Italian Wine News


Back to the Roots:
A Quest for Exotic Wines from Ancient Regions
Burke Owens, Special to The Chronicle – May 14, 2005

Part 1 - 2

  Maltese Vineyards
  This mosaic of a man with a wine amphora decorates the floor of an old Christian church in Petra, Jordan.

Sunlight plays over the gently moving water around the medieval village of Ston on Croatia's Peljesac peninsula, north of Dubrovnik. Villa Coruna, a small country restaurant, perches over the bay, within sight of nearby oyster beds. In the bright, open-air dining room, our tour guide, Andres Vukovic, calls out, "Oysters and wine for 12," although there are only six of us.

Within minutes the table is loaded with iced plates brimming with fresh- shucked thin-shelled, sweet and briny Adriatic oysters. But it is the wine that is memorable -- it is crisp, cellar-cool, scented with wild thyme and lemon, pale, cloudy and delicious.

"The innkeeper makes it himself from vineyards around Ston for his family and customers," Vuckovic says. The white wine, made from a grape called Posip, is fresh, good and honest -- truly of a place.

This wine epiphany -- and many others -- unfolded on a 20-day tour of the Mediterranean called "Hidden Treasures of the Old World" that explored ancient sites in France, Morocco, Tunisia, Malta, Egypt, Jordan and Croatia through a melange of wine, food, music, art, earth science, archaeology and politics.

As the associate curator of wine at Copia: The American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts in Napa, I was aboard to teach participants how beverages and food are intrinsic to all cultures.

To do this in the classic wine regions of Bergerac, France and Dubrovnik, Croatia is relatively easy. But Morocco? Tunisia? Jordan? The last thousand years of wine history in these lands is rather dry; Islam strongly discourages consuming -- or promoting -- alcohol. Wine is not seen locally, except where tourists are found.

"The government and tourism officials in North Africa and much of the Middle East are set against (wine tourism)," says Michael Karam, a Beirut- based wine journalist. "One: It's never been done before. Two: They don't want to promote alcohol tourism in their Islamic country. Three: Their laws do not allow direct sales by the wineries to the public."

Yet the lure of history was too strong to resist. We wanted to see some spots where winemaking goes back to ancient days -- and taste how it's doing today.

Mediterranean Map

The call to prayer rings out five times a day, echoing through the medina (old city) of Marrakech. This low-slung metropolis can be overwhelming. Narrow alleys are full of donkeys, carts, people and cars. Vendors sell everything from slippers to teapots, tiles, robes and spices. Snake charmers, dancers and musicians fill the major square just off the labyrinthine souk (market). But wine is only found in certain restaurants and hotels, such as La Mamounia, a wonderfully odd combination of Art Deco and Arabian Nights.

Our group's wine tasting took place in the courtyard of a restaurant in the medina called Yacout, which serves specialties such as pigeon bistilla (savory pastry), lamb tagine and steaming, aromatic couscous.

Moroccan wines are mostly red. The main growing area is about 200 miles north of hot, dry Marrakech in the 2,000-foot-high Meknes valley, west of Fez. Vines are also planted near the coastal cities of Rabat and Casablanca and in the Atlas Mountains.

Les Celliers de Meknes, which makes 2.3 million cases annually, is the largest producer.

A tasting of 15 Moroccan wines in two days time, all from Celliers des Meknes, revealed quality ranging from good to poor, with the average being low- grade decent. The best wines are reds made from Carignane, Cinsault and Grenache and are ripe and clean, with moderate character and flavor. However, some wines are made from older vineyards and show deeper flavors, similar to old-vine Zinfandels from Mendocino or the Sierra Foothills.

Unfortunately, wine is treated like a nonentity in many North African Muslim countries.

That said, Khalid, one of our guides, says, "I am Muslim and all my family are Muslim. We drink wine or beer with meals, especially on the weekends or when we have friends over. It is not strange or unusual in my circle." Wine is produced, yes, but officially not consumed.

Tunisia seems more European than Morocco, and the wine was better than what we tried in Marrakech.

Our tasting took place on our first night in Tunis near the ruins of Carthage, the 3,000-year-old Phoenician city destroyed by the Romans in 146 B. C. It was an appropriate site, as the Phoenicians brought the vine to Tunisia in the first place. The setting was a cathedral built by the French in the late 19th century and now used for special events and concerts.

The star white wine was Muscat Sec de Kelibia produced by Les Vignerons des Carthage. Muscat is a very aromatic grape, produced in a dry style and grown in the Kelibia region, east of Tunis. Legend has Muscat originally grown in Tunisia by the Phoenicians, later the Romans and basically everyone since. Ripe aromas of rose, lilac, peach and melon surge from a glass of this deliciously dry example of truly Old World winemaking.

The reds are based on the same French varieties as in Morocco; of the two wines tasted, Domaine Magon, a Carignane-based blend, was the simplest and best balanced, with ripe flavors of cherry and licorice.

"The wine business has changed a lot in the last 20 years," says Raouf Ben Cheldi, wine buyer and manager of La Montazah restaurant. "Few Tunisians drank wine a generation or two ago, but now we find not only an interest in wine here, but outside investors coming to Tunisia."

In a tasting at his restaurant, Ben Cheldi poured six wines. The best were made by Selian, a Tunisian winery founded 10 years ago with Italian backing.

The red Selian Carignane, a white blend of Ugni Blanc and Chardonnay, and a rosé were all excellent and could have been produced in California, with clean, ripe, fresh flavors that reminded me of Santa Barbara.

Part 1 - 2

Originally published in San Francisco Chronicle ©2005
Burke Owens is associate curator of wine at Copia:
the American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts in Napa.
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