Morocco, in the north-western corner of North Africa, is an ancient kingdom whose history is as diverse as its geography. Influenced over the centuries by Phoenicians, Romans, Arabs and various modern European powers, it remains a gateway between Europe and the African continent. The Atlas Mountains, which bisect the country, are all that stands between the vast Sahara Desert and the cool expanses of the Atlantic. Similarly, the 10-mile (16-km) Strait of Gibraltar, which divides Morocco from Spain, is all that stands between the Islamic North Africa and Christian Southern Europe.
It was almost inevitable that a former colony of both Rome and France would produce wine at some point in its history. Although the earliest evidence of Moroccan viticulture predates even the Romans, it is likely they were the first makers of wine on any scale.
?Domaine de la Zouina
After the fall of Rome came centuries of Islamic dominance in Morocco, which naturally slowed its alcohol production, wine included. But interest was rekindled as the French increased their influence from the 1830s. In the early 20th Century, Europe descended into world war, and Morocco also became a target for Britain and Germany. The French prevailed and set up a protectorate in 1912 under the provisions of the Treat of Fez. Spain was was also granted zones of interest win the north and south of the country.
Under French influence Morocco began making a significant contribution to the global wine industry. It never competed with its larger neighbor Algeria (also a former French colony) in terms of quantity. However the quality of Moroccan wine increased markedly during the French occupation.
When Morocco regained full independence in 1956, tens of thousands of hectares of productive vineyards were deprived of the expertise of their French creators. The Moroccan wine industry also lost its significant French consumer base, both local and in mainland France. As if this were not enough of a blow to the newly independent Morocco, just 10 years later, the EU created tough new import/export legislation. This effectively removed Europe as a market for Moroccan wine. Both Italy and France had vast wine surpluses at that time, and were selling their often-superior wines at dramatically marked-down prices. This was a final blow for Moroccan wine exports. Within 20 years, almost every Moroccan vineyard had either been taken over by the state or simply dug up and replaced with cereal crops.
Understandably, many assumed that Morocco's time as a wine nation was over. It took 10 years of campaigning by the King, Hassan II, a graduate of the University of Bordeaux, to revive overseas interest in Morocco's vineyard potential. At the time of his death in July 1999, various large French wine companies were planting Carignan, Cinsaut and Grenache in several thousand hectares of prime sites. These varieties have now been joined (and will soon be outnumbered) by the cepages ameliorateurs ('improver' varieties) Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The French influence on Moroccan wine is now perhaps greater than ever.
As might be inferred from the above list, the vast majority of wine produced in Morocco is red. Small amounts of white wine are made from the likes of Chenin Blanc and the southern French classics Muscat and Clairette. Perhaps surprisingly, given its preference for cooler climates, Sauvignon Blanc is also grown here, and in increasing volumes. Less surprisingly, the same is true of Chardonnay.
With both maritime and continental influences, Morocco's climate cannot be summed up by any single descriptor. "Semi-arid Mediterranean" is often used as a catch-all, but fails to give any idea of the intricate mesoclimatic variation in the mountainous and coastal areas. The finest terroir in Morocco is to be found in the Meknès region, midway between the peaks of the Middle Atlas and the Atlantic coast. This location enjoys a relatively balanced climate, sheltered from both the Sahara and the ocean. Even here, though, August temperatures regularly climb towards 40°C (104°F), and global warming is thought to be responsible for the increasing prevalence of drought. The future of Moroccan viticulture may well be at the mercy not of invading nations or even consumer fashions, but of the forces of nature.