Wine of the Week 27 – amazing value dry Riesling

I love Riesling. It is one of the best white grapes in the world and it produces such a wonderful variety of wines that it pains me that more consumers do not love it as I do. It still seems to evoke laughable images of the 1970s and Liebfraumilch for many people, but what those people have to remember is that all the things they find funny about the 1970s now, were not funny then. Their younger selves – or their parents – actually liked wearing safari jackets and flares, eating chicken kiev and drinking Blue Nun – get over it I say.

It also might interest you to know though that Blue Nun never had any Riesling in it and most Liebfraumilch and cheap German wine was – and is – made from Müller-Thurgau grapes and not Riesling at all.

Riesling can be stylish, classy, refined and elegant and what’s more a great many are dry. If you want dry wines made from Riesling, then drink Riesling from Alsace, Austria, Washington State or Chile. All these places are produce some superb dry Riesling, but my Wine of the Week this week is cracking dry Riesling from the Clare Valley in South Australia. If the delights of Riesling have so far eluded you, but you enjoy Grüner Veltliner or Albariño, do give this wine a try, you might well enjoy it.

Clare Valley Vines at Taylors Wine. Photo courtesy of Taylors Wines.

Clare Valley Vines at Taylors Wine. Photo courtesy of Taylors Wines.

Map of South Eastern Australia  – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of South Eastern Australia – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

The Exquisite Collection Clare Valley Riesling2013 Aldi The Exquisite Collection Riesling
Clare Valley
South Australia
Riesling was once the work horse white grape of Australia and it is still widely grown. However, two areas of South Australia have really made a speciality of it and now produce superb premium Riesling in their own unique style, although many other grape varieties are planted there too. These wine regions are the Eden Valley and the Clare Valley.
Clare is probably the most famous and produces the iconic style of Australian Riesling, dry, medium-bodied and with lots of fruit balancing the grape’s natural acidity. They normally appear richer than their European counterparts and often have an oily character to them.
If you read the small print on the label you will see that this wine is made by Taylors Wines, who are a large, but very good quality family run producer that exports under the Wakefield label to avoid confusion with the Port house. 

Strangely the Clare Valley is not that cool, it actually has a Mediterranean climate, but the nights are cool and together with the height of the vineyards – around 350-400 metres above sea level – this ensures the wines retain their freshness, acidity and balance. It is an area of gently rolling hills in fact and not strictly speaking a valley at all, but it is very beautiful.

The nose is enticing and glorious with the freshness of lime and lime zest, some grapefruit and tangerine too and there is something mineral and stony about it as well. It smells fresh, vibrant and pristine, but has a little oily, waxy richness too.
The palate has lots of zing and fat, ripe fruit too. It has lovely, mouthwatering acidity making it clean, and crisp, as well as a juicy quality to the fruit; apples, pears and white peach, together with lemon and lime zest on the finish and some steely minerality.
Really good stuff that is just perfect as an aperitif or with light meals, fish dishes, shellfish and it is really good with most Asian cuisine – anything you dip into sweet chilli sauce in fact  – 88/100 points, this scores high for value and tastes much more expensive than it is.

I don’t like the label of this wine or The Exquisite Collection name Aldi have given the range, it’s a pretty terrible name, but who cares if the wine is this good?

 Available in the UK at £6.99 per bottle from Aldi.

I will certainly make sure that I have some of this on hand over Christmas, it is utterly delicious and a bargain at that.

Wine of the Week 26 – a deliciously tangy white

My Wine of the Week is a wine that I have actually written about before, different vintages though, but I always enjoy it so much and it so interesting and refreshingly different that it’s always worth another mention.

Earlier in the week I was invited to a wonderful wine dinner hosted by Joanna Simon. The theme was wines and food of South West France - or le Sud-Ouest - and it was in the trendy Boundary Restaurant in Shoreditch. The restaurant has a wine club which runs these wine themed evenings and a good time seems to be had as the food is quite superb and the restaurant is quite a beautiful place to be. In fact The Boundary fills a whole building and includes a hotel, a shop, café, bakery, bars and other restaurants and as if all that isn’t enough, there is also a rooftop bar.

Map of Southwest France including the A.C.s of Bergerac – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of Southwest France including the A.C.s of Bergerac – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

The evening was lovely with a delicious menu of rich, interesting French food including a main course of braised ox check, with smoked wild boar in stunningly rich sauce, and a blindingly good cheese board. The wines that partnered them were all from the delightfully disparate region that is South West France and they went very well indeed. My favourite though, or one of them anyway, was a tangy, zesty, aromatic and richly flavoursome dry white wine that was perfect with both the salad of Bayonne Ham with black truffle and the Ossau Iraty cheese.

