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  • Christina Pickard

Spotlight on Lebanon

I recently met up with a friend who is part Lebanese.  I told her I’d just attended a Lebanese wine tasting.  She seemed surprised Lebanon even made wines.  In fact, most people are.

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Actually, Lebanon’s wine scene is thriving, and ever growing, despite having to jump through a lot of geo-political hoops.  Since the end of the civil war in 1990, the number of wineries has grown from 5 to 40.  Most of the wine is still drunk within the country; fairly surprising considering the majority of the country is Muslim (although Lebanon’s religious divisions are insanely complicated), although lucky for us, some of the best stuff is making it over to British shores.

The Georgians may be able to lay claim to being the oldest known wine producing country in the world, but the Lebanese have pretty impressive birthrights of their own.  Wine production there can be traced back to 7000 B.C. but it was around 3000 B.C. when the Phoenicians, those enterprising maritime traders (aka the world’s first wine merchants), spread viniculture into the Mediterranean and even further afield.  Several thousand tumultuous years later, and Lebanon is back and making some pretty impressive wines.  Thanks to the influence of the thirsty Frenchmen at the end of World War I, Lebanon got to grips with international grape varieties like cabernet, merlot, syrah, grenache, cinsault, viognier, and muscat.  But they’re also blending with native grape varieties like obaideh, merwah, and caladoc (a crossing of malbec and grenache).

At the Wines from Lebanon tasting in London last week, I was impressed by quite a few of the wines on show.  Many seemed very Bordeaux-influenced, austere ‘grown up’ wines brilliant by a fireplace or with a Sunday roast.  I’ve written about Clos de Cana’s Lamartine wine before, and I’ve long been a fan of perhaps the most famous wines from Lebanon, Chateau Musar.  At last week’s tasting I was able to re-try an old favourite, Domaine des Tourelles 2008 red blend, from one of the most historic wineries in Lebanon.  While I was impressed with several of Tourelles’ wines, particularly their Syrah du Liban, a complex liquoricey £40 a bottle beauty, I was pleased that my palate (and wallet) was still drawn to their ‘entry level’ red, a blend of cabernet and syrah aged in concrete vats.  The lack of oak was a like a cold shower for my fuzzy tannin-coated palate.  And for approximately £9 a bottle, this fresh bright-eyed raspberry belle was one of the few at the ball you’d happily dance with all night.

Ixsir was another stand out.  Although only launched a year ago, Ixsir has been getting some praise and attention on the international wine circuit.  And rightfully so.  These are boutique wines, retailing from £12-£22 a bottle, but worth every penny (although surprisingly they don’t have a UK importer yet, but I think that will change soon).  Their Grande Reserve 2010 white was my particular favourite.  Mostly viognier blended with some chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, the wine receives only 5 months in French oak, just enough to create a beautiful balance of creamy toasty goodness, mouthwatering stone fruit and minerals.  At £12 (as opposed to £22), the Altitude white is also quite delicious.

Karam Winery also got a lot of gold stars in my book.  The first wine to be produced in Lebanon’s southern region of Jezzine, I particularly liked the Syrah de Nicolas 2005, all yeasty, crunchy, and freshly black fruited goodness.  St. John 2006 was a more serious ageing wine although I could happily knock back a bottle now.  A blend of syrah, cabernet and merlot, Kingswood Wines (Karam’s importer) calls it ‘a subtle triumph of the liquid art’. Touché.  At £21.50 and £27 a bottle respectively, these aren’t every day drinking wines, but Karam only produces 70,000 bottles total–this is boutique production at its best.

Chateau Kefraya

Some others to point out:

Chateau Kefraya’s unoaked Rhone blend (mostly cinsault) Les Bretèches  which was strangely more reminiscent of ripe Loire gamay, all red fruits and mushrooms, but nonetheless very drinkable.

Chateau Ka’s blend of muscat, viognier, and sauvignon blanc in their Source Blanche 2010.  All three grapes shone equally in this delicate but slightly creamy, minerally lady: grapey spice from the muscat, peaches and apricots from the viognier, and zippy acidity from the sauvignon to keep things light and airy.

Chateau St. Thomas’s 2006 blend of cabernet, merlot and syrah seemed older than it was with a rusty colour and palate of dried fruit and leather. I would imagine it will continue to age in bottle for a several years.

It is human nature to stick with what we know and are comfortable with.  But I think much of the fun in wine is the journey of discovery in exploring new regions, styles, and grape varieties.  So try something new this weekend.  Pick up a bottle of Lebanese wine for your next dinner party and you’ll be elevated to a status of tres cool in the eyes of all of your fellow party guests.

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