Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Yemen, Jordan and more to follow. While revolutions burn through Arabia and North Africa, one monarch has quietly avoided wholesale annihilation.
King Mohammed VI of Morocco.
His de jure constitiutional parliamentary monarchy kinda, sorta works. When the Arab Spring lit up, Moroccans peacefully protested. They blamed any violence on soccer hooligans. And surprise: constitutional reforms, referendum, and spring-cleaning of corruption were voted through with ease.
But Morocco has always been a bit different.
It was the first country to recognize the US as the US. The Ottomans never took it. Jews are welcome. Women can vote. The US and EU get free trade with this crossroad between Africa and Europe. And it served as limbo to expats, real and fictive, like Rick in Casablanca.
Wine is hardly different.
Islam forbids alcohol. Yet Morocco’s first Arab dynasty allowed Berber tribes around Meknes to make wine. And grape growing and wine drinking continued albeit quietly and sporadically.
Today, although Islamic law bans alcohol sales to Muslims, Morocco mainly enforces it during religious feasts such as Ramadan. Most young, affluent professionals drink wine in restaurants and bars. For many, the Koran is seen to restrict, not prohibit, alcohol consumption (Omar Aouad, Les Celliers de Meknes’s director general, quotes verse 67 sura 16, “And from the fruit of the date palm and the vine you obtain intoxicating drink and wholesome food. Most surely there is a sign in this for those who ponder”).
Why such tolerance? Blame the French.
France began colonizing and vinifying Morocco well before WWI. Prior to Morocco’s independence in 1956, it made and exported over 52 million gallons of wine from 135,907 acres (55,000 hectares) of vineyards. Annual wine festivals lasted days. Although most wine went to France as vins médicins to strengthen wimpier French vintages, it clearly became culture.
Then France left, and the EU (EEC) barred wine imports in 1967. Moroccan vines declined rapidly.
Only until the 1990s, did a plucky University of Bordeaux graduate (pictured right) decide to change things. He also happened to be King Hassan II, direct descendant of Prophet Mohammed. While democratizing Morocco, he attracted French investors to plant new vines and modernize wineries.
Today wine employs 10,000 people across 120,000 acres (50,000 hectares) of land. 40 million bottles sell to Moroccans, ex-patriots and foreigners from France, England, America, Spain, Germany and Italy.
But enough geopolitical, economic context. It’s time to drink.
Tonight’s cork-to-pull hides a syrah. This grape makes sense. It thrives in hot-ish climates like the Côtes du Rhône, Barossa, Paso Robles, et cetera. So why not Morocco?
The Atlas Mountains keep the Sahara Desert at bay, protecting Morocco’s northern, Atlantic coast. Here, winters are cold and summer evenings are brisk. It’s still hot as hell. And like other hot climates, three quarters of the output is red, twenty percent rosé, and the rest white. But the Atlantic’s chill moderates the climate enough.One day, a famous French winemaker was cycling the coastal hills of Zenata between Casablanca and Rabat (see map above). The nearby towns Rommani and Ben Slimane (Morocco’s “Green City”) are an ecomentalist’s paradise, lacking any polluting industries. Inspired, our Frenchman stopped by the Thalvin winery, owned by Domaine des Ouleb Thaleb.
Thalvin has made wine since the 1920s, ploughing and weeding manually, without resorting to herbicides or fungicides.
Meanwhile, across the Mediterranean our bike-ist, Alain Graillot, has repeatedly reset the bar for organic, 100% syrah in the Northern Rhône appellation of Crozes-Hermitage since 1985.
Impressed with each other, Thavlin provided Graillot with parcels of syrah vines, some young, some half a century old, that grow on black tirss soil.
Graillot made tonight’s wine from 2008’s grapes. It’s called, wait for it, ‘Syrocco’. Sure, the title is cheesy and the label is a bit cute (if also a bit historically inaccurate: who rides tandem bikes anymore?).
But cleverness aside, Graillot knows his stuff.
All grapes are de-stemmed and fermented in closed concrete vats. Once in your glass, it’s little surprise that fruit notes dominate the vegetative. Daily pump-overs and maceration last only ten days, which extract moderate color, tannin and density without making the wine thuggish. Fifteen months of aging begins in tanks, followed by small, brand new and one year-old, 225L barrels (from François Freres in Burgundy). A bit of filtering before bottling cleans up any sediment.
Syrocco is shipped nearly frozen. You can tell this from the tartrate crystals in the bottle and on the cork. They won’t hurt you (as some customers fear). They just signal that Graillot wants his bottles to survive Morocco’s heat.
I respect this wine. Clearly Morocco can grow good fruit while caring for the environment. Graillot’s involvement is confident, playful, but not straining to impress anyone, as shown by my chart below. His Syrocco shows off clean, modestly extracted cherry, tomato, and fig fruits. Acidity keeps this otherwise soft, ripe, modern wine in check. Oak merely tempers the hard edges and fringes them in spice.
Syrocco is Rick’s Café Américain: an alcoholic sanctuary in an Arab world; familiar, comfortable but decorated with a mixed, interesting, and at times, dangerous clientele.
At around $17, Syrocco provides easy escape from turmoils international or familial (especially with chocolate). Put this wine beside dishes with mushroom, or lamb kabobs, gyros, spicy hummus, or any meat a tajine has slow cooked to heaven. As Morocco has navigated the sea of Arab revolutions, Syrocco provides an even keel through meals amidst today’s tumult of overdone reds.
Importer Michael Skurnik’s Syrocco entry
Importer Michael Skurnik’s Alain Graillot entry
Wine-Searcher.com “Morocco and Moroccan Wine”
Decanter.com article “Moroccan Wine and Muslims”
Gaurdian.co.uk Arab Uprising Timeline