Vineyards in Saint Mont.

Vineyards in Saint Mont.

vigne-retrouvees-blanc2012 Saint Mont Les Vignes Retrouvées Blanc
A.C. / P.D.O. Saint Mont (still shown as Côtes de Saint-Mont on my map)
Plaimont Producteurs
Gascony, France
Plaimont are a cooperative and the leading producer in Saint Mont. As such they make a huge array of wines from everyday wines to more ambitious cuvées and they are never worse than decent. This little gem is quite special though, made from the region’s traditional ‘rediscovered’ grapes that give the wine it’s name, it is an exciting blend of 70% Gros Manseng, 20 % Petit Courbu and 10% Arrufiac. Gascony was originally the northern part of the Kingdom of Navarre (Navarra) and some of these grapes are grown over the border in Spain’s País Vasco to make Chacolí / Txakoli. In ancient times the people of Navarra were the Vascones tribe who later evolved into both the Basques and the Gascons.

It’s dry, medium-bodied and unoaked with a richly tangy citrus acidity and a richer stone fruit and pithy grapefruit palate with some creamy and honeyed intensity and texture to the fruit. This texture dominates the finish and makes it feel really succulent – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK at £7.95 per bottle from The Wine Society.

This is such a lovely white wine, so delicious and so interesting that it deserves a wider audience. It would be a great wine to keep on hand to serve guests throughout Christmas – unless they read this site they will never guess how inexpensive it is – and it will go perfectly with anything from a cheese straw to a full blown meal. What’s more it might open the delights of France’s South West up to you, it is a beautiful, varied and sadly underestimated wine region.

More information is available at southwestfrancewines.co.uk

Wine of the Week 25 – a superb inexpensive sparkler.

I love sparkling wine and enjoy drinking it whatever the occasion. Nothing cheers me up so much as some fizz after a difficult day. Sparkling wine before dinner always turns an ordinary day into something of a celebration too. A nice fizz always gives me a little lift and makes the world seem a better place. Sadly a lot of sparkling wines can be a bit expensive for everyday drinking, while the cheaper examples can often be disappointing.

Happily there is help at hand and I have made it my Wine of the Week. It is a Crémant de Jura, so it comes from the Jura region of France. Jura is a small and relatively obscure place in the east of the country, but it makes some wonderful wines and produces stunning cheeses – Comté comes from here. I recently created the maps for the definitive book on the wines of the Jura, which is available here in the UK & here in the US.

My map showing where Jura is. Click for a larger view. © Quentin Sadler 2014.

My map showing where Jura is. Click for a larger view. © Quentin Sadler 2014.

Jura vineyards showing the dramatic terrain.

Jura vineyards showing the dramatic terrain.

Sadly I have not yet visited, but from my research I know that Jura is a beautiful and captivating place full of stunning scenery and picturesque towns, while imposing mountains are never far away. I gather the place is very quiet and rural and a world away from the France of the big cities.

The fact that the wine is a Crémant means it must be made sparkling by the Traditional Method, the same way that they do it in Champagne. The wine comes from Aldi and I think it might well be the best sparkling wine on the market at under £10, but don’t tell anyone, or they will all want to try it! In fact I have been quite impressed with lots of Aldi wines, so while you are there buying this you might want to grab a few other bottles to try.

If you have never been able to try anything from Jura, this wine might be a good place to start as production here is very is small and so the can often be difficult to track down.

Philippe Michel Cremant du Jura2011 Philippe Michel Crémant du Jura Chardonnay Brut
A.C. Crémant de Jura
Jura, France

What makes this so good? It is the balance and the acidity which gives it freshness and elegance. It really is much better than the modest price tag would lead you to think. Made from pure Chardonnay – Jura is not far from Burgundy – it’s crisp with a lean, apply structure, the merest hint of toast and tends towards the firm, taut texture of Champagne, although some flourishes of subtle tropical fruit soften the plate somewhat. This so obviously comes from a cool region and it such a refreshing – in every sense – change from the soft pappy and sweetish style of sparkling wine that is so widely encountered nowadays (I’m talking about cheap Prosecco here in case you didn’t know) – 85/100 points.

Available from Aldi at £7.29 per bottle – you can find your nearest store here.

This just makes a perfect everyday fizz, so stock up early for Christmas would be my advice. What’s more if you like it – and if you like sparkling wine you will – make sure you try something else from the Jura, The Wine Society stock some Jura wines, as do Les Caves de Pyrène.

