HOW TO: A Night of Moroccan Wine+Food Pairings

Get your fez out and fire up the tagine because a night of eating and drinking the goodness of Morocco awaits. Dinner parties and communal gatherings are an especially good time to bring the best of northern Africa to the table because the meal will be delicious and everyone gets what they want.

Start the evening with a delicious cocktail like The Marrakech Express garnished with a few strands of saffron. The recipe, shaken together and served over a few cubes of ice is as follows:

1 oz white rum

1 oz dry vermouth

1 oz white creme de cacao

2 oz grapefruit

1 oz mandarin juice

1/2 oz lime juice

1 tsp caster sugar

Key Elements to a Successful Meal

roasted beets with cumin crème fraîche and tangerine oil

roasted beets with cumin crème fraîche and tangerine oil

It's all about the bread and juices.

The tagine is a single cone shaped cooking vessel where all the protein, spices and vegetables cook together. Le Creuset makes a widely available tagine available for around $50. One tagine produces a meal for one or two people. The fun part for your evening is allowing each person to customize their tagine with any combination of flavors they like. It resembles a bowl with a chimney on top but its unique shape helps capture moisture while it cooks at the highest part and allows it to drip back into the cooking food making it moist.

At the end of the meal there is delicious drippings in the bottom of the tagine that's meant to be sopped up with moroccan bread, which resembles naan from India. Friday nights are an especially good night for friends and family in Marrakech and Casablanca to come together over a good meal and good conversation.

Cook the tagine over low heat on the stove or in the oven as if you were braising in a dutch oven. The fun part is adding in the herbs, vegetables and proteins to customize each tagine.

The Wines of Morocco

If one were to start at the Rock of Gibraltar and head north into Spain they'd pass through the wine regions of Andalusia, including Jerez-Xérés where the world's finest Sherry comes from and other regions like Montilla-Moriles, Malaga & Sierra de Malaga and Condado de Huelva. My wife and I toured the region in 2011 and loved visiting Alhambra in Granada then driving north through hundreds of miles of olive trees.

Driving south from the Rock of Gibraltar past Tanger one will quickly find themselves in Morocco's wine growing region. At the south end of the growing region is the city of Marrakech, which is on the same latitude as Santa Barbara—one of America's up and coming wine regions.

Modeled after the French AOC/AOP system of regulating quality and production, Morocco garners 14 AOG's, short for Appellation of Origin Guaranteed (there is also 1 AOC in Morocco called AOC Les Coteaux de L'Atlas).

Vines have been growing in northern Africa for centuries. At the end of the 19th century phylloxera ravaged vineyards across Europe, so French growers immigrated to Morrocco where they discovered a climate not much unlike southern France, particularly in the Languedoc region.

The best of what Morocco has to offers comes from AOG Zenata, from vineyards situated in the coastal region between Casablanca and Rabat, facing the Atlantic Ocean. A traditional winemaking style, also echoed from French influence pays respect to the soil and climate. Standout varietals such as Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault combined with a Mediterranean climate can be most closely compared to Southern Rhone and Languedoc.

Mother nature has a way of providing complimentary growing conditions that allows regional cuisine to pair naturally with the wines that grow there. For a great night of eating and drinking with friends, I'd suggest having a few different types of Moroccan wines on hand and just let guests go at it creating their own combinations in the tagine. 

Here's a few recipe ideas to get started...


Paprika and Coriander Halibut with Spring Vegetables + Ouled Thaleb White Blend

I found fish to be an especially good thing to cook in the tagine. It came out moist and absorbed the seasoning pretty well. Half the fun went into assembling all the ingredients, starting with the bed of spring vegetables and seasoning the halibut on top.

Before cooking, add in a half cup of vegetable stock (give or take) to add depth to the flavor of the juices.

Ouled Thaleb White Blend is a blend of 40% Clairette and 60% Faranah which is a native varietal from AOG Zenata grown in sandy shale and gravel soil with a mediterranean climate.

There's fresh citrus fruits going off in the glass like aromatic fireworks. Look for ripe luscious grapefruit, passion fruit tenured with non fruits of elderflower and spearmint. That spearmint part is was the thread that wove together this pairing. 

moroccan-pre-cooked-halibut.jpg

Spicy Moroccan Chicken + Ouled Thaleb Moroccan Rosé

Keep it simple with a few key spices like paprika or even some curry if you like. Slow cooking the whole bird will help the juices drip out and leave that delicious juice to sop up at the end with the bread. That's the point of cooking everything in one vessel. The shape of the tagine will help condensation drip down on top of the chicken while it cooks.

Ouled Thaleb Rosé is one of my favorite wines from the region. Made from 60% Syrah, 30% Grenache and 10% Cinsault—three varietals that do well in Morocco at the northwestern edge of Africa where Spain is almost within eyesight. Spend a night in Casablanca or at least spend a night with a wine grown just south of Humphrey Bogart's favorite place.

