02-09-2015 ~ 4 Comments

Young Priorat winemaker heads to Morocco

“Farid, what’s this stick across my seat for?”

“Oh that… it’s for the snakes. Unfortunately here in Morocco, they’re all poisonous but since we’re already at 42C this morning, I don’t think there’ll be any in the vineyards today. Everyone has a hat, right?”

I did indeed have my hat and such were the comforting words from winery manager Farid Ouissa that started a 48 hour, shotgun visit to the vineyards around Meknès, Morocco, during Ramadan :(. Being friends with Albert Costa of the Vall Llach winery in Priorat, he’d been telling me about his random trips to the country and during a recent dinner, he mentioned he would be going again in a week. Despite living in Spain, I’d never been to Morocco and more to the point, I’d never tried Moroccan wines so I immediately booked a flight to tag along and see what was afoot.

The name Vall Llach should be familiar to any lover of wines from DOQ Priorat. Their classic style is crafted from vineyards in the village of Porrera and their wines have turned critics’ heads for some time. For example, the flagship Mas de la Rosa 2012 just received 95 points in Wine Spectator and we awarded it 3/3 stars in the latest edition of Vinologue Priorat. Like most in the region, recent years have shown a change in style, drifting from the potent, more full-bodied reds of Priorat’s past to the more expressive, balanced style that allows the local character to come through.

If the last vintage you tasted was from a decade ago, you might want to try the wines again as behind this change is Albert who at just 30 years old is both the head of enology and the co-owner with the famous Catalan signer, Lluís Llach (basically think of him as the Catalan Bob Dylan). Albert started working at the winery in 2009 but prior to that, he had made his own side project wine while studying called, T41. This is fully separate from the main Vall Llach winery, sitting under a different company called Clos l’Asentiu.

As years have gone on, Albert has continued to make his T41 wine, but his curiosity and adventurous spirit have led him to include more wines under this company including a Provence-style Rosé made from Grenache in amphora called, La Matilde that was released earlier this year. This is now being joined by another amphora-aged Grenache called La Catalina. Both of these are named after and made as a tribute to two of the older vineyard owners in the village. Catalina has especially deserved a vinous tribute for some time being an amazingly youthful 101 year-old who spends her days picking roses around the village and then spraying boisterous weekenders with a hose at the restaurant below her apartment. Soon however, these Priorat matrons will be joined by distantly-related siblings down in Meknès.

While Morocco produces some 40 million liters of wine, they export only about 5% which mostly ends up in France. The other 95% is supposedly “drank by tourists” in Morocco as any local will tell you with a bit of a smirk. The most well-known of the Moroccan wines at the moment is the wonderfully pure expression of Syrah called Tandem (or Syrocco depending on your market) by Crozes Hermitage’s Alain Graillot. He makes this at Ouled Thaleb which is one of but eight very large wineries that produce nearly all of the wine of Morocco. The biggest, Les Celliers de Meknès (which also makes the Château Roslane wines) reached out to Albert a few months ago to work with them on a new wine.

Most of the winery’s production sells for around 3€ a bottle and their top-end reaches 20€. Their wines are overall quite decent although they are more like imprints of well-known French regions than anything else. “La Perle du Sud” is an easygoing take on classic Champagne. “S de Siroua” has all the earmarks of Côte Rotie. “Chateau Roslan” is a tribute to Left Bank Bordeaux. All of the wines are quite serviceable and given the prices, quite reasonable. Their main issue is that there isn’t anything about them that lets the drinker know that they’re from Morocco.

Les Celliers de Meknès produce a quite hefty 30 million bottles a year from roughly 2,500ha of vineyards that they own and 1,400ha that they buy grapes from. Despite the massive scope of this, they have several parcels of both old vine Carignan planted in 1942 and Grenache that was planted in 1936 when Morocco was a French protectorate. As these are lower yielding bush vines, they sought out Albert due to his wealth of experience with exactly the same grape types and old vines on the slopes of Priorat.

Of course these Moroccan vineyards sit in terrain completely unrelated to the slate of DOQ Priorat. On the one hand, the Grenache sits in soils similar to DO Montsant which are often a mix of red clay and limestone. The Carignan is altogether different, sitting in a sandy soil with a clay base to it. But while these are the same grapes found in Priorat and Montsant, the soils bear some similarity, and the weather similar albeit more extreme, there is one key difference: all the grapes are planted on their native rootstocks due to phylloxera not being able to thrive in Moroccan lands.

Traveling down to Morocco nearly every month, Albert has been overseeing the grapes as they ripen and will advise in the production of their first experimental wines that will be 10,000 liters in total. It’s ironic to call this an “experiment” as some wineries in Priorat barely reach even half of this for their entire production. But for a winery that has a vineyard total equaling all of DOQ Priorat plus all of neighboring DO Montsant, it is for them, a small production wine.

They intend to release the wines under AOC Les Coteaux de l’Atlas–one of only two AOC’s in the country (the other, Crèmant de l’Atlas.) Albert has been insistent on creating single-varietal wines of both the Grenache and Carignan stating, “Single varietal wines are what the market currently wants and they’re the wines I want to make as they show the vineyards simply and elegantly.” He plans to vinify the Carignan in open top 300L French oak barrels and the Grenache in small stainless steel tanks. He adds, “I would have preferred concrete for the Grenache but their smallest deposit at the winery is ten times the size we need.”

The hot, dry, high-altitude climate of Meknès which sits at 700m above sea level next to the Mid-Atlas Mountains is nothing if not unpredictable. After months of extreme heat including the chergui which pushed temperatures up to 60C with its 100kph winds, the harvest for this first wine is just about to start. Farid said, “After the chergui we saw a significant drop in temperatures with highs around 30-35 and the lows around 20C. This has delayed maturation but we should start with the Carignan the first week of September and the Grenache about two weeks later. We’ve been sampling daily now and these old vines seem to have handled the heat stress well and the leaves have protected the grapes to minimize scorching while allowing for a more ideal phenolic maturation.”

For his part Albert has great confidence in Farid and his team at the winery, “If we can get through the growing season and make good use of the selection table, there’s no reason why we won’t be able to produce a high-end wine from these vineyards here in Morocco that will express the unique locale of the region.”