Wine of the Week 24 – tasting País without Prejudice

The world is full of delicious wines and fascinating wines. They aren’t always the same ones mind you, but when they are that is when the real fun starts. Chile is quite rightly seen as a source of lovely everyday drinking wines as well as increasingly a finer wine producing country too. Chile’s producers are also starting to fashion good wines from a wider and wider range of interesting grapes. The days of Chilean wine only being made from Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon are well and truly over.

It is now possible to get world class Chilean Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache, Pinot Gris, Riesling, Gewürztraminer and Roussanne amongst many other interesting grape varieties.

However, wine had already been made in Chile for hundreds of years before the use of international grapes, like Cabernet Sauvignon, made Chilean wines more visible on the world market. Ever since the Spanish Conquistadors arrived, Chilean farmers were growing grapes and making wines for local consumption. Mostly this was from a grape that has long been called the ‘common black grape’ and until recently we had no idea what it was, but research has now shown it to be the Palomino Negro / Listan Prieto which now pretty much only grows in the Canary Islands.

Eventually this mutated into the País grape and for two or three hundred years País was, along with Moscatel, the work horse grape of Chile. Eventually it was supplanted, for quality wines, by the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon and relegated to an invisible rural existence. In the main País has soldiered on in the more remote areas where the vineyards are smaller in scale and owned by peasant farmers who do not have the resources to follow modern trends.

Miguel Torress at dinner in 2012.

Miguel Torress at dinner in 2012.

Miguel Torres originally arrived in Chile like a whirlwind, breathing new life into the wine industry there in the late 1970s. He brought modern winemaking techniques with him and for 35 years Chilean wine has been mainly modern and cutting edge. In recent years though I have been fascinated to see some producers beginning to hark back to older techniques and times past.

The wonderful De Martino for instance are fermenting some of their wines in huge earthenware vats called tinajas, much as rural Spanish producers did in the past.

Chile Map watermarked

Torres Chile is based in Curicó, rather closer to this rural idyll than some of the other big names of Chilean wine, so they seem to have paid attention to the growers there as well as those further south in Maule. For these farmers it is very hard to make a decent living as they cannot afford to replant their vineyards with the new grapes the market demands. Instead they are left with old vine, dry farmed País like their ancestors used to make the local wine. Miguel Torres Chile saw it as a challenge to turn this into an opportunity rather than a problem. They helped to make sure the grapes were well grown and the vines healthy, they ensured the viticulture was all organic – relatively straightforward in Chile’s dry climate – then they needed to turn those grapes into a great product that would ensure the growers made a decent living. Although the project is run by a large and successful company, it is a fair trade project, so there is something cooperative-like about it and what’s more they use sustainable viticulture – so what’s not to like.

It really is a wonderful and virtuous concept and much in keeping with the ethos I heard whilst spending a week with Miguel Torres a couple of years ago. The first wine they made from these País grapes was a pink sparkler called Santa Digna Estelado Rosé and it really is a great product – try it if you get a chance.

Now they have also made a red wine from these amazing vines and the second vintage of it is my Wine of the Week:

Pais2013 Reserva Del Pueblo País
Miguel Torres Chile
Curicó, Chile
Named for the old village wines, or everyday wines of the pueblos of Chile’s past this is a rare – but not unique – pure País wine and as such gives us a glimpse into Chile’s vinous past. Only a glimpse though as this is beautifully made. 40% of the wine is fermented by carbonic maceration, which tames País’s rustic drying tannins without tipping it over into bubblegum characters.
The colour is verging on deep purple, while the nose is an enticing mix of cooked blackberry, plums, cassis and fragrant herbs.
The palate is immediate and juicy with fresh acidity, deep, sweet black cherry and blackberry fruit that feels fresh and lively, together with a little firmness from the tannins. I had no idea what to expect from this wine at all, but it really is delicious and slips down rather easily. This has something of Beaujolais and rustic Pinot Noir about it, but is more richly fruity and I found it best slightly chilled. It goes with pretty much anything and nothing – 89/100 points. Marked high for the sheer pleasure it gives.

Available in the UK at £7.50 from The Wine Society.
Miguel Torres Chile wines are distributed in the US by Ste. Michelle Wine Estates

País is not often a grape that springs to mind when you are trying to decide what to drink, but trust me, this is a deliciously drinkable wine and a real bargain too.

