A well-known novelist visited Egypt in 2011 and wrote a whimsical travel piece about his trip. His timing could not have been worse as the Arab Spring erupted in Cairo. I had a similar experience recently when I wrote an article about wine in Lebanon full of colourful details about the vibrancy of Beirut’s nightlife and the amount of money sloshing about. By the time it ran, the economy had collapsed, there had been a massive explosion in Beirut, and Lebanon was being described as a “failed state”.
Such is the danger of travel writing. For this article, therefore, I’m going to stick to wine. This, too, isn’t straightforward because many of the country’s newer producers aren’t being imported into Britain and probably won’t if Lebanon’s current instability continues.
But tasting the stuff that does make it over indicates that something very exciting is going on. After years where most producers made wines that were Lebanon’s answer to Bordeaux or Provence, now the country makes wines that taste unique.
One of the mysteries of Lebanese wine is that, despite making the stuff for thousands of years, there aren’t a myriad of interesting indigenous grape varieties to choose from. This is usually seen a legacy of Muslim rule; but other countries that were in the Ottoman empire like Greece, Bulgaria and indeed Turkey itself, have dozens of varieties with tongue-twisting names like agiorgitiko and oküzgözü.
British importer Steve Daniel, an expert on Greek wines, has a theory that many Mediterranean varieties such as Santorini’s assyrtiko may have originated in Lebanon and carried around the world by the Phoenicians. He has just started importing a new producer called Château Oumsiyat which has planted assyrtiko in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon’s viticultural heartland.
Cinsault especially turns into something spectacular in the Bekaa Valley
Most Lebanese wines, however, are made from French or Spanish varieties. The modern industry was built by French Jesuits who in the nineteenth century took the varieties that they grew in North Africa (cinsault, carignan and grenache) and brought them to Lebanon. Perhaps these varieties pushed out the native grapes. But, in turn, since the civil war ended in 1990, the classic Jesuit varieties have been shunned by the status-obsessed Lebanese who were busy planting Bordeaux grapes instead.
Over the past five years, dynamic winemakers like Faouzi Issa at Domaine des Tourelles have realised that cinsault especially turns into something spectacular in the Bekaa Valley. It takes confidence to bottle cinsault on its own rather than an internationally recognised variety like cabernet sauvignon — something the charismatic Issa is not short of.
Meanwhile, producers are discovering that Lebanon does indeed have native varieties with potential. Two white grapes that are usually used to make arak (Lebanon’s national spirit), obaideh and merwah, are now being bottled varietally or blended (something that has long gone on at Château Musar, an outlier among Lebanese producers as it has always made distinctive wines, immune to the whims of fashion).
There may be other grapes just waiting to be rediscovered. A lavishly funded winery, Ixsir, in the north of the country has been doing research into local varieties, so far without releasing anything commercial. But over at Château Kefraya, I have heard that French winemaker Fabrice Guiberteau has bottled a red made with an old Arab variety called aswad karech (nothing to do with reggae — aswad means black in Arabic). Guiberteau, who looks like he plays second row for Stade Toulousain, discovered it not in Lebanon, however, but in a nursery in France. Sadly, it’s not yet being exported.
I visited the country back in 2016, just as the producers had woken up to the potential in the vineyards. Those changes are now bearing fruit. I hope I can visit again soon and taste some of the newer producers and write something that doesn’t date the moment I file it.
Here are five wines to try:
Domaine des Tourelles Carignan Vieilles Vignes 2018 (D’arcy Wines £16.99)
Carignan can be a rather unlovely variety in the south of France; but in Lebanon it turns into a taste sensation. On the nose there’s rosemary and dark spices. It seems firm initially but then opens out with ripe fruit, warm baking spices, creamy nutty notes, and pungent herbal notes. This is superb.
Domaine des Tourelles Cinsault Vieilles Vignes 2018 (Flagship Wines £18.35)
The Bekaa Valley and cinsault go together like Burgundy and pinot noir. This wine has been unmissable since the first vintage in 2014. Stick your nose in and there’s camphor, cloves, fennel, rose petal, orange peel and cherries. Big wild flavours continue in the mouth with North African spices, Turkish delight, and almonds on the finish.
Château Oumsiyat Cuvée Membliarus Assyrtico 2018 (Novel Wines 11.79)
This shows how at home Santorini’s assyrtiko (note unusual spelling above) is in Lebanon. There’s an intense nose of preserved lemon and when you take a sip; it’s tangy with a firm lemon rind, salt, and a creamy finish. Doesn’t quite have the razor-sharp edge of the best from Santorini, but this is delicious and clearly one that will continue ageing elegantly for a good few years.
Château Ksara Carignan Old Vine 2018 (The Wine Society £12.95)
Ksara was founded by Jesuits and it’s easily the country’s biggest producer making a huge range of wines. In the last few years there’s been a new energy to the place with delightful wines like this, the first varietal carignan from Lebanon. It’s packed full of summer pudding, lavender, and rosemary with a little nuttiness on the finish.
Château Ksara Merwah 2018 (Strictly Wine £16.99)
Another innovative wine from Ksara making use of an indigenous wine variety, Merwah. It smells strongly of orange and satsuma on the nose. It’s subtle on the palate: more citrus with a creamy texture and a complexity that creeps up on you. This shows the potential of Lebanon’s native grapes.
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