New Zealand Spreads its Wings – 5 Wines of the Week and something rather special

Don’t only drink Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand – there is so much more to enjoy.

I don’t know what it is with me. Perhaps I have a low boredom threshold when it comes to wine, but I love variety. The very thing that makes wine exciting to me is the infinite variety available. Which seems to put me out of kilter with many wine drinkers here in the UK who would appear to only drink the same few wine styles all the time.

If that is you, please, please branch out, experiment, try something new – what’s the worst that can happen?

Which brings me to my theme – New Zealand. Please remember to click all the links.

Marlborough vineyards - photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

Marlborough vineyards – photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

I have long admired New Zealand wines and well remember my first taste of a wine from that far off country and it excited me very much. It was 1984, I had recently joined the trade and the company I worked for introduced three extraordinary sounding new wines to the range, one wine each from Australia, New Zealand and Lebanon.

NZ map QS 2011 watermark

They all seemed exotic beyond belief. You have to realise that the wine revolution had not yet happened and such things were not widely available. The Lebanese wine was Château Musar 1977, the Australian was Berri Estates South Australian Cabernet-Shiraz and the New Zealand wine was a Gewürztraminer made by an estate called Matawhero in the Gisborne region of North Island. I remember it as being really good and wish that I could still buy it over here.

I had recently fallen for the charms of the Gewürztraminer grape and drank a lot of it at the time – I hardly ever do now as the examples from Alsace seem much sweeter nowadays.

So my first taste of New Zealand wine would now be regarded as  a slightly left field offering, but I did not realise that then. Sauvignon Blanc did exist in New Zealand in those days, but it was early days. There wasn’t very much and it was far from being the most popular or dominant grape. Indeed the now ubiquitous Kiwi ‘Sav’ (why do they miss the U out when they pronounce it?) would have been the oddity then. What’s more the Marlborough region barely produced any wine at all. It is the now largest wine region in the country and produces something like 60% of New Zealand wine, while around 60% of production is made from Sauvignon Blanc.

Over the years I have seen New Zealand wines proliferate on this market and sweep all before them. Everyone now drinks New Zealand wine. Or New Zealand Sauvignon Blanc anyway. That is the dominant grape and most widely produced and consumed style.

Which has bugged me for quite a long time.

I like many Kiwi Sauvignon Blancs and can see the attraction, but I want other things too and so wish that wine drinkers would experiment with all the other lovely wines that New Zealand produces. Of course it would help if the major outlets got a little more creative and actually stocked some of the other exciting wines coming out of New Zealand. However, things are getting better, it’s slow, but a wider range of New Zealand wines is beginning to be available.

To make my point I recently put on a tasting of the more unusual wines coming out of New Zealand at the moment. It wasn’t exhaustive by any means, but I managed to find some real variety and excellent wines that many people would enjoy. Collectively they are my Wines of the Week.

The White Wines

New Zealand is a cool climate wine producing country and so the production is overwhelmingly white. Although there are some warmer places and Pinot Noir of course performs well in the cool conditions of South Island, it just isn’t hot enough to ripen black grapes to make red wines in most of the country. My line up of white wines was really good, they all showed well and had that classic Kiwi clean brightness to them that  that I can only sum up as a feeling of purity.

Vineyards in Gisborne - photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

Vineyards in Gisborne – photo courtesy of Villa Maria.

image-12015 Left Field Albariño
Te Awa Collection
Gisborne

Albariño is a Spanish grape from the north western region of Galicia, where it is most famously used to make the often delicious wines of Rias Baixas. They are amongst the best Spanish white wines and are great with seafood. The grape is also grown over the border in Portugal, where it is known as Alvarinho. This is the second vintage of this wine that I have tasted and I have loved them both. Te Awa are a wonderful winery, who produce some terrific wines and created the Left Field label specifically for the less widely seen styles of wine. I am thrilled that Albariño might be breaking through as a popular and international grape variety – it certainly deserves to.