Wine of the Week 23 – an inspiring tale & a treat from the Rhône

My new Wine of the Week is something I have been meaning to write about for quite a while. It is made by the guys at Chêne Bleu who craft some superb wines at their Domaine de la Verrière. This beautiful estate is in the rugged and isolated Mont Ventoux area just a few kilometres north of Gigondas and east of Séguret on the borders between the Côtes du Rhône and Ventoux.

la_verriere182

Domaine de la Verrière complete with the blue oak. Photo courtesy of the winery.

I have managed to taste most of the Chêne Bleu wines and they are hugely impressive and like all the best wineries it has a great story to tell. Once an early medieval priory that was known for its wines, it also later became famous for making glass, hence the la Verrière name, but by the 1960s the place was rundown and derelict. It stayed that way too, until Nicole and Xavier Rolet bought the property in the mid 1990s. At first they brought the house up to standard, but soon turned their attention to the vineyards. As the estate is hardly in a famous location for great wine they assumed a modest future of growing grapes for the local cooperative was all that was possible. However, as they were totally new to wine they called in soil experts who explained to them that this site actually had potential for great wine.

Fundamentally it was the altitude – between 550 and 630 metres above sea level – the complex soils, the powerful sun and the strong winds that made the place so promising. The estate can ripen the fruit, the altitude ensures finesse and acidity, while the other factors force the vines to spend so much effort surviving that they produce tiny crops of concentrated grapes.

Vineyards at Chêne Bleue. Photo courtesy of the winery.

Vineyards at Chêne Bleu. Photo courtesy of the winery.

Apparently it took twelve years of back breaking effort to coax life back into the land. Right from the start they aimed high to produce wines that spoke of this place, which is why some of their wines are blended across their land. Because the estate straddles 4 appellations – Côtes du Rhône, Gigondas, Séguret and Ventoux – some of their wines are made from grapes that belong to more than one appellation and so are simply labelled as Vin de Pays / IGP rather than appellation contrôlée. To restore balance to the vineyard, everything is done manually and naturally with no fertilisers or pesticides. In fact they are on their way to biodynamic and organic certification.

Wine map of the southern Rhône. Click for a larger view. High resolution non watermarked versions are available by agreement.

Wine map of the southern Rhône. Click for a larger view. High resolution non watermarked versions are available by agreement.

It may seem a little shallow of me, but part of the pleasure that I take in their wines is looking at their beautiful labels which look like intricate medieval wood-cuts. I have always loved David Gentleman‘s mural at Charring Cross tube station and I can take the same sort of delight in Chêne Bleu’s labels as I can in examining that. You can spend hours taking in all the details and finding the animals hidden in the patterns – apparently people try to count the rabbits – and at the heart is a drawing of the Chêne Bleu itself. As you can see in the photographs, there really is a blue oak at the estate. It is so old that they have had to treat it in order to preserve it and it was this that made it blue.

Chêne Bleu is an inspiring project and the positive way their wines have been received must give them immense gratification after so much hard work. The wines are very, very good though and they deserve their plaudits, but most of them are also far from cheap, although well worth trying if you want a treat.

However, luckily for us they have just launched a more affordable wine and that is my Wine of the Week:

CB- Mktg- A5 Brochures- UK- Astralabe 2009-  24.7.132009 Chêne Bleu Astralabe
A.C. Ventoux
Rhône Valley, France
This is a blend of 70% old vine Grenache and Syrah, the vines are between 30 and 40 years old and are grown at around 540 metres above sea level on a mixture of north and south-west facing slopes. The wine spends 7-8 months in barrel. It is named Astralabe in honour of the little known son of Abélard and Héloïse, which are the names of Chêne Bleu’s two top wines.
The nose is lifted, attractive and smoky with mineral, earthy and herbal notes. The fruit is dominated by plums, cooked strawberries and black cherry together with and a touch of prune in the background.
The palate is quite full-bodied and delivers delicious bright red fruit, as wells some deeper notes. There is a delicately peppery spice, gently firm tannins and some fresh acidity giving it a distinctive purity.
This is an elegant, balanced and joyous wine with concentrated fruit and a lovely mineral quality too – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK at £15.99 a bottle from Waitrose Cellar – £11.99 if you grab it before 28/10/2014

This is utterly perfect with a slow cooked shoulder of lamb cooked on a bed of garlic, thyme, rosemary and lemon peel. If you like Grenache and Syrah blends, wines from the Rhône, spicy or elegant wines, then you really should try this.

 

Wine of the Week 22 – Croatian specialities

Dubrovnil from the south.

