My regional piece on Lebanon appeared in the January 2013 issue of Decanter magazine. I have copied it in its original, expanded form here:
‘You’re going to Lebanon? Is it safe?’ Such was the standard response whenever I told anyone of my next trip. It’s true, Lebanon hasn’t had it easy. Surrounded by Syria to the north and east, and Israel to the south, it is a country with a complex religious identity that has made it a hotbed for many Middle Eastern conflicts.
But while its tumultuous recent history has to a certain extent defined the landscape and the people, it is inaccurate to paint a picture of Lebanon as a country crippled by war, its people struggling to get back on their feet. I found a place of stunning natural beauty, from Beirut’s cosmopolitan seaside vibe, to the vineyards of the Bekaa Valley, sandwiched between the snow capped mountains of the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountains, to the rugged craggy hills of Jezzine in the south.
It is the Lebanese people, however, who are the most impressive. Strong and optimistic, many have lived through years of often brutal conflict. Yet they are hopeful about the future of their country, and confident that Lebanese wines will hold a firm place on the international stage. Their resilience is reflected in their wines, which also express a certain strength and austerity. As Ronald Hochar, one of the brothers of the iconic Chateau Musar told me with a grin, ‘It feels too easy [to make wine] with no war on.’
However, with the exception of a brief but bloody battle with the Israelis in 2006, the most significant events when speaking of Lebanese wines have all taken place since the guns fell silent. In the 22 years since the end of the civil war, the number of wineries has risen from five to over 40. Ultra modern eco-friendly wineries like Ixsir are making ultra modern styles of wine alongside traditionalists like Chateau Ksara and Kefraya. Wine is being produced not just in the Bekaa but in Batroun closer to the sea, and in Jezzine in the south, an area with heaps of potential, which, with its steep rocky terraces, more closely resembles the Douro Valley. Some of the top wines are over-oaked and made in a heavy, extracted style now considered unfashionable to the modern wine drinker. But many winemakers, particularly when it comes to their ‘entry level’ wines, have found the balance between modernity and tradionalism, making fresher wines that will appeal to many a wine lover the world over whilst still staying true to their distinctly Lebanese roots.
Chateau Ksara, the oldest and biggest winery in Lebanon (dating back to 1857, it produces around 3 million bottles per year), are perhaps the best example of this contrast. On ground level, their winery glistens with rows of stainless steel tanks and modern machinery; however its shiny facade is deceptive. Beneath it lie 1,800 metres of complex tunnels and caves dating back to the Roman era. Discovered in 1898 by boys attempting to smoke out a fox that had been terrorizing their chickens, the Jesuit priests were delighted to learn the caves’ constant temperatures were perfect for storing and ageing wine. Nine openings to the tunnels have since been discovered, the final one located only last year. Today the caves house Ksara’s oldest surviving wines, dating back to 1918.
Wine production at Ksara continued throughout Lebanon’s civil war, even during the 1983 kidnapping of Ksara’s now export manager, Elie Maamari. Ksara never stopped production even in 2006, when the neighbour’s farming equipment was mistaken for something more sinister and bombed to pieces. Everyone from the cleaners to that same export manager had to harvest the grapes because no pickers were to be found. I could taste the tension in the 2006 vintage. Across the board from all of the wineries we visited, there was a tautness to the ‘06s, and then an opening up on the finish like a sense of relief. They had survived, and so had their makers.
Ksara make lots of wines from a wide range of grape varieties, including three different rosé. I thought the first two were a bit over-sulphured and fell slightly flat, but I liked the more austere salmon coloured Gris de Gris 2010, made from a blend of Grenache Gris and Carignan. It was like a naturally beautiful woman dressed up in pearls and heels for a night on the town, with scents of pretty raspberry, mineral and white pepper, and a slight fizz hidden behind a fresh lemony earthiness on the palate; A breath of fresh air on a hot summer’s day.
Ksara also make three whites, their 100% Chardonnay and Blanc de L’Observatoire (a blend of Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc and Clairette) were perfectly fine if not hugely memorable. But their Blanc de Blanc 2011 really shone (and for around £8-9 a bottle is a bargain!). A blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Semillon it was bright yellow in colour, and its many-layered nose revealed grass, flowers, minerals, lemon, and a slight toastiness. The citrus grassiness of Sauvignon took centre stage on the palate with the rounded waxy texture of Semillon making it more of a food wine than a summer sipper.
All of Ksara’s reds were very gutsy, powerful wines. They reminded me of men in expensive suits with nice watches and potent aftershave. Several were old fashioned, with hot alcohol and huge oaky tannins. But a few, including the Cuvée de Troisième Millénaire (see wine recommendations) really hit the spot. Le Souverain 2008, a blend of 50% Cabernet and 50% Arinarnoa (a crossing of Merlot and Petit Verdot), went down the Bordeaux path with a heady nose of pure black fruits, cedar, vanilla, and coffee beans, and a palate consisting of more juicy dark fruits, oaky spice, and huge tannins, making it one to lay down for several more years. But if drunk now, it would be beautiful with lamb kofta or steak. Ksara’s Cabernet Sauvignon 2006, the year of the Israeli invasion, revealed a nose of drying currants and plums, eucalyptus and liquorice. On the palate, more dried fruits, a great acidity, integrated oak, and pretty tannins; One to age or to drink now.
