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.

Wine of the Week 7 – a great value, richly fruity red

The entrance to Château Ksara.

The entrance to Château Ksara.

As some of you may know, I visited Lebanon for the first time this year and got to visit many wineries and to taste many different wines. Overall I was very impressed by the quality of what I found. I didn’t taste anything that wasn’t acceptable and most of what I tasted was very good indeed. Sometimes the prices would make the wines difficult to sell on the UK market, but then Lebanese wineries are mainly small boutique operations and making wine on that scale does unfortunately cost money. However some of the wines offered fantastic value for money and a great quality to price ratio, this delicious white from Domaine des Tourelles for instance.

One of the wineries that I visited was Château Ksara and they make a lovely, great value red wine that I have made this week’s Wine of the Week.

Vineyards at Château Ksara, that is the winemaker Jack Plage.

Vineyards at Château Ksara, that is the winemaker James Palgé.

Founded in 1857 by Jesuit monks, Ksara is the oldest wine producer in Lebanon. Ksara had a bit of luck in 1898 when an extensive Roman cave system was discovered underneath the winery and this was expanded and repaired to become Lebanon’s only natural cellar system. It keeps at a steady 12˚C so is perfect to mature wine, as well as being an amazing place to visit.

The caves at Château Ksara.

The ancient caves at Château Ksara.

Wine production flourished and by the 1970s Ksara produced well over a million bottles a years, 85% of all Lebanese wine. In fact it was so successful that the Vatican considered that it got in the way of the religious aspects of monastic life and so instructed the monastery to sell the winery. Château Ksara was bought by a consortium of Lebanese businessmen and has never looked back.
I was hugely impressed by the range of wines they produce. It seems to me that they make a marvellous range of wines that stretch from attractive, easy going wines – the Gris de Gris Rosé or the Blanc de Blancs – to superbly crafted serious wines that need time to show their true worth, wines like Le Souvrain, their Chardonnay and even their standard Château Ksara red blend.
Well, while you are waiting for those wines to come round you can drink this lovely more easy drinking red:

James Plagé with the barrels that give that touch of mocha to his Reserve du Couvent.

James Palgé with the barrels that give that touch of mocha to his Reserve du Couvent.

wwl073700_chateau_ksara2011 Château Ksara Reserve du Couvent
Château Ksara
Bekaa Valley, Lebanon

40% Syrah 30% Cabernet Franc and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, dry farmed without irrigation, cold fermented in stainless stell tanks and aged for 12 months in French oak barrels.

The colour is an enticingly deep and vibrant ruby.
The nose gives powerful wafts of rich cherry, blackberry and mocha, coffee notes together with a touch of earth too.
The medium-bodied palate is rich with sweetly ripe fruit, the generous fruit and ripe tannins make it soft and supple. The climate shows with a  little bit of heat on the finish, but this is juicy, slightly herbal, lightly spicy, attractive and very drinkable indeed. Try it with lamb dishes, from roasts to tagines and casseroles – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK from around £9 to £11 per bottle, click here for stockist information, more stockists here, here & here
Available in the US from around $13 to $15 per bottle, click here for stockist information.

If you have never tried Lebanese wine before, or just never tried anything from Château Ksara before, I do urge you to give this wine a try, you will enjoy it.

 

Wine of the Week 3 – Domaine des Tourelles White

The sign at Domaine des Tourelles.

The sign at Domaine des Tourelles.

My recent trip to Lebanon was a wonderful experience that I enjoyed for its own sake and for the wines and wineries that I came across. I tasted a large number of  really good wines and met lots of people passionate about Lebanese wines – and I have now joined their ranks. There is a lot to like about Lebanon, both as a country and as a wine producer. None of the wines that I tasted were less than palatable and a large proportion of them were really very good indeed.

So, my wine of the week this week is a white wine that I really enjoyed, that is superb quality and represents stunning value for money to0. I will be writing more about the estate soon, so will just tell you about the wine today:

Domaine des Tourelles.

Domaine des Tourelles.

Domaine-des-Tourelles-White2012 Domaine des Tourelles white
Jdita, Chtaura
Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
This estate in bustling Chtaura is right on the main road through the town, yet manages to be a haven of tranquility. It’s such a beautiful and restful spot that as soon as you enter the gates you leave the noise and the traffic behind, even though it is just yards away. It is an old estate, the oldest secular wine producer in Lebanon, having been created by Jura-born Frenchman François-Eugène Brun in 1868. Nowadays it is owned and run by the delightful Faouzi Issa who is a an extremely fine winemaker who believes in non-interventionist winemaking and who crafts a very fine range of wines.