Dubrovnil from the south.

Earlier in the year I was judging in a wine competition in Dubrovnik. I have been meaning to write about it ever since as the whole experience was quite wonderful. The place itself completely lives up to expectations and fully deserves its reputation as one of the great destinations. I can see why it is a World Heritage site, it really is right up there with Venice in terms of wonder. It isn’t only the city that is worth seeing though, the whole coastline takes your breath away.

The wines in southern Croatia are a great experience too though. We tasted lots of excellent wines of character and interest that were quite unlike most  wines from elsewhere, so all in all it was a pretty exciting trip.

The whole Dalmatian coast produces a wide array of red wines in all sorts of styles, some of them quite sweet, from the Plavac Mali grape – the name means ‘small blue’ by the way, which pretty well describes the look of the grapes. The berries are small and they are deeply coloured.  The most famous examples of Plavac Mali  are Dingač and Postup, which are both grown on the astonishingly wild and beautiful Pelješac Peninsula to the north of Dubrovnik. I visited vineyards there and was very taken with the place. I didn’t get to visit it, but the nearby island of Korčula, also grows Plavac Mali as well as making excellent white wines from the indigenous Pošip grape.

The vineyards of Dingač sweeping down to the sea on the Pelješac Peninsula.

The amazing vineyards of Dingač sweeping down to the sea on the Pelješac Peninsula.

I have not yet drawn a map of Croatia, so you can see one by clicking here.

Plavac Mali is the same grape as Italy’s Primitivo and is very closely related to Zinfandel – in fact Zin is one of its parents, the other being the obscure Dobričić from the island of Šolta. True Zinfandel originates here in Croatia where it grows in tiny amounts on the Dalmatian coast where it is known as Crljenak Kaštelanski. The even rarer and older Tribidrag has exactly the same DNA and is thought to be the same grape.

I had been to Croatia before, not on a wine trip as it happens, but wine gets consumed even on a holiday – you know how it it! On that occasion I visited Istria in the north west of the country where the local specialities are the earthy and herbal tasting Teran reds and the refreshing, although sometimes fleshy, Malvasia white wines. While I was there I visited a winery in Slovenia.

Anyway all this came flooding back to me while I was working at The Three Wine Men the other week. I was pouring and talking about Croatian wines to a very receptive and interested crowd. The wines were very good indeed and I decided that one of them would be my Wine of the Week:

Plavac_0752009 Plavac Blato
Korčula
Blato 1902
Croatia
Blato 1902 is a cooperative on the island of Korčula and yes, you guessed it, they were founded in 1902. Blato is a town towards the western end of the island, some 20 km away from Korčula town. They don’t only make wine either, but all manner of drinks and agricultural products including olive oils and vinegars. 
This is a delightfully elegant Plavac with the alcohol, fruit, tannins and acidity in very good balance. There is nothing rustic or overworked about this, the merest hint of raisins shows we are tasting a wine from somewhere with lots of sunshine and there is plenty of seductive spice as well as dark cherry fruit and touches of chocolate. At just 12.5% alcohol the wine is very easy to drink, but has good depth of flavour and a very Mediterranean feel. It would be brilliant with cheese and charcuterie as well as casseroles, lamb cooked with garlic and all manner of pasta dishes as there is something Italianate about it – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK at £10 a bottle from Croatian Fine Wines.

Croatian Fine Wines carry an excellent, and exciting range of Croatian wines, including some excellent and really lovely whites from the north east of the country.

Lebanon Part 2 – the producers

Earlier in the year I was invited to visit Lebanon and so was able to tour some of the wineries in the Bekaa Valley. Lebanon is a beautiful and vibrant country full of smiling, friendly people, incredible landscapes, wonderful food and excellent quality wines.

Of course in world terms it is a tiny producer, just 0.06% of total world production in 2010, but the average quality does seem very high. Not even the biggest producers in Lebanon count as bulk producers though. So it is a land of boutique winemakers, people who feel driven to make wine, who strive for quality and do not cut corners. This means that most Lebanese wine isn’t cheap – even in Lebanon – but is usually well worth trying.

Map of Lebanon including the wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Map of Lebanon including the wine regions – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement.

Most Lebanese wines come from the Bekaa Valley, which is a beautiful fertile valley between Mount Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges, which form the border with Syria. It’s very fertile and every where you look you can see produce being grown – wine of course suits the rockier, less fertile soils.  The region enjoys a Mediterranean climate with cold winters and hot dry summers that can ripen grapes perfectly. The heat is tempered by cool breezes because the valley is at very high altitude, between 900 and 1250 metres above sea level. The big temperature drops between day and night, often around 20 degrees, also helps to retain freshness and elegance in the wines. Some of the newer regions just starting to produce wines, like Jezzine in the south and Batroun in the north, are cooler and look promising for more delicate grape varieties like Rielsing and Sauvignon Blanc.