The aromas are floral and scented with delicate, but ripe peach and zesty citrus aromas. The palate is bright, fresh and lively with mandarin and nectarine characters and a twist of lime on the finish. This is a light, fresh, crisp style that is really, really good and would be gorgeous with some seared scallops or just on its own. It feels pristine, bright and pure as a mountain stream, surely anyone who likes Sauvignon Blanc would appreciate this – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £12 per bottle from The Wine Reserve – for more stockists click here.

Yealand's Seaview Vineyard - photo courtesy of Yealands estate.

Yealand’s Seaview Vineyard – photo courtesy of Yealands estate.

yealands-estate-gruner-veltliner-nv2014 Yealands Estate Single Vineyard Grüner Veltliner
Yealands Estate
Awatere Valley, Marlborough

Yealands is an impressive producer and is the brainchild of the engaging Peter Yealand who in his time has farmed mussels and deer as well as wine. Most of their production is from a large single block of vines – the largest single parcel of vines in the county – in the Awatere Valley, the cool south eastern part of Marlborough. It is right by the sea and is called the Seaview Estate as it looks out over Cook Strait.

Grüner Veltliner is the signature white grape of Austria, where it makes some tremendous wines. Much like Albariño, I get the feel that Grüner Veltliner might be on the cusp of breaking through as an international grape and again I think that is an excellent thing. 15% was fermented in second and third use French oak barrels and the wine spent 3 months on the lees with lees stirring to help the complexity and the texture.

Another wine with a lovely aromatic nose that is delightfully floral and gently spicy with a dash of white pepper. Again that purity shines through and the palate is gorgeously silky and lightly textured, being gently creamy like coconut – presumably helped by the oak. There is plenty of discrete apricot like fruit too as well as refreshing citrus acidity giving plenty of zing. Again I cannot imagine anyone that likes Kiwi Sauvignon Blanc not enjoying this, but it is deliciously different – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from Great Western Wine – for more stockists click here.

image-1-22014 Villa Maria Cellar Selection Sauvignon Gris
Villa Maria
Wairau Valley, Marlborough

Sauvignon Gris is thought to be either an ancestor of or a mutant clone of Sauvignon Blanc – for some reason it is not clear which came first, which reminds me of a joke – and makes fatter and less aromatic wines than its more famous relation. In France they are historically blended together to give more texture and richness than Sauvignon Blanc would have on its own. Personally I think Sauvignon Gris is potentially a very interesting grape and others clearly agree as there appears to be renewed interest with this ancient grape in Graves and parts of the Loire. Sauvignon Gris can sometimes be found blended into the finer examples of Sauvignon de Touraine and is something of a speciality grape of the tiny Touraine-Mesland sub-region. The grape has a long history in Touraine and it is often referred to there by its ancient local names of Fié or Fié Gris or even Sauvignon Rose, as the skins are pink.
This wine is from Fletcher’s Vineyard which is in the famed Golden Mile, which is a strip of stony ground close to the Wairau River land in the sub-region of Rapaura.

The nose is fresh and enticing with pear, delicately smoky peach and some mineral notes.
The palate is by turns stony and mineral, pear-like and peachy with a rippled texture of occasional fleshy succulence, nectarine lingers on the finish together with blackcurrant leaf and some tropical passionfruit and mandarin too. There is a leesy texture here too giving a gentle smokiness and a lightly ‘mealy’ quality that is very attractive.
It is dry with a freshness of acidity and little cut of citrus too, but acidity is much less dominant than in Sauvignon Blanc, indeed in many ways it is like a bigger, fatter Sauvignon Blanc. A lovely wine with real finesse and elegance that will go with almost any fish or lighter dish perfectly – 89/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £14 per bottle from The Pip Stop and The New Zealand House of Wine.

image-12013 Esk Valley Verdelho
Esk Valley Estate
Hawkes Bay

I am very fond of Verdelho as it is a lovely grape and I wonder why we don’t see it more often. Just to be clear, it is not the same as Verdejo or Verdicchio or any of the other similarly named varieties that people often assume are the same. It is actually the Madeira grape, but put to a very different use here. Some authorities think Verdelho might be a long lost clone of Riesling, but they say that about Albariño too.

