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Wrangling with wine pairings: what to drink with Moroccan food?

“What wine should I bring to go with dinner?”

This usually isn’t a terribly tough question for me. Zinfandels go with pizza. Reds with red meat, whites with white meat. Rieslings with spicy food. There are a lot of basic unofficial wine and food pairing rules I’ve learned over the last 5 or so years selling wine. I can almost always come up with something I think would go nicely with whatever might be for dinner.

So why was I having such a hard time with this question this time around? I was having a dinner party and my friends wanted some advice about what to bring so it shouldn’t have been a terribly difficult thing to ask of me, right? The small problem was I decided to cook a Moroccan meal so every time I got asked this question I was pulling ideas totally from thin air with no clue what to tell them. The theme for my own dinner was out to get me.

First of all, drinking alcohol is taboo in Moroccan culture, so there are no traditional wines that are well-known for pairing with the food. Nor are there any grapes in Morocco that I know of, so telling people to get wine from the region was a no go. Not to mention Moroccan food is an odd but delicious combination of salty and sweet with contrasting spices and big flavors so the standard “bring a red, any red, to go with beef” rule wouldn’t apply here. I ended up telling each person something different and hoping for the best. I was more surprised than anyone that the rather random wines that appeared paired amazingly well with dinner.

I started us out with the 2006 Solex Chardonnay which is a blend of grapes from the Sonoma, Monterey, and Santa Barbara Counties of California to sip while we waited for everyone to arrive. It was nice with some gluten-free crackers from Whole Foods and the tapenade my fella and I made simply by tossing a bunch of kalamata olives in the food processor, adding five sundried tomatoes in olive oil, a clove of garlic and a handful of toasted walnuts for texture. It was a big hit and so was the wine.

No one ever guesses the Solex is a chardonnay because it tastes nothing like the traditional oak monsters usually associated with the varietal. Instead, it is a nice, crisp, slightly sweet white with a bit of a buttery mouth feel and a long finish. At 14 percent alcohol, it is a big wine for a white. This is one of the very few chardonnays I enjoy. Sonoma County, especially the Russian River Valley, can make some damn good chardonnay.

For the first course I was serving an orange and olive salad drizzled in argan oil and paprika dressing from Claudia Roden’s Arabesque: A Taste of Morocco, Turkey and Lebanon. I suggested to my friends Tim and Jessica that a sauvignon blanc might be a good choice with citrus and so that’s what they brought and it paired nicely. They first brought the 2008 Bogle Sauvignon Blanc to our wine group and it was my favorite of the tasting so it was good to try this wine again in a different context. It is another really subtle wine from California with only hints of the citrus and grass associated with the varietal. The tart, almost pear-like wine was perfect with the mildly spicy orange salad.

Photo from the blogosphere

Dinner was tuna, caper and roasted red pepper stuffed tomatoes once again from Arabesque, beef tagine with dates from a recipe on recipezaar.com (I’ll be posting all these recipes on my blog this week in case you’re interested in them) and red quinoa with roasted vegetables brought by Jessica. The only wine advice I had given to my other friends was to find something to pair with beef so Erik who is well schooled in wine brought a cabernet and Matt who has a mythically large wine cellar went with a pinot noir. Both turned out to be excellent choices.

The big bold cab, a 2007 Cousino-Macul Antiguas Reservas from the Maipo Valley of Chile, had the perfect amount of oak and fruit. It was balanced and meaty with the particular gentle herbal spiciness of Chilean wines. It also helped calm down the heavy acidity and salt of the stuffed tomatoes. Whereas the 2004 Cakebread Pinot Noir from the Carneros appellation of Napa Valley was light and mellow enough to compliment the fruit marinated fork tender beef. The pinot had very little oak and tons of red fruit flavors. Matt was on the verge of a Paul Giamatti a la Sideways moment over the fact that this pinot is supposedly past its prime but I thought it was stellar. Or if that’s past its drinkability, I can’t image what it was like at its peak.

I can also tell you the 2004 Jackson Triggs Vidal Icewine from Ontario and the 2007 Rosa Regale Sparkling Rose both go surprisingly well with rice crepes and amlou.

Completely by accident my spectacular and wine-smart friends managed to bring all the right wines to go with a Moroccan dinner. Now we all know for next time what to say when faced with the dreaded “what wine should I bring to dinner?” question when planning a Moroccan meal. You know, just in case you ever run into that problem yourself.

4 Responses to Wrangling with wine pairings: what to drink with Moroccan food?

  1. There are actually Moroccan wines. I used to go to this amazing Moroccan restaurant in Rotterdam (it’s called Safir if you ever get to the Netherlands) and the owner served us some Moroccan wines. There are even Jewish communities in Morocco – up in the North, close to the Spanish boarder.

    I love, love, love Moroccan food though. One of my favorite things ever is Moroccan chicken pot pie. I haven’t made it myself but I have had my Moroccan friends made it for me. I haven’t found a recipe that looks exactly what I used to eat in the Netherlands unfortunately. What I remember had cinnamon and powdered sugar on top which made it a perfect mix of sweet and salty.

  2. After making the mistake of having a Moroccan beer I think I’ll stay away from the wine. Interesting to know it exists though.

    The meat pies with powdered sugar are definitely in the Arabesque book if you can happen to find it or look for a recipe for bstilla or pastilla online.

  3. Next time you should look for the following wines from Thalvin at your local liquor store. S de Siroua, CB Initiales, Cuvee Premiere du President & Medaillon. These are great wines to pair with any meal and although most people do not know they exist here in the US, they do now. Hope this was helpful.

  4. There have been grapes grown in Morocco for more than 2,500 years and there are some quite decent wines coming out of there today = not that your friend would have found any very easily. Alas, they were all to prevalent when I was a student in Holland. North Africa accounted for half the really cheap table wines and sherry we consumed when young. Ghastly stuff but fine for a student since it got you just as drunk as the good stuff!

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