Today we have guest post on a place you might not be too familiar with…
Lebanese Wines 101
by Lettie Dibben
OK, so I understand that Lebanon may not exactly be number one on the wine destinations hit-list.
I expect the first thing that springs to mind is Syria, the civil war or for the wino adventurers amongst you perhaps Chateau Musar? There’s so much more than meets the eye, here’s a lowdown on all things Lebanese wine.
The Background, in a nutshell
Lebanon is a small country, about a half the size of New Jersey. It’s bordered by Syria to the North and East, the Mediterranean to the West, Israel to the South and is home to approximately 7 million. Around a third of those are refugees. It’s generally accepted that the Phoenicians were making wine in Lebanon around 3000 BC, firmly placing them as one of the world’s oldest wine producing countries. However 1975-1990 witnessed a bitter civil war which claimed the lives of 250,000 and divided the country, and the nation still bares the scars of this. But boy, has it bounced back!
What’s the big deal?
In 1990 there were just 5 wineries, fast forward to now and there’s an impressive 50 plus! Collectively they produce about 9 million bottles a year. It’s a country which has seen a renaissance at breakneck speed, a proud nation of educated trilinguals (most speak Arabic, French and English – fluently) who are hungry to return their homeland to its former glory.
The true magic lies in the Lebanese irrepressible defiance of hardship. A great example of this is during the civil war, people no longer visited Lebanon and the country was torn apart. A gentleman called Serge Hocher (of Chateau Musar) decided that if people weren’t coming to his wines, he’d personally take his wines to them. This paid off in 1979 when his wines won major plaudits and global recognition – giving Lebanese wine its first break.
Main wine producing regions
Beqaa Valley – This is the key area, a high plateau at 800-1,200 metres above sea level which produces the vast majority of Lebanese wine. Long hot dry summers with mild nights and freezing winters. Perfect for wine growing. The snow capped Mountains provide water to the fertile limestone/clay soils.
North Lebanon – The furthest North, this region is generally centred in the hills just outside the beautiful, laid back seaside town of Batroun, and is the second most popular wine producing region. Altitude varies massively from 400 – 1,800 meters above sea level.
Mount Lebanon – This is the closest region to Beirut, and has warm summers and mild winters – therefore producing a slightly cooler climate wine. Popular with the Lebanese glitterati who prefer to spend their summer out of the sweltering Beirut heat.
South Lebanon – Mostly home to boutique wineries capitalising on the rich diversity of soils and altitudes (600 – 1,300 meters above sea level).
Bordeaux varietals are king – the likes of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Syrah are more common than red buses in London. Syrah here is particularly fantastic, with lifted floral notes reminiscent of high altitude Mendoza. However there’s also a fair amount of Chardonnay, Viognier, Muscat, Cinsault, Carignan, Tempranillo (mostly for Rose) and even some Riesling.
So, while French style blends rule the roost, there are an increasing number of interesting single varietal wines and imaginative blends. Tasty indigenous varietals to keep an eye out for are white grapes are Obedieh (below) and Merweh.
My Top 5 Ways To Dabble, Lebanese-Style:
Chateau Musar (Beqaa) – Known internationally as the most famous of all Lebanese wineries. Famed for its family origins and known for marching to the sound of its slightly unique drum beat regarding their methods of production, use of indigenous varietals and style of wines. Expect the unexpected.
Chateau Ksara (Beqaa) – Today Lebanon’s biggest producer, Founded in 1857 and initially a Monastery, the winery has a unique cellar system built from over 2km of Roman caves. Despite numerous occupations during various conflicts, the winery has never missed a harvest! Which I think is pretty awesome.
Ixsir (North Lebanon) – The modern face of Lebanese wine, it showcases Mediterranean varietals on Lebanese terrior. Ixsir’s vineyards are primarily located in the North around Batroun and scale altitudes of 1,800, making it the highest vineyard in the Northern Hemisphere. It’s beautiful and award winning winery is build on the foundations of a 150 year old house and has a noteworthy restaurant which serves an excellent lunch. Keep an eye out for the El Ixsir 2012, it’s really something very special.
Domaine des Tourelles (Beqaa) – Crushing grapes since 1868, now family run with the young, talented and irrepressibly enthusiastic winemaker Faouzi Issa at the helm. A winery that’s a melting pot of modern and traditional. Known for their sensational Old Vine Cinsault, Syrah du Liban and Arak.
Chateau Belle-Vue (Mount Lebanon) – A boutique, family run, organic winery in Bhamdoun, run by husband and wife team Naji and Jill Boutros. A winery that proves some of the best things come in small packages. Cooler climate, ‘Old World’ style wines with elegance and finesse. Don’t miss Le Renaissance – their flagship wine.
Wrapping it up
So, hopefully I’ve convinced you that Lebanese wine is more than just a passing fad or a ‘touch of the exotic’ – instead it’s a damn good drop from one of the oldest wine producing countries in the world, which is on the up!
Flights are less than $600 from NYC, but if your pockets can’t quite stretch to that (fair enough!), here are some places you can sip and sample Lebanese locally (NYC):
Ilili – All available BTG!! Ixsir, Ksara. 961 or Almaza Beer also available.
Astor Wines – Musar, Domaine des Tourelles, Ksara.
Bottle Rocket – Domaine des Tourelles
Crush Wine & Spirits – Musar
Union Square Wines – Musar