I am at long last ready to acknowledge that I am addicted to wine. My normal life at home in London and travelling round the wine regions of the world is so wine-soaked that I take a daily dose of my favourite drink for granted. It's when I'm taken out of my usual environment and put into one with no established wine culture that my addiction becomes evident. A family break in Morocco earlier this year forcefully drove home to me the lengths I will go to to get my daily fix.
Fortunately it also taught me that my addiction is not to alcohol per se. It was relatively easy to find beer and spirits at the riads and hotel we stayed in, but they were of no interest to me. What I really wanted was to taste as many Moroccan wines as I possibly could. Imported wines were available at one or two places, at prices that compared well with those of the domestic ferments, but, when faced with choosing between what looked like a bargain white burgundy and a Moroccan Roussanne at a very similar price, I couldn't stop myself going for the intriguing-sounding white from Domaine du Val d'Argan near Essaouira on the Moroccan coast.
My family are used to this. Feeding my addiction has, on various holidays, involved adding a case of wine to our luggage on a trip to St Lucia in the Caribbean, driving quite a long way from our rented villa in Mauritius to a wine warehouse in the nearest town, an assignation in an impossible-to-find Bangkok backstreet with a producer of Thai wine, tasting and paying for some truly disgusting local wine in Egypt, and long, rather fruitless experimentation with various overpriced Indian wines on our trips there in 2002 and 2005.
Life would of course be so much simpler if I just jettisoned the idea of wine altogether outside wine's comfort zone but my excuse is - nothing to do with addiction - I have these reference books The Oxford Companion to Wine and The World Atlas of Wine that are supposed to be au fait with the entire world of wine and need updating regularly.
I must say that my hopes were not high on our most recent sally out of conventional wine country in Morocco. The first few wines I tried, called things like Domaine de Sahari, were not promising. The whites tended to be watery and the reds extremely but not gracefully potent and thick. I had almost given up hope when, during our last meal in Marrakech, in the rather unexpectedly leafy surroundings of Les Jardins de la Medina in their pretty courtyard, I was suddenly presented with a wine list that looked as though it had been written by a wine lover. Here was a wide selection of Moroccan wines with decent notes about them all, together with a pretty fair collection of imported wines at non-rapacious prices.
Since this was lunchtime I wanted only one glass and my attention was drawn to this truly exotic Moroccan Roussanne. Could it really taste any good? In fact it turned out to taste like an absolutely classic textbook Roussanne, with herbal, blossomy scent, good substantial fruit, and an attractive backbone of acidity. I have rarely encountered any more representative varietal Roussanne. (Ch de Beaucastel's Vieilles Vignes is famous, but is so rich and oaked that it is hardly a classic representative - see Leading the blind. Chignin-Bergeron from Savoie tends to be a little too light. Such California examples to have come my way have tended to be a little sweet.)
And, even better, according to the wine list this wine was made near the seaside town where we were due to spend the next three nights, Essaouira. Once we'd arrived there, after two and half hours of being driven through the barren but fascinating Moroccan countryside where sights included goats tens of feet off the ground in the trees responsible for argan oil, donkey carts, and multiple men in robes with pointy hoods loafing around drinking mint tea, I could hardly believe it when I heard my husband, with no goading from me, suggesting that we should try to visit the Domaine du Val d'Argan nearby that had been responsible for this exciting Roussanne.
God bless email. Within remarkably few hours I had made contact with the owner Charles Mélia, organised a lunchtime excursion to his vineyard and associated restaurant, and discovered that he was an emigré from Châteauneuf-du-Pape where his elder daughter and her husband now run the family domaine Font du Loup. (Before our rendezvous I did a quick check of my website and saw to my relief that I had given their wines rather enthusiastic scores over the years.)
We were driven (self propulsion in Morocco is not the preferable option) the half hour inland from Essaouira to the domaine, which is billed online as having a riad (Moroccan style accommodation) as well as a boutique and a panoramic restaurant, and found it not quite up to Napa Valley glitziness but the food was great, as Nick has written here, and the owner could not be faulted for conviction. His vineyard, begun with five tentative hectares planted in 1994 and now extended to 40, is still the only one in this southern coastal part of Morocco. (Most Moroccan vineyards depend on the altitude of the Atlas mountains in the north.) He is clearly a restless soul. In fact his new wife Marie-Ange, who runs a luxurious riad in Marrakech during the week, says she dreads each morning, wondering what new enterprise will take his fancy. The isolation of Domaine du Val d'Argan was one of the attractions for him. 'I wanted to do something entirely new', he explained. He was brought up in Morocco, where his grandfather ran a successful cereal business, and has always spoken Arabic fluently.
Although the latitude is dangerously low, he was able to demonstrate convincingly to us the virtually constant cooling wind. He has wells for irrigation and the grove of olives on his land gave him the confidence that the vine would thrive. Although even he admits that, after losing an entire crop and a half to sunburn, it has been only very recently that he has really mastered the blistering summer sunshine, by planting sorghum between the vine rows and - most unusually - protecting the grapes by strewing branches over them. He's proud of the fact that he has made a commercial go of it all 'without banks or associates'. He's in competition with vast enterprises such as Castel from Bordeaux and the dominant Cellier de Meknes with its thousands of hectares of vines, but is proud that 'my wines have become a reference point for what Morocco can do'.
He shrugged off the inevitable question about depending on wine production in a Muslim country. 'If wine is banned', he shrugged, as we heard the lunchtime call to prayer, 'I'll raise cows instead'. He would, too, though he was careful to add, 'if you're going to write about me, tell them about my guest rooms, my restaurant and say I'm looking for foreign importers for my wines'.
Read more at valdargan.com