Esk Valley is a wonderful estate that is much more famous for producing some of New Zealand’s finest red wines, but they also make some marvellous whites, including some excellent Chenin Blanc and Riesling. Selected from two vineyards in Hawke’s Bay and was mainly cold fermented in tank, with some being fermented using the natural yeast in large – 600 litre – French oak casks.

Delightfully aromatic and floral with a real zing of lime and a mineral edge together with a touch of oiliness. On the palate the texture marries beautifully with the freshness and the minerality. The oak just gives a dollop of cream and a bit of complexity, but never dominates, while some tropical fruit and citrus flavours of mandarin and lime make it utterly delicious – 89/100 points.

The 2014 vintage is available in the UK for around £13 per bottle from The Oxford Wine Company and The New Zealand House of Wine – for more stockists click here.

The Red Wines

Being a cool climate country, New Zealand is nowhere near as famous for its reds as its whites and only a small proportion of the country’s production is red. Pinot Noir is by far the most dominant grape and is the main one used in South Island – by some margin. However, other grape varieties do get a look in and, just as with the whites, the number of grape varieties used is increasing and becoming more exciting. Hawkes Bay – or Hawke’s Bay – in North Island is home to the greatest concentration of red wine production in New Zealand – apart from Pinot Noir which is mainly from South Island. It is warmer here, with well drained soils, so it can produce some good concentrated red wines. The Gimblett Gravels is the most prestigious sub-zone and home to many of the country’s finest red wines. Traditionally it’s Merlot and Cabernet country, but Syrah is quickly becoming pretty mainstream, while Mediterranean grapes like Tempranillo, Montepulciano and even Grenache are beginning to get noticed.

Vidal Estate vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels district - photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Vidal Estate vineyard in the Gimblett Gravels district – photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

lf-btl-malbec-nv-d-jpg2014 Left Field Malbec
Te Awa Collection
Hawkes Bay

Malbec has been used in some of the Cabernet-Merlot blends of Hawkes Bay for quite a number of years, just as it is used in Bordeaux, but often with a higher proportion. I have only once before had a single varietal Malbec from New Zealand though and that was in the 2003 vintage (I think) when Esk Valley made one because their Merlot and Cabernet were not up to the mark and so all they had left was Malbec. This version is completely unoaked.

The colour was an extraordinary vivid, deep purple – you could paint with this. The nose gave off rich plum, blueberry and blackberry, together with rich cocoa and some pungent spice notes. The palate was fresh and juicy, with chunky rich fruit and a deep inky feel. There is liquorice and pepper together with black fruit and a dryness from the – artfully tamed – tannins that gives the wine a sappy, briar-like flavour. I love the upfront and juicy quality of this. It feels fresher and cooler than its Argentinian cousins and would go very nicely with a barbecue or a steak, I would enjoy it chilled too – 88/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £17 per bottle from The New Zealand Cellar and The New Zealand House of Wine.

trinity-hill-wine-568d7a79694b32014 Trinity Hill Tempranillo
Trinity Hill Estate
Gimblett Gravels, Hawkes Bay

Trinity Hill is a great producer – right up there with Craggy Range – that produces some of the best Syrah in the country, as well as many other great wines. One of the best ways to taste their wines in the UK is by visiting the excellent Bleeding Heart restaurant, which is part owned by John Hancock who owns Trinity Hill. The Tempranillo was fermented in stainless steel and then aged in a mixture of tank and French and American oak barrels for a short time.

Again this youthful wine had a bright and vivid purple colour. The nose was earthy and a bit spicy with juicy plum aromas and the sweeter note of dried currants. The palate was sumptuously fruity with lots of black fruit, a touch of red fruit and a sort of sweet and sour thing going on with a touch of drying tannins. This is totally unlike the Rioja style of Tempranillo, being more fruity and less savoury in style. It might not reach the same heights of excellence as Trinity Hill’s Syrah, but is is a lovely wine with vivid, ripe, chunky fruit – 87/100 points.

Available in the UK for around £18 per bottle from The New Zealand Cellar and The New Zealand House of Wine.