Only eleven years after the Jesuit priests first planted vines at Ksara, a young French engineer by the name of François-Eugène Brun found himself settled in the Bekaa village of Chtaura, after building the Beirut to Damascus road. Said to remind him of his home in southern France, he planted vines here in 1868 and founded Domaine des Tourelles, Lebanon’s first commercial winery. Three generations of Bruns continued to run the family winery until the last, Pierre Louis, died in 2000. With no relatives remaining in Lebanon, the winery was bought by two neigbouring families, Nayla Kanaan Issa-el-Khoury and Elie F. Issa. The day to day runnings of the winery are now handled by their children, siblings Christiane and Faouzi Issa, and Emile Issa-el-Khoury, who valiantly uphold the memory of ‘Uncle Pierre’, as they knew him, through their exceptionally preserved winery. Stepping into it is like stepping into the past.
Winemaker Faouzi who, like his forefather François-Eugene Brun, studied Oenology at the University of Montpellier, is a fierce traditionalist. ‘We use four important things in our winery’, Faouzi told me. ‘Indigenous yeast, indigenous terroir, indigenous (old) concrete, and an indigenous winemaker.’ But thanks perhaps in part to his youth, Faouzi is also incredibly switched on to the demands of today’s market, and makes wines that are both honest expressions of Chtaura’s terroir and suited to international palates. Indeed Tourelles are one of a small handful of wineries to be chosen to feature in Marks and Spencer’s Mediterranean range, which is as much our gain as it is his.
While Tourelles’s 2010 rosé was in its ‘last phase’ of freshness, a barrel sample of the exotic blood orange coloured 2011 revealed much more focused fruit bursting with cherries, lychees, and with fabulous freshness. It’ll be one to look out for.
Tourelles’s unoaked Blanc 2011 (45% Chardonnay, 40% Viognier, 15% Muscat d’Alexandrie) is the wine listed in M&S, and while I don’t feel it’s their best wine, it has a pleasing spiced pear, lemon and apple quality that makes it very food friendly.
It’s Tourelles’ reds that really stand out, by managing to combine both power with delicacy. Their ‘Marquis des Beys’ is a lovely drink (see wine recommendations), and their Rouge 2006 (45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Syrah, 10% Cinsault), 100% aged in old concrete vats, is the perfect example of a Lebanese wine riding the line between traditional and modern. With focused clean black fruit, olive, and a meaty smokiness, it’s a cracking glass now, but will also be exciting in another 5 years. One of the top wines from Tourelles is their Syrah du Liban, aged in 100% new American oak (but surprisingly well integrated). This is a sexy black dress of a wine. The 2007 is an intoxicating well of black fruit and chocolate with touches of pepper and dried flowers, while the 2009 has slightly more savoury notes, coconut and liquorice; Definite fireside companions.
Another to keep an eye out for is Chateau St Thomas. A family run operation, St. Thomas began as an Arak producer in the early 1990s. Saïd Touma, the family’s gregarious and exceedingly hospitable patriarch, has been distilling the national spirit for 50 years, trained at the hands of his father and grandfather. In 1998, Saïd’s son Joe, a kind, softly spoken but very clued up young man, made the first vintage of Chateau St. Thomas wine. Today Joe along with his sister Natalie, who runs the admin and marketing side of things, have turned their modest winery into one of the most adventurous in the country.
Their pièce de résistance lies with a notoriously fussy grape variety, loved and obsessed about by many a wine geek, but only happy growing in tiny pockets of the world. Chateau St. Thomas are the only winemakers in Lebanon to make a single varietal Pinot Noir. For a family named after the apostle ‘Doubting Thomas’, this must have been a giant leap of faith. Planted 1200 metres above sea level in southwest Bekaa, the snow capped mountains and chilly evening winds keep cool-climate-loving Pinot happy. There is something exotic and otherworldly about this expression of the famous grape. First, it’s quite dark in colour for a Pinot, more on the plummy side of the spectrum than red berries in all the vintages I tried. And while there’re those wonderful meaty, earthy, slightly vegetal aromas of a contently ageing Pinot, my nose was also filled with powerful Middle Eastern spices-cumin and turmeric, and even more spice on the palate, along with bright cherries and tobacco. The 2009 had even more sweet exotic spices and rich texture, and the 2010 and 2011 are shaping up to be more feminine, equally intriguing examples of a Lebanese Pinot.
Chateau St. Thomas makes a fairly wide range of wines, including a ludicrously gluggable ‘Les Gourmets’ rosé and a layered, austere smokey beauty called ‘Les Emires’. But it’s their Lebanese Pinot Noir, that mysterious and temperamental dazzler of a grape variety, which deserves the most accolades.
