wines in Morocco. The following are just some of our top picks.

Bold, red wine – If you’re looking to add robust and black fruit-flavored liquor to your wine cellar, we recommend getting the country’s Ksar (a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah), and of course, the timeless Cabernet Sauvignon. However, if you prefer the smooth contrast of red and black fruit flavors on your palate, then consider the famous Bordeaux blend, Guerrouane Rouge.

Exotic and affordable red wine – For those who don’t mind simple packaging, there’s always the Moghrabi. This unique and refreshing tipple comes in a plastic bottle. At just around 30 dirhams per bottle, this wine is what you call ‘a steal!’

The vin gris variety – For wine enthusiasts who prefer the light and fruity rosé, there’s the award-winning Gerrouane (a Cinsaut rosé), and the sweet and refreshing Volubilis Gris. Either one would make a splendid addition to your wine vault.

Crisp, clean white wine – And lastly, for fans of dry whites, there’s the Special Coquillages and the Thalvin Cuvèe du President Sèmaillon. These wines have the fresh fruit flavor of green apples and the subtle acidity of grapefruit. If you prefer your wine on the acidic side, there’s also the Cap Blanc, which is partial to grapefruit with just a touch of honeysuckle.

So on your next visit to Morocco, drink in the country’s immense beauty while savoring its unique wine culture. With a glass of fine local wine on hand, your trip has all the makings of the perfect vacation.