When I first got back I wrote a little about Lebanon and have since put on a couple of well received Lebanese tastings as well, but I thought it might be useful to go into a little detail about some of the producers whose wines you might be able to buy where you live.

Château Ksara

Château Ksara.

Château Ksara.

Founded in 1857 by Jesuit monks, this is the oldest and biggest winery in the country. It all started when the monks of nearby Tabauk Monastery were left 25 hectares of farming land near Zahle in the Bekaa Valley. It seems that one of their number – Father Kirn – was rather keen on wine and persuaded his colleagues that this place had great potential for growing grapes and making wine. It seems they aimed high right from the start and eventually employed a trained team of viticulturist monks, which seems an odd concept to a modern ear, but remember that the monasteries had been the guardians of winemaking knowledge – and indeed the wine innovators too – for hundreds of years. The secularisation of wine was a long journey that has lasted from the 1500s in Bordeaux onwards and even today monasteries still cultivate grapes and make wine around the world – see my article about Mount Athos.

Ksara had a an amazing stroke of luck in the final years of the nineteenth century, when some children, who worked on the farm were trying to stop a fox from terrorising the chickens. In the excitement they stumbled on a Roman cave system on the site. The monks instantly realised that these ancient caves were a perfect place to store their wine as the temperature stays constant at 11˚C throughout the year. These cellars are quite amazing to see and have been central to the Ksara story ever since their discovery and help to explain why Ksara is such a popular tourist destination – although numbers of visitors have declined recently with the civil war raging in nearby Syria.

Everything changed in Lebanon after the First World War. The Ottoman Empire was broken up and Lebanon was awarded to the French as a United Nations mandate. French soldiers and administrators came to the country and brought their thirst with them. The country’s two wine producers just weren’t enough to cope with demand and so other wineries – together with breweries and distilleries – were created throughout the 1920s and thirties.

Ksara carried on as before, but with bigger markets and more demands, until the Vatican noticed that wine making had become a major focus for the monastery – by this time they were producing 1.5 million bottles. The Vatican didn’t really approve and so in 1973 encouraged the monastery, as well as many others, to sell off any money making enterprises. So Ksara became a private company belonging to a group of local businessmen. Their timing wasn’t great as the Lebanese civil war started in 1975 and lasted for the best part of twenty years, devastating the country and making commerce next to impossible. The absolute low point for Ksara was when the Battle of Zahle raged just down the road and the winery was actually occupied by Syrian troops for a time.

Vines at Château Ksara.

Vines at Château Ksara.

The 1990s saw Ksara bounce back with determination. New planting, replanting and investments in modern equipment have paid real dividends. My hosts here were the charming Elie Maamari – who is officially the export manager, but seems to know everything about and everybody to do with wine in Lebanon and was instrumental in my being there – and James Palgé the talented and engaging wine maker.

James Plagé.

James Plagé.

Like all the Bekaa Valley wineries I saw, the place is very peaceful, which is astonishing considering that it’s almost in the centre of a bustling little town. However photographs from as recently as the 1960s show that it was originally in the countryside with nothing around it except vineyards.

The winery is like a little haven of peace with a museum in the reception area. It’s full of wonderfully antiquated wine making equipment and reinforces how old this winery is, over 150 years now. Upstairs there is a lovely tasting area and excellent restaurant, but the real wonder is the cellars which lie beyond an arched door with 1857 carved into the keystone. These extraordinary tunnels appear to go on for miles – actually just over 2 kilometres – and it is fascinating to meander through them seeing the little alcoves lined with bottles and barrels. They still store some old wines that the monks made there in the nineteenth century.

The cellars at Ksara.

The cellars at Ksara.

Old bottles in the caves at Château Ksara.

Old bottles in the caves at Château Ksara.

Old bottles in the caves at Château Ksara.

Old bottles in the caves at Château Ksara.

It isn’t all about the restaurant and the cellars though, there is real dedication here and it shows in the finished wines. James is a passionate and thoughtful winemaker who embraces new techniques while retaining the best of the old. He led me and my friend, fellow wine scribe Stephen Quinn – whose writings and videos can be found here – , through a wide range of Ksara’s wines in their beautiful upstairs tasting room.

