Andy Batten-Foster takes a masterclass in Lebanese wine…
I am with wine the way others are with art; I don’t know much about it, but I know what I like. So it was immediately obvious when I turned up for this master-class on Lebanese wine that I was an impostor – obvious to me and obvious to the other guests. Because the first thing I like about wine is drinking it, rather than tasting it and spitting it out, which is what everyone else was doing.
They were quite right of course. 11.30 on a weekday morning is hardly an appropriate time to settle down in front of seven glasses of fine Lebanese wine and we had really been invited to learn more about how and where it was produced.
Michael Karam (author of Wines of Lebanon, winner of the Gourmand Award for the Best New World Wine Book, 2006 and Michael Karam’s Lebanese Wines 2011) told us that only that morning over breakfast he’d watched a TV ad for Jacob’s Creek that ended with the knockout tag-line, “Produced for 180 years”. Lebanese wine, he patiently explained, can be traced back a full 9,000 years and the country now produces more than 7 million bottles a year – most of them drunk by the Lebanese people themselves.
That might be a drop in the Californian wine ocean but Lebanese wineries – there are now around 40 – are trying to establish themselves as boutique rather than mass producers. They want a reputation for premium quality not bulk international sales.
The Phoenicians were probably the first wine merchants, and as early as 3000 BC were shipping Lebanese wine to the Mediterranean and beyond. The ancient Egyptians were so fond of it they liked to be buried with a couple of bottles to ease the journey to the afterlife. But it wasn’t until 1857 that the foundations were laid for the modern Lebanese wine industry with the opening of Chateau Ksara – still the nation’s biggest producer.
Michael is only too well aware that so far only one Lebanese wine has properly established itself on the international wine community’s collective consciousness. Chances are that if you’ve drunk – or even heard of – any Lebanese wine before now it will be Chateau Musar. This certainly rings true for me. I was first introduced to a bottle (at Brown’s on the Clifton Triangle, as it happens) by a well-travelled friend who suggested it as an exotic novelty. For many years Lebanon was mired in civil war and so, as Michael put it, “every bottle was full of conflict”, but this sad fact did at least help Chateau Musar catch the attention of international wine dealers and become the industry’s standard bearer. If any further local connection was necessary, it first received the world’s interest after being launched at the Bristol Wine Fair in 1979.
Peace has now helped galvanise the newer Lebanon wineries to invest heavily in more up to date equipment and Michael believes their determination to get their wines appreciated by the wider wine drinking community has never looked more likely to succeed.
The locally based food and wine writer Fiona Beckett fell in love with the Lebanon and its wine during a trip to the country about a year ago. She was surprised how mountainous the country is and how that produces many different micro-climates and terroirs. She spoke longingly of feasting under cypress trees and setting suns. This was heady stuff, and time for us to get more personally involved.
Wine Number One: Cloud Nine 2010. Karam Winery.
This is a wine produced in Southern Lebanon by two brothers. The eldest, Habib Karam, was described by Fiona as “something of a swash-buckling airline pilot” (inevitably he’s also been asked to produce a wine called “Mile High”). Cloud Nine is a crisp, dry white – something of a novelty in itself as Lebanese wines are generally assumed to be big, heavy reds – it’s beautifully refreshing, lemony and with a lovely flowery nose. Fiona described how she once sipped it with Tabbouleh laced strongly with fresh mint, and just for a moment the Hotel du Vin seemed to fade away as it was impossible to imagine a taste combination more sublime.
Wine Number Two: Grand Reserve White 2010. IXSIR
The brand name IXSIR is derived from “iksir”, the original Arabic word for “elixir”. This is a very sophisticated product – the company has invested $11m in the winery –and every bottle is graced with a very cool label designed to look good on any dinner table. It was a richer, muskier, slightly heavier and more complex wine than the first we tried and much more to my personal taste, despite being less refreshing. It would hold its own well with richer seafood dishes packing plenty of garlic.
Wine Number Three: Red 2008. Domaine des Tourelles.
Now that’s what I call a good, no nonsense name for a bottle of red wine; Red. This comes from the oldest winery in the Lebanon, started in 1868 when a young Frenchman, Francois-Eugene Brun, was drafted in to the country to help build the Beirut to Damascus Road. This was probably the lightest, easiest drinking red on offer here and is already attracting interest from international buyers as it in many ways it resembles – in Fiona’s words – a Provencal red. She suggested matching it with game – pheasant ideally, which sounded like a pretty good idea to me.
Wine Number Four: Les Breteches 2008. Chateau Kefraya.
This was a very impressive, bold glassful. To Michael Karam it best represents everything that the Bekaa Valley stands for. “It’s unsophisticated but sexy, with strong earthy flavours, even a bit dirty”. He might have been sounding like Bruno Tonioli on Strictly, but he was also spot on. This is, indeed, a “biggie”. Spoil yourself and try it with roast lamb or shepherds’ pie.
Wine Number Five: Reserve du Couvent 2009. Chateau Ksara.
This winery is in the same valley as the Temple of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, and produces more than two and a half million bottles a year – making it the Lebanon’s biggest producer. This wine is aged in wood for 6 months.
Wine Number Six: Fleur de Ka 2005. Chateau Ka.
This was my favourite of the bunch. A gorgeously big, blackcurranty, dry savoury wine. Perhaps more “international” than typically Lebanese, and aged for a full 18 months in oak. This would be a perfect Sunday lunch wine with grilled steak or (again) roast leg of lamb – just so long as you don’t have much to do during the afternoon.
Wine Number Seven: Pinot Noir 2008. Chateau St Thomas.
A really interesting Lebanese spin on Pinot Noir, this was by far the most interesting and unusual wine we tasted. It was lighter and softer than Number Six – less “dirty”. But, as Michael Karam described it “thoughtful, textured, real, earthy and perhaps the latest milestone in the development of Lebanese wine.” Fiona spoke of once drinking it with a hearty lamb stew served with flatbreads and once again I found myself slowly drifting away as cypress boughs gently swaying on a warm evening breeze replaced the more mundane (I’m sorry) Hotel du Vin.
All in all this was a fascinating and educational experience. I still may not know much about Lebanese wines, but I know what I like: just about everything I tried. I probably should have spat more of it out, but then I probably wouldn`t have enjoyed myself so much.
Buying Lebanese wine isn’t as easy as it should be. The only supermarket selling Chateau Musar is Waitrose and it’s pricey at around £18 a bottle. But why not also try Bristol`s very own Averys, who sell Lebanese whites at £7.99 – £18.99 and reds at £10.49 – £22.99.