Back to the Roots
A quest for exotic wines from ancient regions
©2005 San Francisco Chronicle Burke Owens, Special to The Chronicle
Thursday, May 19, 2005
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.Morocco
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 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
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
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 a rosé were all excellent and could have been produced in California, with clean, ripe, fresh flavors that reminded me of Santa Barbara.Malta
Malta is in the center of the Mediterranean Sea, east of Tunisia and south of Sicily. This large island is twice the size of San Francisco, and though it's not quite as densely populated, it's not easy to accommodate both farmland and well over 400,000 inhabitants.
Malta has a complex human history stretching back 6,000 years. Since 1964, it has been an independent republic within the British Commonwealth.
Marks of past cultures abound. A mysterious 5,500-year-old stone temple sits underground, beneath a modern pizza parlor amid the streets of a busy town. Majestic battlements built by the Knights of Malta in A.D. 1600 to guard their city of M'dina overlook the National Stadium sports complex.
Tiny vineyards are planted wherever patches of arable land are available around this fairly flat, arid and windy island. Most of the fruit goes to table grapes or to cooperative wineries, where a small percentage is blended with large quantities of Italian and some North African grapes. Only one winery grows and produces wine exclusively from Maltese grapes -- Meridiana
Meridiana's 47-acre estate vineyard and winery sits not far from the National Stadium in the island's Ta Qali area. Maltese partners Mark Miceli- Farrugia and Roger Aquilina
, with a little financial help from Tuscany's Antinori family, have been growing grapes and making wine since 1996. They produce fine examples of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay
"The most difficult thing for us is that the local authorities allow other wineries to blend grapes from other countries into their wine. We believe this is wrong. It is dishonest and it is not legal. How can you call a wine Maltese if it is made from Italian grapes?" says Miceli-Farrugia.
Battles with the Maltese agricultural ministry seem constant for Meridiana but are far from the only challenge.
"Malta has no lakes, no rivers, little groundwater and low rainfall," Aquilina says. "Our reservoir is underground. We pump the water to our drip irrigation system so that our vines can survive. The vineyard soils vary so that some clay sections hold water like a sponge while the sandy soils drain too well. The vineyard requires the most effort, but it is only when the fruit is extraordinary and we make world-class wine of Maltese character that I know we are succeeding."
Most of the 15,000-case production is consumed locally, but some is exported to the United Kingdom and Belgium. The Meridiana wines are well-made. Their only fault, if it is one, is how clean they are. At times they seem to lack Maltese passion, unlike Miceli-Farrugia himself.Egypt
The ancient Egyptians loved wine and grew grapes aggressively in the Nile Delta, where wine grapes are still grown today.
We land in Luxor
in a small cluttered airport. We drive past villages amid patches of palm and date trees and fields of sugarcane and grazing livestock. Everything exists within a short distance of the Nile; without its water, this desert region would be lifeless.
Our bus passes scenes from a storybook -- people driving donkeys loaded with bags, children playing among ancient stone ruins, cattle wading in the water and dhows, or sailboats, slowly moving down the Nile.
On a visit to tombs in the Valley of the Nobles
, our guide, Moufid Mansour
, tells of a nearby grave with grapevines in it.
"The Tomb of Sennefer
is like a vineyard," he says. As it turns out, this ancient tomb holds the best wine experience of all.
The hill that cradles the Valley of Nobles is moderately steep. A narrow opening in the side of the hill has a flight of stairs leading down to a gated entrance. Through the gateway, I look down a narrow, dark staircase cut into the rock. No sign tells me this is the place, but it seems to match Moufid's directions.
Down I go, slowly at first. The tomb's low ceiling pushes me into a crawling squat as I slowly move into the darkness. Voices float up from the bottom, easing my anxiety about this subterranean adventure. Finally, after what seems like hours, I reach the bottom. Two other explorers are just heading up, leaving me alone with the caretaker of the tomb.
The ceiling and walls are covered with vibrant paintings of grapevines holding clusters of black grapes. This most beautiful of wine cellars originally held jars of wine for the afterlife and was dedicated to Osiris, the god of resurrection and of wine. Sennefer, mayor of ancient Thebes, hoped to live again in the afterlife and his tomb with its wine motif would place him in Osiris' good graces.
Both evenings in Luxor, we tasted Egyptian wines with dinner. Judging from our experience, modern wineries need to learn about cleanliness and keeping wine away from the air, as everything was oxidized, full of nasty yeast infections like Brettanomyces, or both. Ancient Egyptian wine history is fascinating, but when visiting, stick with the beer.JordanAl 'Aqabah
, on the Gulf of Aqaba, is a combination of hip urban chic intermingled with a society steeped in tradition.
Served with a lunch of fresh-caught fish at a trendy wharf restaurant is a white Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon
blend wine from Lebanon's Bekaa Valley
. A winery formed by a Lebanese wine family in partnership with three French winemakers, Massaya is making superlative reds and whites in a clean, delicious style. Carignane, Syrah and Cabernet along with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon
grow well in the warm Bekaa Valley. Massaya's fresh-flavored wines could easily hold their own against many from California.
During the tour's visit to the beautiful ancient city of Petra
, we come upon a charming red wine from vineyards in northern Jordan
. Saint George wines are produced from grapes grown outside the 4,000-year-old town of Madaba. The 2002 Saint George Grands Vins de Jordan Pinot Noir/Cabernet Sauvignon
blend is a delicious medium-bodied, juicy red with mild, spicy aromas, though very little Cab or Pinot character.
Unfortunately, the other wines of Jordan we tasted did not live up to the Saint George
. They were fairly thin and unpleasant. Or as Heikki Nikkanen
, our tour physician, says, "I'll wait on the wine until something better is available. The beer is a safer bet. But the wines here are much better than in Egypt."Croatia
Croatia has a serious but small wine industry, with tiny vineyards everywhere along the Dalmatian peninsula
. Close to 60,000 acres are planted, some in the Balkan mountains
to the east, but most along the Adriatic Sea
. Much of the fruit goes to home winemakers and never leaves the town or village where it is grown.
On the Peljesac peninsula
, we visited the Grgic Vina
winery in the hamlet of Trstenik
. Grgic Vina was founded by Napa Valley winemaker Mike Grgich, a Croatian emigre, in 1995. Grgich, who earned international fame as the winemaker at Calistoga's Chateau Montelena
, founded his own Grgich Hills winery in Rutherford in 1971.
While Grgich Hills specializes in Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon and Zinfandel
, Grgic Vina focuses on local grapes like the white Posip
and the red Plavac Mali
, native to Croatia. Winemaker Kresmir Vuckovic believes the Croatian varietals are better than the international ones for Grgic Vina.
"We tried Chardonnay at first but it was not right here," Vuckovic says. "Our own local varieties give us the regional character we are looking for in wine. Many wineries produce Cabernet but not many make Plavac Mali. It makes us unique and shows pride in our heritage."
The Grgic Vina wines are exotic and familiar at the same time, with the white Posip showing a light Sauvignon Blanc
freshness and the red Plavac Mali a brambly quality not unlike Zinfandel. That last is not too surprising as Zinfandel, a Croatian native itself, is likely one of Plavac Mali's parents.
By the time we returned home, we learned that the tradition of winemaking is still alive in some of its birthplaces, and that you can get pretty good wines in places further off the beaten path than most people imagine possible.Burke Owens is associate curator of wine at Copia: the American Center for Wine, Food & the Arts in Napa. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org. http://sfgate.com/