Wednesday, January 6, 2016

We'll Always Have Morocco

Morocco. On The Road To Morocco. Morocco Mole. Casablanca. Yes, Casablanca is in Morocco. Yes, Morocco is in Africa. For those not up on their Moroccan pop culture, here are the answers: "On The Road To Morocco" starred Bob Hope, Bing Crosby and Dorothy Lamour. Jokes, songs and Lamour. Morocco Mole was Secret Squirrel's sidekick. With the fez and smoking jacket, he was a dead ringer for Peter Lorre. That leads us to "Casablanca," in which Peter Lorre says, “Help me, Reeek! You must help me find some Moroccan wine!” Well, we’ll always have Paris.

Morocco - the country - runs along the northwest edge of Africa. One thing you probably don’t know: they produce more wine than any country in the Arab world, and nearly all of it is consumed within Morocco. I am very glad some of those stray bottles found their way to me.

I participated in a virtual tasting event featuring a handful of Moroccan wines, all from Domaine Ouled Thaleb. They were provided to me for the purpose of this tasting session. One thing I know: I am going right over to that Moroccan restaurant and convince them that they need to have some of these wines on the list.

Domaine Ouled Thaleb is about ten miles northeast of Casablanca, facing the Atlantic Ocean in the Zenata region.  Winemaking goes back 2,500 years there, so the fact that this winery has been operating since 1923 leaves them looking like a little kid. In the US, a 99-year history qualifies as practically ancient.

The host of the virtual event was @canterburywine, who got the ball rolling with an eye-opener: "Half of the wine country in Morocco is on same latitude as Santa Barbara! Not THAT far south!" She continued, noting that Morocco is "the only country besides Spain and France to have both Atlantic and Mediterranean influences. Diverse terroirs make Morocco an ideal place for creating high quality wines and it’s what sets it apart from other North African countries. 25 different kinds of wine grapes are cultivated in Morocco."

The winery employs sustainable farming practices, with no herbicides or fungicides used, and all plowing and weeding is done strictly by hand. Our event leader noted that most of the field work is done by women.

I want to thank the importer, Nomadic Distribution, for making this wine available in the US. I know that people are usually hard-pressed to break out of their routine. It’s not hard to imagine average folks pushing the glass away when they are told the wine was made in Morocco. But you and I are not average, are we? Pop the cork and let’s get on the road to Morocco!

The 2014 Ouleb Thaleb Moroccan White Blend is made from 60% Faranah grapes and 40% Clairette, aged in stainless steel tanks.  The Faranah grape is indigenous to Morocco, but the Clairette is French, probably a holdover from the country's days as a French colony. In fact, when phylloxera devastated the French vineyards, they looked to Morocco as a good place to grow grapes. Our virtual host pointed out that we are lucky to have the Faranah grape still around today. "This is the ONLY native grape from Morocco," she says. "Native grapes were uprooted in the seventh century." Alcohol in this wine is quite restrained at only 13% abv. It retails for $14.

This pale golden wine smells inviting. The nose gives floral notes, grapefruit, apricot, and a grassy, minty herbal quality. The palate offers these items filtered through a wonderful bit of salinity. There is even a sense of the floral there, and the citrus notes lead directly to a refreshing acidity. I suspect this would be a great wine for someone who thinks Sauvignon Blanc is too grassy.

It would also be great for someone with a bowl of peel and eat shrimp in front of them. Salad pairings are a natural. I would love this with a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich.

The Ouled Thaleb Moroccan Sauvignon Blanc is all Sauvignon Blanc, 100%, fermented in stainless steel tanks and retailing for $18.

The wine has a grassy note, but it's not the high grassy note of New Zealand. It's not the grassiness you smell when you have just cut the grass. There is more of an herbal edge to it, like the smell you get when you are pulling up weeds. Does that clarify for you? Good. I think my palate is coming unhitched from my brain. What I think I'm getting at is, there's an earthy sense to the grassiness here. On the palate the tropical fruit is definitely shaded by earth. It gives a wonderful display of pineapple, citrus and apples with just the right amount of earthiness. This wine, too, is a great one for someone who thinks Sauvignon Blanc is too grassy.

