- by Amy Wislocki
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Val d'Argan: Rhone, with a North African edge
A visit to Morocco can be hard work for wine lovers. Unsurprisingly given the Muslim culture, the only people drinking wine are the tourists – openly at least.
But, wine's potential there is clear. Tourism continues to grow, land and labour costs are low, and the high mountains and cooling Atlantic influence offset what can be searing temperatures.
Well, that’s the theory. The tourists who make the drive from Marrakech to the coastal city of Essaouira will be used to the winds that buffet its walls, but just 20km inland it’s a different story; the breeze is gentler and the temperature rises.
It is between these two cities, slightly off the beaten tourist track, that Charles Melia chose to establish Val d'Argan in the mid 1990s. Boasting guest accommodation and a restaurant, it was the only winery in the south of the country at the time, and the smallest in size.
Melia’s family owns a winery in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, but rather than follow that well-trodden path, he felt the urge to forge a separate identity for himself. ‘I wanted to create something of my own, in a new wine region’ he explained over an enormous platter of goat and potatoes in the winery restaurant. He looked at sites in Chile and Argentina before deciding in 1995 to settle in Morocco, where he had spent the first 20 years of his life.
Foreigners can buy real estate but not agricultural land, so he rented the farm for 99 years. Over time plantings have increased from 4 hectares to 45ha, mainly Rhône varieties. Yields are painfully low (around 25hl/ha) and annual production just 15,000 cases.
Land and labour costs may be lower than in France, but this wasn’t a project Melia could do on the cheap. ‘There were no other vineyards in the region, no water and no electricity here. It was a blank sheet of paper.’ And a steep learning curve – not least when it came to coping with the heat, which climbs to 55˚C in summer.
‘In the first two years I lost a lot of grapes – I had to pick too early and they were burnt on one side, unripe on the other. The breakthrough came when I discovered sorghum (a cover crop, resembling corn). That has revolutionised everything.’ The vineyard is the first in Morocco to have organic certification, and the vineyard is worked not by tractor but by camel – it copes well with the heat, says Melia, and is more ecological than polluting, gas-guzzling machinery.
And the wines? Melia describes his winemaking style as ‘French wine, produced in Morocco,’ though many display a concentration that belies their un-European origin. Though Rhône varieties are the mainstay, the grape that currently excites him most is Marselan, a Grenache-Cabernet cross; he has 5ha planted and has used it for the first time in his 2013 wines. ‘Like Tannat, you have to manage the tannins, but it has great potential.’
For now, you won’t find these wines outside Morocco. But, should you get the opportunity, wines to taste include the Val d’Argan red and El Mogador rosé - Melia is dismissive of the gris style. There is also Orients Blanc, a dry, late-harvest blend of Clairette and Roussanne made in tiny quantities.