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.

This dry white is an enticing, aromatic and accomplished blend of 60% Viognier, 33% Chardonnay and 7% Muscat. Faouzi only uses wild yeasts and does everything as traditionally as he can, but for this white he eschews his beloved concreter tanks for a cold fermentation in stainless steel. The result is a first rate wine that is greater than the sum of its parts.

The nose is lifted, aromatic and very attractive with herbs, cracked white pepper, fresh mango and honey in abundance, with some creamy ripe notes too. The palate is mouth-coating textured and succulent, creamy with a touch of peach skin mouthfeel all balanced by good acidity and some taut minerality keeping it fresh, vibrant and fine. This wine just kept getting better and better in the glass too. Seriously impressive stuff, lovely with a whole range of foods from crisps to haute cuisine, the aromatic quality would make it good with pieces, while the texture and acidity would partner creamy sauces very well too and it would also be lovely with something like a piece of sea-bass – 91/100 points, marked high for being such great value.

Do try this wine if you can it is very good and very enjoyable too, everyone I showed it to really liked it.

Available in the UK for around £10.00 per bottle from Slurp, N.D.John more stockist information is available from the Domaine des Tourelles’s UK distributor, Boutinot.

Lebanon – the Iberian link

 

Vineyards being tended at Château Kefraya in the Bekaa Valley.

Vineyards being tended at Château Kefraya in the Bekaa Valley.

Whilst in Lebanon I was surprised to find a broad range of grapes being used and more innovation than I had expected. I was especially excited by the use of Iberian grapes and I wrote an article for Catavino.net, the Iberian wine page.

You can read it by clicking here.

Lebanon part 1 – land of beauty & promise

The Bekaa.

The Bekaa.

Lebanon has long fascinated me, both as a country and as a wine producer.

My wine interest was first sparked 30 years ago when the company that I was working for listed a Lebanese wine. The whole idea seemed exotic beyond belief and completely off the wall, but then I tasted it and the 1977 Château Musar totally won me over and I have loved the idea of Lebanese wines ever since.

Another thing that captured my imagination about Lebanon was when I heard about the ‘Zagwill’, a fisherman’s song from ancient Phoenicia – which is now Lebanon. Carved into a tomb near Biblos this is believed to be the oldest song lyrics the human race possesses.

These two things struck a chord with me and made me determined to see Lebanon one day and to learn something about this fascinating part of the world.

So, recently when I was invited to Beirut to attend the Horeca Food and Wine Show and to judge at the Horeca Wine Competition I leapt at the chance and I enjoyed every moment. I had some wonderful experiences, met delightful people who seemed only too happy to show me their stunning country, enjoyed some superb meals and tasted many excellent wines.

The Horeca Show during the round table wine discussion.

The Horeca Show during the round table wine discussion.

The fair was terrific too. It is an annual showcase for Lebanon’s food and drink industry and as well as boasting hundreds of stands showing off the products of the region, there were chef’s competitions and cocktail making competitions and the wine competition with which I was involved.

Beirut from my hotel.

Beirut from my hotel.

Me in a thoughtful moment during the wine judging at Horeca.

Me in a thoughtful moment during the wine judging at Horeca. Photo courtesy of Paul Op ten Berg.

I know that technically Lebanon is in Asia, but when you are there it doesn’t feel so very different from the European countries of the southern Mediterranean. In fact apart from the Arabic script on the signs, Lebanon often reminded me of Spain, Greece or Sicily. Beirut and the other towns I saw seemed chaotic and boisterous in much the same way as Seville or Catania in Sicily. The landscape too was very similar to these places and of course the food has a lot in common with Greek cuisine and I even noticed some similarities to Sicilian cooking as well. The national dish is kibbeh, which I love, and if it isn’t a first cousin to Sicily’s arancini then I would be amazed.

The centre of Joünié.

The centre of Joünié.

I suspect this European feel is partly because Lebanon has a mixed population of Muslims and Christians and enjoys a complex system of power sharing to ensure that no single part of the community dominates the other. As a consequence the place seems very free and easy to the casual observer with alcohol being readily available, lively restaurants and street life with attractive bars everywhere. In order to preserve this balance no official census has been taken since 1932, in case they discover there is a higher proportion of Muslims or Christians than they had thought.

Beirut's glamorous marina.

