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 Morocco, as a former colony of both Rome and France, would become a wine-producing land 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.
After the fall of Rome came centuries of Islamic dominance in Morocco, which naturally slowed its alcohol production, wine included. So the seeds of wine interest sown by the Romans did not truly flourish until the arrival of French influences in the mid-19th century. In the early 20th century, Europe descended into world war, and Morocco became the subject of intense interest from France, Britain and Germany. The French prevailed, and under their influence Morocco began making a significant contribution to world wine production. Although it has never competed with its larger neighbor Algeria (also a former French colony) in terms of quantity, the quality of Moroccan wine increased markedly during the French occupation.
When France officially relinquished control of Morocco in March 1956, tens of thousands of hectares of productive vineyards were suddenly deprived of the Gallic expertise that had created them, not to mention a 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 and 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 – a final nail in the coffin 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-scale French wine companies were busy planting Carignan, Cinsaut and Grenache in several thousand hectares of prime Moroccan land. 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 Moroccan wine is red. The small percentage of white produced here is 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 Meknes region. Its location mid-way between the peaks of the Middle Atlas and the Atlantic coast brings it a relatively balanced climate, sheltered from both Saharan drought and Atlantic moisture. Even here, though, August temperatures regularly climb towards 104F (40C), 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.