On my final night in the Bekaa, I dined with several winemakers in a tiny restaurant in the heart of the valley’s capital city of Zahle. The restaurant’s owner, Henri, recounted how in 1981, during the Syrian siege on Zahle, when supplies were cut off from the city, and men carried food on their backs over the mountains, he piled sandbags in front of his restaurant and refused to close. People said it was the only place they could go to feel normal during the war.
Today in most parts, normalcy has returned to Lebanon, and the art of winemaking is alive and well. The Lebanese create wines that are often gutsy, powerful and long long-lived with seductive Middle Eastern spices and tannins made to last a lifetime; to persevere, like their people, through whatever their future may hold. Whatever is in store for this beautiful and complex country, when it comes to wine, the outlook is a very positive one indeed.
Ixsir ‘Altitudes White’ 2010: (40% Muscat Petit Grain, 30% Viognier, 15% Sauvignon Blanc, 15% Semillon)
Available at Great Western Wine for £15.95
Grapey Muscat perfume and zippy lemon from the Sauvignon with a palate of exotic Mediterranean spices, white flowers, stone fruit, and a muscular, chewy texture great for outdoor summertime dining.
Drink now or in the next 5 years.
Château Ksara, Cuvée de Troisième Millénaire 2008: (40% Petit Verdot, 30% Cabernet Franc, 30% Syrah)
Available: Corking Wines £26.70
Distinctly ‘Lebanese’ with a heady nose of incense, exotic spices and juicy blackberries and a palate of sandalwood and liquorices. Big round tannins and fantastic acidity. The perfect match for a Middle Eastern lamb dish.
Drink now (with food!) or in the next 15-20 years.
Chateau Ka ‘Cadet de Ka’: (vintage available at M&S?) (60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 20% Syrah, 10% Merlot)
Available: Marks & Spencer around £8.99 (will go on sale in May)
Really likeable nose of dried herbs and potpourri with a palate of cherries and more Mediterranean herbs. A lovely spring time weeknight wine.
Drink now or in the next 7 years (if 2008 vintage)
Karam Winery ‘Saint John’ 2006: (Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot)
Available: Kingswood Wines approx. £27
From the rocky terraced slopes of Jezzine in the south, the ’06 St. John fills the sniffer with notes of plums, nectarines, and both fresh and drying cherries, the mouth with fresher red fruit and slight earthy tones. The still prominent tannins and acidity promise another few years of ageing, but it’s great to drink now too, particularly with wild boar or some other such rustic countryside meat.
Drink now or within 7 years
Domaine des Tourelles ‘Marquis des Beys’: (vintage: 2009 much cheaper. Boutinot have just taken them on so will prob have other vintages available for retail soon but for now, ’04 available from Borough Wines for £25)
(50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Syrah)
(Tasting notes from 2005 vintage): The Cabernet shines through-green leaves, tobacco, and hints of cedar dominate while ripe blackberries linger in the background. The palate leads with juicy fruit and spices revealing grippy tannins and fresh acidity set for many more years of ageing.
If the 2009: Drink in the next 4-30 years
If the 2004: Drink now or in the next 10-20 years
Lebanon wine facts:
Grape varieties: Mediterranean varietals like Cinsault, Syrah, Carignan, Grenache, Viognier, Muscat, Semillon, and Sauvignon Blanc are widely planted.
Bordelais style wines are also been fashionable, resulting in an influx of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and some Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec.
Native grapes: A few wineries (most notably Chateau Musar) are working with native grape varieties like Obaideh and Merwah although they are more frequently used for the production of the nation’s historic anise flavoured spirit, Arak.
The Bekaa: The majority of wine production is in the Bekaa Valley, sandwiched between the Lebanon Mountains in the west and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains in the east, on the Syrian border. The vineyards sit at an altitude of 1000-1200 metres above sea level, similar to Argentina’s Mendoza. The summers are hot but the evenings stay cool thanks to the altitude. Winters can be snowy and harsh but never cold enough to do much damage to the vines. The Bekaa’s soil is generally made up of a limestone base with an overcoat of loam or clay, and can be quite rocky and gravelly. All work in the vineyards is done by hand. The wines range from the very traditional to the very modern, and many are a mixture of both.
Making wine is no recent trend in Lebanon. They’ve been doing it since 7000 B.C., although it was around 3000 B.C. when the Phoenicians, those enterprising maritime traders (aka the world’s first wine merchants) spread viniculture throughout the Mediterranean and further afield. Fast forward several thousand years to 1857 when French Jesuit monks planted Cinsault vines in the Bekaa Valley at what is now Chateau Ksara, marking the genesis of the modern industry. The presence of the French in between the World Wars cemented a lasting wine culture in the country. However most wineries, with the exception of a handful, stopped production during the bloody 15 year civil war from 1975-1990. When the guns fell silent, it was Lebanon’s turn to belatedly join the New World revolution