1staete_landt_arie_syrah_20112010 Staete Landt Estate Arie Syrah
Staete Landt Estate
Rapaura, Marlborough

Staete Landt was the brainchild of a charming Dutch couple called Ruud and Dorien Maasdam. In Marlborough’s early wine days they bought an old apple orchard and turned it into one of the most respected wine estates in the country. The estate name is a reference to Dutch explorer Abel Tasman who discovered what we now call New Zealand in 1642 and named it ‘Staete Landt’, land for the Dutch state. I like them and I love their wines. They and their wines always have something to interesting to say. In the early days, late 1970s and early 1980s, plenty of people planted Cabernet and Merlot in Marlborough and then discovered that they just cannot ripen properly, so apart from Pinot Noir and the odd maverick, you come across very few black grapes in Marlborough. So, finding someone brave enough to make premium Syrah in the cool conditions of Marlborough is a real thrill.

Just as with the Sauvignon Gris above, the estate is in the ‘Golden Mile’ strip of stony ground close to the Wairau River land in the Marlborough sub-region of Rapaura. Ruud has conducted in-depth soil analysis on his vineyard and identified 24 different blocks which are treated as individual vineyards in effect. Since 2005 Syrah has been planted on two of them, but the 2010 comes just from the Arie block. The grapes were hand-picked and de-stemmed. They had a pre-ferment cold soak for seven days and a long post fermentation maceration as well. These techniques help colour and flavour extraction while not extracting tannin. The wine spent 20 months in French oak barrels, 40% of which were new.

The maturity and class of this wine really showed. The nose was smoky, spicy and earthy with rich cherry, blackberry (some dried, some fresh fruit) and some dark chocolate. The palate was svelte with fine, sweet tannins, some leather and herbs as well as black fruit and some mushroom and truffle from age. It had lovely freshness running all the way through it and was very stylish and fine with a long finish – 92/100 points.

The 2011 is available in the UK for around £22 per bottle from Hedonism Wines.

Which could have been a great end to the tasting, but I had dug deep into my cellar and unearthed a wonderful treasure for the finale:

Vidal Estate in the 1920s - photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Vidal Estate in the 1920s – photo courtesy of Vidal Estate.

Soler bottle1998 Vidal Estate Joseph Soler Cabernet Sauvignon
Vidal Estate
Hawke’s Bay

I have always been fascinated by the Vidal Esate for as long as I have known about it. Founded in 1905 it is the oldest NZ winery that was just a winery and not a mixed farm as well. Spaniard José Sole, had been making wine in New Zealand since 1865 and had anglicised his name to Joseph Soler. His nephew, Anthony Vidal, arrived in New Zealand from Spain in 1888 to help his uncle at his winery in Wanganui on the West coast of North island. Eventually Vidal wanted to set up his own winery and he bought an old stables and half a hectare of land near Hastings in the southern part of Hawke’s Bay, which was warmer and drier that Wanganui and boasted well drained stony soils. Today Vidal is part of the Villa Maria group and one of their best vineyards in Hawke’s Bay is named in honour of Joseph Soler.

I am always in awe of them when I think what drive and what determination the pair of them must have had to go all that way around the world in sailing ships to an isolated place with a tiny population and an uncertain future. 

This wine was a rigorous selection from a single block of the Soler vineyard, which had only been planted in 1993, so was very young. The grapes were hand-picked and fermented in open vats with hand plunging four times a day to extract colour and flavour. It was pressed after two weeks post ferment maceration and then aged for 21 months in a mixture of French and American oak barrels. 1998 was a great vintage in Hawke’s Bay and perhaps the first to serve notice that this is a great red wine region.

The colour was quite gamey and brown, like Brown Windsor Soup, and a great deal of tannin had adhered to the inside of the bottle. The nose was vivacious and alive with currants, leather, cocoa, gamey / meaty, espresso and mint notes. The palate was very smooth with those currants again, dried blackcurrants, a savoury, meaty character, rich coffee, figs, fine milk chocolate and the merest touch of ripe, fine grain tannins. It had great complexity and concentration and was still vibrant and delicious with a wonderful decayed sweetness like rich dried fruit. I loved the wine and would like to try it with an old fashioned saddle of mutton or steak and kidney pudding, luckily I still have another bottle – 94/100 points.