INGREDIENTS

1 Whole Chicken, small enough to fit inside the tagine

Red Wine Vinegar

1/2 cup - 1 cup chicken stock

2 TBSP Paprika

1 whole white onion, coarsely chopped

1 Red Bell Pepper, cut into bite sized pieces

1 Orange or Yellow Bell Pepper, cut into bite sized pieces

Salt + Pepper

In a small bowl combine red wine vinegar and paprika. Add in other spices if you prefer but it kind of doesn't need it. In a separate plate or prep area coat the cleaned chicken with the red wine vinegar paprika mix.

In the bottom of the tagine, lay a bed of chopped vegetables then place the chicken on top. Sprinkle salt and pepper over everything and transfer to the stove. Cook over low heat until chicken is done, approximately an hour depending on the size of the bird (It's cooked when the juices run clear when you poke the chicken with a fork). 

Serve with a side of cous cous and definitely with Moroccan bread (or substitute naan if you can't find it).

The Sommelier: Your Sherpa of Value

Ask your local sommelier for a wine recommendation and you’re likely to get a suggestion for some obscure, enamel stripping high acid low alcohol wine from France or a place you haven’t heard of, right? At least, that’s what wine critics at big name wine publications would have you believe.

It’s not like there isn’t truth to that stereotype. A good sommelier won’t do those things. However, an average or below average sommelier will perpetuate the stereotype and get you to drink something they like to drink along those lines—not that you’d like it. The good somms, especially Master Sommeliers have evolved and will steer you to a wine you will like without making you feel silly. If you want Silver Oak with your halibut and that makes you happy, so be it.

There’s friction between the sommelier community and major wine publications (and their reviewers). On one side, the sommelier is perceived as a snooty know-it-all who turns their nose up at any wine over 14% alcohol made with new oak. On the other side, the wine critic representing a pay-to-play business who’s lifeblood is advertising dollars from major wine conglomerates who just happen to end up gracing a majority of the Top 100 list each year. Coincidence?

Knowing who to trust for wine recommendations isn’t hard. Not one other person can possibly know what you as an individual likes to drink. The best wine for you is the wine you like.

Let’s look at the motivation behind wine publication recommendations. First, it’s important to note wine publications are a business motivated by the almighty dollar. Wine critics cover a region regurgitating the same content (worded differently) over and over in an effort to fill pages of a magazine that’s 50% advertising. “Chewy dense tannins and refined oak”… Sound familiar? The wine critic is not trained to follow any industry standard nor do they have any accreditation—it’s just their opinion. Anyone can give an expensive wine a high rating, especially if the producer is an advertiser. Expensive wines aren’t hard to figure out—someone at your table is bound to like it.

The sommelier is motivated by….well, now let’s look at that. It’s not money. Sommeliers are motivated by something entirely different. The sommelier fights for artists. Small, independent producers with no advertising dollars who happen to make great wines need a champion, and that champion works the floor at finer restaurants. 

The sommelier is more of a filter of typicity. Each grape is supposed to taste like something specific. Merlot has a benchmark. Chardonnay has a benchmark. Riesling has a benchmark. When a winemaker hits the bullseye of what the grape is supposed to be, from the place its grown it gets closer to the center of that grape’s typicity. Often times those producers are relatively unknown from places you wouldn’t think to look. And yes, sometimes the best examples of typicity are lower alcohol wines with less oak. Not always, but often.

Anyone can oak the crap out of a wine and get points. Too much oak usually means higher prices and higher scores. But not necessarily recommendations from sommeliers as the wine loses its typicity. Take the 2009 Chateau Monbousquet from the right bank in Bordeaux for example. Robert Parker gave the wine 95 points. But smell the wine and it neither smells like Merlot, nor does it smell like the place its grown . It smells like a lot of crazy wine making techniques. Some wine lovers and collectors like that, which is fine. But the typicity of the grape is way off.

 

At the end of the day, sommeliers are value shoppers. They’re constantly trying to find the best examples of typicity for each grape at the best possible price, no matter the region. You might get some unexpected recommendations from regions you didn’t expect, such as Domaine Skouras Megas Oenos from Greece ($25 retail) or Graci Etna Rosso ($26 retail). If you like Cabernet based wines from Bordeaux, you might like the Skouras. If you like Pinot Noir, you might like the Etna Rosso.

Aside from typicity, the sommelier is also looking for structure. If you were to make a movie, you’d have a “good guy” and a “bad guy”. The tension between good and bad creates drama. All the supporting cast adds to the story and makes the drama more intriguing. A wine has tension between sugar and acid. They are the main building blocks to the story. Drama between the two makes the wine interesting. All all the additional flavors serve as a  supporting cast. 

Wines with impeccable balance between sugar and acid are wines you’d probably hear as a suggestion from your sommelier. It’s like a friend recommending a good movie. A sommelier is likely to recommend “Forrest Gump” to you while a wine publication is motivated to recommend “Transformers” to you.

If you cross paths with a sommelier who isn’t listening to you and just wants to recommend a wine they like, they’re doing it wrong. Call them out on it. If they listen to you and your likes, then steer you to something they think you’ll like based on what you described, you probably have a good sherpa of value.