Beirut’s glamorous marina.

It is strange, but true, that on returning to London I saw more Muslim women wearing head scarves than I had in Lebanon.

I found it very interesting that despite France only governing the country for a little over 20 years, 1920 – 1943, French is spoken everywhere and the French influence lives on in almost every aspect of life. Other than the badges on the customs officers uniforms, one of the most obvious examples is the wine names. All the wine producers are Domaine this or Château that and the wine styles often have a very French feel to them too.

We tend to think of Lebanon as a new wine producing country, but the Phoenician’s were among the world’s first maritime traders and exported wines from Tyre and Sidon all over the Mediterranean world and so helped to spread wine to western Europe. This trade continued well into the middle ages when the territory we now call Lebanon was briefly controlled by Venice.

Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990, so the country has enjoyed over 20 years of relative stability punctuated by sporadic turmoil caused by their neighbours – either directly or indirectly. I was told many times that Lebanon is fortunate in everything, except its neighbours. As Lebanon borders Syria and Israel, you can see their point – how unlucky can one country be?

This stability has been enough for wine making to really start to flourish and for the longer established producers to consolidate the markets for their wines. If Lebanese wines were a novelty thirty years ago, they are much more normal today.

Over the last ten years or so wine drinking has become much more the norm inside Lebanon and this too has helped growth. Sadly though, with some exceptions, I was told that the local wealthy almost totally ignore Lebanese wine and assume that imported wines are inherently better. One evening at dinner – at the excellent Mario e Mario Italian trattoria – I tried to wean two Beirutis off their imported French wine and on to the far better value local tipple. Sadly I failed, but they promised me that they would try more Lebanese wines in the future and not just take it for granted that foreign is better.

On the subject of restaurants, I feel that I should tell you about two other Beirut eateries that impressed me. Babel serves superb Lebanese food in a setting that takes your breath away. Built to look like a ruined biblical tower of Babel it resembles a set for a D.W.Griffith epic. I was also very taken with the more casual Al Falamanki on the Damascus Road. Although only a few years old it had a very traditional feel with courtyards and comfortable rooms furnished in different ways. When we were there the joint was jumping with happy diners of all ages together with groups of men drinking arrack, playing backgammon and enjoying their hookahs. It was so atmospheric I could well imagine them filming parts of a remake of Lawrence of Arabia here, oh and the food was delicious too.

Château Ksara.

Château Ksara.

The oldest wine producer in the country is Château Ksara which was founded in 1857 by Jesuit monks who quickly recognised that the Bekaa Valley was a suitable place to grow grapes and brought in a trained viticulturist monk to create and tend their vineyards. His plantings of Cinsault, together with those at the nearby Domaine des Tourelles in 1868, started the Lebanese wine revival which is still with us to this day. Ksara had a bit of luck in 1898 when an extensive Roman cave system was discovered underneath the winery and it was expanded and repaired to become Lebanon’s only natural cellar system. It keeps at a steady 12˚C so is perfect to mature wine, as well as being an amazing place to visit.

The caves at Château Ksara.

The caves at Château Ksara.

The First World War ended with Britain having defeated the Ottoman Empire which had ruled Lebanon for hundreds of years. The region was given to France to govern as a League of Nations Mandate and French administrators and soldiers soon arrived who expected to drink wine as part of their every day diet. This must have given real impetus to the fledgling wine industry and expansion quickly got under way. Château Nakad, the modern Bekaa pioneer was founded in 1923, while Lebanon’s most famous winery, Château Musar was founded soon after in 1930. Fitting the same pattern, Almaza, the country’s leading beer brewer also dates from this time.

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.

All the early wine production was in the Bekaa Valley in the east of the country and although there are now some other regions, it remains the centre of production. This was partly because it was already established as the principal agricultural region of Lebanon. Given that we think of wine as flourishing in areas where nothing else will grow, I was astonished to see just how green the Bekaa is. I was expecting a hard, biblical landscape of scrub – a desert almost – but instead found a fertile valley full of fruit and vegetable production.

The Bekaa.

The Bekaa.

The Bekaa.

The Bekaa.

Lebanon has a hot climate, with some 300 days of sunshine a year, so although ripeness is not a problem, excessive heat is and fine wine production would be very hard if the country was not so mountainous. Although the Bekaa is a valley – sandwiched between the Mount Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges – it is very high with most of the vineyards planted at around 1000 metres above sea level. The finer wines tend to be produced at higher altitudes and increasingly the new plantings are edging up to 1100 – 1200 metres. Up there the air is cooler allowing for slower ripening and better retention of acidity, freshness and balance in the wines. Large temperature drops between night and day conditions also helps retain acidity and freshness in the grapes. The Bekaa is also blessed with ample water from the snow melt running off the two mountain ranges.