The Wines
We started with a pair of rosés and I was very impressed, especially by the 2012 Château Ksara Gris de Gris with it’s delicate, Provence-like colour, subtle spice and delicate fruit, but the more intensely fruity 2013 Ksara Sunset Rosé was very drinkable too. It was a sunny day and the idea of sipping the Gris de Gris with a lovely Lebanese meal was very attractive.

The Bekaa has a huge variety of soils and conditions, so all colours can confidently be made here – indeed one of the revelations of the trip, for me, was the high quality of the white wines – which is good as they also suit the cuisine very well indeed. Certainly Ksara’s 2012 Chardonnay is an accomplished and appealing wine, with a lovely texture, succulent fruit and refreshing acidity it is the sort of wine that could win more drinkers back to Chardonnay.

While I was in Lebanon I totally fell for the traditional and local style of white, which is a blend of different white grape varieties and usually called a Blanc de Blancs. I tasted quite a few I rated and the 2012 Château Ksara Blanc de Blancs was one of them. It is a lovely, nutty, creamy and spicy blend of 55% Sauvignon Blanc, 25% Chardonnay and 20% Semillon and is delicious with a nice piece of fish.

The heart of their range though is their red wines and I liked them all, although the stand outs for me were the 2010 Château Ksara itself, which is nicely complex and cedary, Médoc inspired blend of 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot and 10% Petit Verdot, barrel aged for 12 months. The wine has supple tannins and that classic dry, but ripe fruit and leafy character that will please claret lovers.

The 2011 Ksara Reserve du Couvent is a more approachable wine in terms of structure and price. It is a lovely bright blend of 40% Syrah 30% Cabernet Franc and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon with ripe, supple tannins and generous fruit – it is a former Wine of the Week because it is so delicious and a great bargain.

The top wine of their range is called Le Souvrain and I was hugely impressed by the 2008 offering. Created to celebrate the wineries 150th anniversary, 2008 Le Souvrain is an opulent blend of 50% Cabernet Sauvignon and 50% Arinarnoa, which is cross between Merlot and Petit Verdot, aged in new French oak for 24 months. The wine is full-bodied, creamy, concentrated, supple and sumptuous with the weight of fruit easily carrying all that oak in perfect, seductive  balance.

James carefully opening the 1942 Ksara Vin d'Or.

James carefully opening the 1942 Ksara Vin d’Or.

Stephen Quinn, James Palgé and me drinking the 1942 Ksara Vin d'Or.

Stephen Quinn, James Palgé and me drinking the 1942 Ksara Vin d’Or.

 

It was a brilliant tasting, but James had one more treat in store for us. He collected a mould encrusted bottle from the cellars and carefully removed the cork before pouring samples of this venerable looking bottle. It looked like brandy in fact and had complex aromas of amontillado sherry, barley sugar and orange peel. The palate was glorious with high alcohol, coffee, apricot, walnuts, caramel, honey and brandy characters. We were drinking the 1942 Ksara Vin d’Or (no records exist about what grapes were used) which was made by the monks and had lain in the caves beneath Ksara ever since. It was an exquisite wine and a great experience that I will remember forever.

Château Ksara wines are distributed in the UK by Hallgarten Druitt & Novum Wines.

Thank you Elie and James for a memorable and wonderful visit.

Château Kefraya

Château Kefraya's soils.

Château Kefraya’s soils.

An hour or so further south in the heart of the Bekaa Valley, Château Kefraya seems to be very remote – it is midway between Chitaura and Machghara. It was my first winery visit in Lebanon and I found the place quite magical with a lovely peaceful feel. The landscape seemed biblical to me and had a rugged beauty to it with wild flowers and scrub contrasting with the neatly maintained grounds and foliage around the winery. Lizards darting around and cicadas chirruping added to the exotic ambience.

Kefraya, the area or lieux-dit in French, has been owned by the de Bustros family for generations. However farming here has always been problematic as the soil is so rocky and difficult to work that anything other than subsistence agriculture has proved impossible. It was these conditions that inspired Michel de Bustros to return to the family land in 1946, repair the buildings and set about creating a vineyard. First of all they had to remove a mass of rocks, something which is ongoing as the vineyard area grows, so the first vines were not planted until 1951. At first they sold their grapes to other Bekaa Valley producers, including the excellent Château Nakad.

The rocky soil at Kefraya being tended.

The rocky soil at Kefraya being tended.