This is no longer available anywhere that I am aware of, unless you want to offer me a lot of money for my last remaining bottle!

It was an excellent tasting, even though I say so myself, and gave a little snapshot of some of the new styles and interesting things coming out of this dynamic wine producing country – and not a Sauvignon Blanc in sight.

So the next time you drink something from New Zealand, try a different grape variety or style. I think you’ll enjoy it.

Wine of the Week 29 – my bargain red of the year?

Whilst struggling with what to serve the thirsty masses at Christmas I have been considering all sorts of wines at prices varying from the highish to the high, when I was given this wine to try. It strikes me as excellent red that a lot of people would enjoy and yet it hardly breaks the bank, so will enable me to to relax if I have to open yet another bottle.

Wine map of Spain – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

Wine map of Spain, Toro is North West of Madrid on the Duero River – click for a larger view – non watermarked PDF versions are available by agreement

It come from Toro, which is an excellent region in Castilla y León which makes big, tannic wines from the local Tinta do Toro grape. This is actually Tempranillo, but it has evolved separately over time to produce wines that generally have a less savoury character, more red fruit and less earthiness than their Rioja cousins. However, they often have somewhat rustic tannins, that I think hold the region back from becoming one of Spain’s really great source’s of wines. The patches of brilliance here are from people who manage the tannins well to produce supple and concentrated wines. Well this wine does and what’s more does it at a very low price, so I have made it my Wine of the Week:

The bodega in 1997, I loved the lettering going over the roller door! This building is now a museum.

The bodega in 1997, I loved the lettering going over the roller door! This building is now a museum.

Tulga Toro Crianza2011 Tulga Crianza
D.O. Toro
Bodegas Pagos del Rey
Morales de Toro
Castilla y León, Spain
Nowadays this bodega is part of the dynamic multi-regional producer Felix Solis / Pagos del Rey, but I visited it nearly twenty years ago when it was the local cooperative cellars of Morales de Toro, a small town outside Toro itself. They made – and continue to make – the splendid Bajoz wines and their cheaper Moralinos de Toro was for a long time the house red of Winetrack, my wine company.

It was an amazing place to visit, slightly grubby and messy in a way that just would not happen today – that old winery is now a wine museum in fact. They shared a forecourt with a café too, but the wines they produced – and continue to produce – were astonishing for the money. They have got even better over the years and deserve to be more popular than they are, as does Toro as a region.

Toro's Roman Bridge from the town.

Toro’s Roman Bridge from the town.

Toro town is a very attractive place on a cliff overlooking the Duero River. The town is dominated by the Collegiate church of Santa María la Mayor and one of the famous features is the Roman Bridge across the river. I was thrilled when I was last there to look out of my hotel window, which was quite high up and to see a stork flying along below me.

This wine is a Crianza, which means it has been aged in oak either a barrel – 225/228 litres or something bigger – for at least 6 months. This wine claims to have been aged in new American and French oak barrels and the garnet colour shows the oak influence, as does the vanilla and spice aroma. The nose is slightly funky too with rich, brambly fruit for sure, but also a wild, earthy, mushroomy character, this is certainly because of brett, which normally I don’t like at all, but in this instance the sweaty, animal character sort of suits it, like it does with Château Musar or a lot of Châteuneuf-du-Pape.
The palate is rich, rounded and even a little creamy, with spices and chocolate as well as, ripe juicy plum, black cherry and blackberry fruit. The tannins are very well managed, being smooth and supple and there’s some freshness too, making the wine very drinkable indeed. What’s more, there is nothing bland about it, it might not be the most complex wine in the world, but it is full of character – 86/100 points – I have awarded it high marks for value.

Available in the UK from Lidl  £5.49 per bottle – possibly the bargain of the year!

With quality like this coming through at such a good price, we are going to have to get used to wines from Lidl being taken a bit more seriously than they were in the past, just like we are with Aldi who also offer some excellent wines at great prices.

So, if Spanish wine to you is only Rioja, then do try this. The country has so much more to offer than most people realise, as the whole country is covered in fascinating wine regions that deserve wider appreciation.

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.