There is huge variety in soils, but they tend to be limestone, with some sandstone too, so are generally well drained, but can offer great variety of colour, texture and weight – which is partly why all styles of wines can be produced here.

Looking down on the Bekaa Valley

Looking down on the Bekaa Valley – Syria is in the distance.

Apart from Châteaux Musar and Ksara, important producers from the Bekaa include the wonderful Château Kefraya, the beautiful Domaine des Tourelles, founded in 1868 this is the second oldest producer in the country, MassayaChâteau St Thomas, Château Ka and Domaine Wardy.

In recent years some new wine regions have begun producing wines and most of these are higher than the Bekaa Valley.  With vineyards planted between 600-1300 metres above sea level, the beautiful southern area of Jezzine is where Habib Karam’s Karam Winery is crafting some very fine wines that show the cooling effect of the climate and altitude – try the Rosé Arc en Ciel and the Saint John. The northern region of Batroun, planted at 400-1300 metres above sea level, is equally promising for cooler climate wines, Batroun Mountains produce a fresh Chardonnay and zippy Riesling that are quite delicious.

Me hogging the microphone at the post judging round-table discussion at Horeca.

Me hogging the microphone at the post judging round-table discussion at Horeca. Photo courtesy of Paul Op ten Berg.

In Chouf, 800-1100 metres above seal level, south east of Beirut, Château Florentine produce a very promising range of wines including the best Lebanese Sauvignon Blanc that I have tried and their elegant Château Florentine Grand Vin blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah.

Ixsir – named for Al-Iksir or Elixir, a secret potion that grants eternal youth and love – produce a very attractive range of wines from a wide range of vineyard sites from Jezzine to Batroun and the Bekaa. Their Ixsir Altitudes wines are good and drinkable, while their Ixsir Grande Reserve red and white are more ambitious, complex and fine.

Lebanon’s French influence is very apparent in the varieties they grow. Grapes from the French Mediterranean dominate the country’s vineyards, with most traditional reds being blends that include Cinsault, Carignan, Mourvèdre and Grenache, together with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and increasingly some Syrah too.

The white wines, which impressed me enormously are often blends including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Clairette and Viognier, but I also came across some decent Riesling and astonishingly good wines made from Obaideh and Merwah, which are both indigenous white grapes.

I found much to like in Lebanon and thought the wines were generally very good indeed, with many more high spots than lows. The wineries that I have mentioned all make very good wines with balance and elegance in their differing styles, but there were also some producers who made wines that didn’t excite me quite so much. A few seemed quite old fashioned in style, with little in the way of bright fruit. I tasted some that clearly need more work in the vineyard to tackle the raisining and green tannins, while some wines were volatile or bordering on dirty. None of this is unique to Lebanon of course, I can say the same about almost anywhere and for those producers I do wonder if they should change their points of reference for wine. It is quite clear that Lebanon looks to France as its rôle model, you can see it in most of the wines, but I wonder if some of the wines at the lower price points should become a bit less French-centric and take a peek at who else is making good wine in the Mediterranean world.

I really hope that over the next few years those producers will look at how places like Spain’s Jumilla – with a similar landscape and climate to Lebanon – have completely revolutionised their viticulture and vinification techniques to produce modern, clean and vibrantly fruity wines at the lower price points. Perhaps the locals would be more easily won over by wines of this type, as well as casual wine drinkers in places like the UK.

Recent growth though has been strong and with local and foreign demand both growing the number of commercial wineries has increased from just 4 in 1990 to 47 today. What is more, quibbles aside, they are producing wines that are always good and often very impressive indeed. I didn’t try anything that I did not find palatable and found the vast majority to be very pleasurable indeed.

Gone are the days when Lebanon produced wines with mere novelty value to provide a touch of the exotic. These are good quality wines that can be taken on their merits and enjoyed on their own terms.

I will be writing more about some of the wineries that I visited very soon, but in the meantime I would urge people to visit Lebanon, it really is a fabulous country full of wonderful sights, lovely people, great food and superb wines. See you at the Horeca Show next year?

More information is available from the Union Vinicole du Liban website and for the UK from Wines of Lebanon.