Eventually Michel decided the they had enough experience and knowhow to build a winery on the estate too and to create a new Lebanese wine brand. Château Kefraya’s – there is an actual castle that is now quite modernised and serves as the family house – first estate bottled vintage was 1979, although some of the grapes were still sold to other producers at that time.

Of course, again the timing was bad, the civil war was in full flow and Lebanon’s unruly neighbours had to get involved. In 1981 the Israeli Army occupied the area and took over Kefraya for a while – they even arrested the winemaker. Determined to look after his beloved Château, Michel stayed there all through this troubled time. His determination was rewarded as more peaceful times returned, slowly at first, but enough to ensure the winery could start to prosper. They started exporting from 1987 and have gone from strength to strength ever since.

The current wine maker is one of the most engaging and inspiring I have ever had the pleasure to meet. Fabrice Guiberteau is a gentle giant of a man, brimming over with energy and enthusiasm for this place and the wines he makes here. His excitement was palpable and it was a wonderful experience to see the estate through his eyes.

Fabrice tending his Chardonnay vines.

Fabrice tending his Chardonnay vines.

I first glimpsed him driving a tractor around a rocky vineyard. He explained that the site produced his best Chardonnay grapes, so he tended it himself. As the estate is now 430 hectares he cannot do it all, but insists on personally looking after this section. From the moment he greeted us, it was great fun to be there, Fabrice bounded from one topic to the next, explaining it all and being totally honest, as well as modest – both important attributes in a wine maker I think.

The landscape at Kefraya.

The landscape at Kefraya.

Kefraya's vineyards.

Kefraya’s vineyards.

He drove us around the estate in a 4X4, showed us the very different soils – limestone, chalk – particularly good for their Chardonnay – and sand, the different aspects and the different altitudes he grows grapes at.  He showed us the amazing piles of rocks that have been removed from the land before the vines can be planted.

The rocks that were removed before the vines could be planted.

The rocks that were removed before the vines could be planted.

The vines are interspersed with rocky outcrops that, it was recently discovered, contain an ancient cave system that was used for tombs in biblical times. Outside the tombs seats were carved into the rock to allow mourners to sit and weep in comfort. It looked for all the world like the tombs mentioned in the bible and was amazing to think that this rural landscape has been inhabited for more than 2000 years. They still turn up Roman finds while tending the fields and have a small museum of coins and artefacts in the Château.

Fabrice sitting on the mourner's seat carved into the rock of the ancient tomb.

Fabrice sitting on the mourner’s seat carved into the rock of the ancient tomb.

Fabrice gave us three wonderful tastings in different parts of the winery, tasting vat and cask samples as well as finished wines.

The Wines
2012 Château Kefraya Blanc de Blancs  is a beautifully textured and deliciously creamy dry white with good acidity. It’s made from an unlikely blend of Viognier, Clairette, Muscat, Bourboulenc, Ugni Blanc (Fabrice is from Cognac country!), Chardonnay and Verdejo.

The 2012 Château Kefraya Chardonnay is beautifully balanced with rich figgy fruit and well integrated oak. While a tank sample of the Provencal-like 2013 Château Kefraya Rosé was quite delightful with a little creamy ripeness to the red fruit notes, good acidity and a touch of spice – it would go perfectly with a classic Lebanese meal.

The 2010 Château Kafraya Rouge is a blend of 60% Syrah, 35% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Mourvèdre aged for 18 months in oak, 50% new. It is a lovely wine with spice notes as well as rich black fruit and some earthiness too. The drying tannins give some nice structure to the sweet, ripe fruit.

The ‘flagship’ wine here is called Comte de M and the 2010 Comte du M Rouge is an intense, concentrated and fine blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon with 30% Syrah that spent 18 months in new French oak barrels, Fabrice has experimented with American oak, but he hates it! I found the wine to be opulent, but elegant too, full of rich fruit, with lovely fresh, cleansing acidity and supple tannins.

Fabrice also gave us some fascinating cask samples, most memorably his 2012 Carmenère (with 20% Syrah) that had 18 months in new French oak. It was sublime with beautiful blackberry fruit, fruity intensity, those savoury notes, supple tannins and a touch of spice and mocha. He only made one barrel, so try it if you can!

Thank you too Fabrice for a wonderful visit and for your infectious enthusiasm.

Château Kefraya wines are distributed in the UK by Lebanese Fine Wines.
Château Kefraya wines are distributed in the US by Volubilis.

Both these visits were great experiences and introduced me to a wider array of styles from Lebanon than I was expecting and whetted my appetite for more Lebanese wine, so I will report on a couple of more wineries soon.