Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk | AspenTimes.com

Kelly J. Hayes: WineInk

Kelly J. Hayes

The world of wine was built on the backs of entrepreneurs. From the landed gentry of Bordeaux and the negociants who sold their wines, to the pioneers who shipped Syrah vines to the fertile fields of Australia, to Robert Mondavi, who saw the future when he first laid eyes on the Napa Valley.

Didier Pariente is such a man. And he has a vision, a dream if you will, that one day wines from Morocco will find their way onto restaurant wine lists and into homes all across America.

“Morocco?” you ask. I know I did.

After all, Morocco is dominated by Muslims, who eschew the consumption of alcohol on religious grounds, reason enough to question it as a place of origin for fine wine. And Morocco is in Africa, a vast continent that, with the exception of South Africa more than 4,000 miles to the south, has virtually no winemaking traditions.

“Au contraire,” Didier corrected me one recent afternoon as we sat surrounded by bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah that he is importing from Morocco. “The Berbers were making wines in North Africa before the Romans and Phoenicians. It was the Arabs who introduced distillation techniques to Europe.”

Didier went on to explain that there is a huge wine industry in Morocco and that the current King, Mohammed VI, is a big supporter, following in the footsteps of his predecessor, Hassan II, who personally consulted during his reign with the mayor of Bordeaux for help in creating that industry.

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Not only that, Didier pointed out, the topography just east of Casablanca is perfect for growing grapes. Situated in the foothills of the Atlas Mountains, the vineyards are comprised of rich dark soils that are super-heated during the day and take advantage of cooling breezes from the Atlantic, just 20 miles or so to the west.

Sounds like a southern Bordeaux.

Morocco has 14 appellations, more than 30,000 acres planted to grapes, and employs up to 10,000 workers, many of whom bow to the east during the workday to pray. The country produces close to four million cases per year, most of which is consumed domestically.

But the real surprise is how good the wines are. Especially those wines made by Thalvin, the most prestigious winemaker in the Kingdom of Morocco, which Didier has the exclusive rights to import into the United States.

I have tasted four different wines, all from the Zenata appellation, which is considered to be Morocco’s premier growing region: A Syrah, and three different blends of Cabernet Sauvignon at three different price points. All four made favorable impressions. They are full, mature, well-made wines that tasted more French than I would expect. Fruit forward, not green or lean, these wines, all from the 2005 vintage, would be acceptable on any wine list or in any cellar. And not just as novelties.

So how did the French-born and -raised entrepreneur, first, get to Aspen and, second, become an importer of Moroccan wines?

“I came to Aspen on a whim,” he reminisces. “I was in LA and someone said he was going to Aspen for Halloween and asked if I wanted to go. I got here and remember walking around on Halloween and thinking ‘this place is really great.’ So I stayed.”

Didier began working at the late, lamented Mogador and wondered why the North African-themed restaurant served wines from Spain, but none of the wines he remembered drinking as a youth from Morocco. When the season closed, he took off for Casablanca to find out how to get Moroccan wines into America.

“I called all of the major wineries and told them I was an importer,” he says. “I think they knew I was pretty inexperienced, but they played the game with me.” His efforts resulted in the agreement between Thalvin and his company Exotic Imports, LLC.

To date, Colorado is the only state to sell the wines legally, but Didier is working on distribution agreements with New York and Texas.

His first shipment came last February and he is expecting a second with 1,200 cases this fall. Locally, the wines can be found at Matsuhisa, Cache Cache, the Caribou Club, Jimmy’s, Dish, Pinons and the Wild Fig, as well as local liquor stores.

Didier works tirelessly on his dream. “These wines, they are like my children,” he says. Perhaps one day we will know them well.

Kelly J. Hayes lives in the soon-to-be designated appellation of Old Snowmass with his wife, Linda, and a black Lab named Vino. He can be reached at malibukj@wineink.com.