Domaine Ouled Thaleb's Moroccan Chardonnay is a delight. The Chardonnay grapes grown to make this wine come from dark, black clay soil called Tirs. The grapes are from higher altitude vineyards at the bottom of the Atlas Mountains.  The wine was fermented in concrete tanks and aged there for six months, in contact with the used-up yeast cells. No oak is involved here, and the alcohol number is 13% abv. It sells for $18.

This unoaked wine - 100% Chardonnay - smells great. It has a rich, golden tint and a  little Champagne-like funk on the nose. I have only encountered that quality once before in a still wine, and it was in a Chardonnay from Uruguay. In this Moroccan Chardonnay it is not as pronounced, and it might be taken as salinity. The fruit aromas offer nectarines, peaches, pineapples and a touch of lime. In the mouth, fantastic acidity makes a refreshing sip. Tropical fruit flavors dominate - papaya, mango, pineapple - and there is an earthy quality that is expected after the aromas telegraphed it. The wine finishes citrusy, but it doesn't last very long.

The Ouled Thaleb Moroccan Rosé is a 2013 pink wine made from 60% Syrah grapes, 30% Grenache and 10% Cinsault. The 13% abv alcohol level is quite manageable, as is the $14 price sticker. Aging took place in stainless steel.

This rosé wine pours up more orange than pink. In fact, it's a rather deep and rich shade of salmon. The nose has bright cherry and strawberry aromas with an herbal influence and a dash of spice that really makes things interesting. Flavors of cherry dominate the palate with some nice spiciness peeking through. The herbs that are present on the nose disappear on the flavor profile leaving the fruit fully in control. Acidity is nice, but not exactly Provence-esque.

The Ouled Thaleb Moroccan Red Blend is a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Grenache grapes and feels to me more like Grenache than Cab. Aging took ten months in oak barrels and the 13% abv alcohol number is very restrained. The retail sticker is $14.

Dark and brooding are the aromas here, with blackberry and cassis trying their best to smother the notes of black pepper and earth. Oak spice is there, but not burdensome. The palate of this inky wine shows blackberry and plum, with the earthy, mineral-driven flavors coming on a bit stronger than on the nose. There is a rustic, dusty sagebrush feel to it, and the acidity is the only thing that’s bright about this wine. Tannic structure is good.

I want the Moroccan Red Blend with lamb, sausage or venison. Anything dark or gamey is going to fit with this wine perfectly.

The Ouled Thaleb Moroccan Médaillon Red is a 2012 blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 10% Syrah, this wine is aged 12 months in oak, one third of it new. Alcohol is only 13% abv and it retails for $18, a steal, considering what's in the bottle.

It looks like ink and smells a Rhône blend. Black fruit, licorice, coffee, a touch of funk, a hint of oak - and a strong earthy presence. If I were tasting blind and a little bit drunk, I might guess Hermitage. The palate is as dark as the nose. Cassis, plum and blackberry get a healthy coating of minerality. The tannins are strident enough for whatever you’d like to throw at them. I'd like to throw some merguez sausage at them. The finish lasts a long time. For $18, are you kidding me? Gimme a case.

For Ouled Thaleb's Moroccan Syrah, the grapes are all Syrah from that dark black clay soil of Rommani Vineyards. As with the Chardonnay, fermentation happened in concrete tanks, but this one saw 12 months in oak barrels. It retails for just $18.

It’s a dark wine, almost inky, with a fantastically funky nose. The dark fruit sort of waves as it goes by, while the smell of meat just stands there and stares at you. There is a hint of pepper, a dash of mint, but that smoky, meaty smell really dominates. On the palate, a dark, brooding plum and blackberry combination put up a little more of a fight against the earthy, meaty flavors. It’s really a great tasting wine.


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