On Lebanese wine

Lebanon

Text: David Furer
Copyright © David Furer & BKWine

September 11

As with most momentous world events, people have their own September 11 story. Mine had me aboard an airplane from Rome-Beirut before returning to my native US.

On the flight that afternoon I was unaware of what was taking place several thousand miles and several time zones away. Since the plane had a scheduled five hour layover on Cyprus, I bummed a ride into town and strolled into a seaside café to witness on television what most around the globe were also watching. After an hour being glued to the TV, I decided it best to telephone my host, Serge Hochar of Chateau Musar, for his opinion on what it is I should do. “Come to Lebanon, it’s safer than going back to the US!” he exclaimed. I agreed, and thus began my journey to Lebanon where I learned that it’s not as dangerous (at least for the past seven years) as many believe.

Going back to the Phoenicians

But, to understand Lebanon’s contribution to wine, it’s necessary to go farther back than the past 30 or so years or political strife. What is now Lebanon was thousands of years ago home to the Phoenicians, a race whose existence centered upon seafaring commerce. Along with the first written form of language, the vines that could be found planted in this patch of the eastern Mediterranean were taken by these traders to points around this inland sea such to what is now Tunisia, Spain, Italy, Greece, and France. It was the Phoencians that 6000 years ago taught the emerging Egyptians civilisation how to make wine. Many oenologists, including Hochar, believe that the Lebanese grapes Merweh and Obaideh (Semillon and Chardonnay) were brought to Lebanon not by the French, but are instead unique strains that were likely brought from the Caucasus Mountain of Georgia where they remain today.

Like Los Angeles?

Lebanon is approximately the size of greater Los Angeles, with half as many people, but probably just as many guns. Where handguns are the norm in LA, guns here are mostly rifles with most of those carried by Lebanese and Syrian soldiers at the many checkpoints one encounters while travelling by car. After so many years, Syrian presence is taken for granted and is generally seen as benign. With no train system, and buses somewhat unreliable, renting one’s own car is the most convenient and not-too-costly manner of transport.

While the Irish have set out for all corners of the globe in search of work, and the Jews’ search for freedom from prosecution, the Lebanese diaspora is sort of an amalgam of both; a search for both peace and commerce. Lebanese communities can be found in here in the UK, Paraguay, Australia, the US, and many other countries. While domestic wine consumption is increasing, as there are far more Lebanese outside of Lebanon than in, wineries both recent and established in Lebanon are looking to export markets rather than the home market for their burgeoning production in this period of calm. And though 47th in the world’s wine production, Lebanon is far higher in quality.

Grenache, Cinsault, Carignan, Syrah Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier…

The southern French grapes of Grenache, Cinsault, Carignan, and Syrah have traditionally been the most important for Lebanese wine production. The newer wineries coming on the scene are planting relatively less of these grapes (except Syrah) and trying the increasingly international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc, and Viognier. The home market is fond of a Tavel-like style of dry, low acid, and alcoholic rosé that while far less expensive than Tavel, usually lacks its finesse or the freshness of similar styles made in other regions.

The bleeding off of this juice is one factor that contributes to the superior quality of the country’s reds. Wire-trained trellised vines are the norm now, first introduced with Syrah, with the traditional gobelet style of planting in decline. Currently the entire country produces only about 5 million bottles annually, amounting to .5% of the world’s production. 2176 hectares of land are planted to wine grapes. It’s estimated within 10-15 years that Lebanon will have increased plantings to 7000-8000 hectares. Lebanon’s rainy season is from October-May, with the greatest amount of the approximately 700mm falling in January. Well-draining, rocky soils prevent moisture from collecting and either damaging the roots of the vine or swelling the grapes, while the approximate elevation of 1000 meters allows for cool nights to balance the warm days.

12 wineries

Lebanon has 12 commercial wineries, with most of them within the past seven years. Only Chateaux Musar and Ksara have been around longer than 50 years.

New wineries are being built. Musar, Ksara, and Chateau Kefraya in 1996 banded together to set standards and promote quality in Lebanese wines.

Newcomers joined in time, and in May 2000 the group became the 45th and most recent member nation to be accepted by the OIV (Office International du Vin), the world’s governing body of wine-producing countries. The Lebanese government, unaccustomed to establishing many laws that restrict commerce, previously had none governing the production of wine. Since the establishment of this group, they’ve mandated laws for wine production that includes the banning of chaptalisation to boost alcohol levels. This was a wise move considering that the Bekaa Valley, where the vast majority of Lebanon’s wine grapes are grown, possesses an iron-rich, gravelly, limestone based soil, a frost and disease free climate sporting long mild summers, rainy winters, and an average temperature of 25°C.

Ottoman domination and French protectorate

The Ottoman domination of Lebanon in the 19th century was stymied by the six Christian European nations’ occupation of the Mount Lebanon area. Founded in 1857 by French Jesuit priests during this, the beginning of Lebanon’s time as a French colonial “protectorate”, Ksara began by making wines both for the masses and the more mundane needs the Jesuits might have had. Managing Director Charles Ghostine showed me a book dated 1895 by a priest describing the production of wine at Ksara. During this period, nearby grape-growing residents would come to the monastery to informally learn growing and production techniques from the clergy. In 1898, cellars once belonging to the Romans were discovered below Ksara which are now joined as one. During the two world wars of the 20th century, wine production didn’t cease–on the contrary, it was then that Ksara’s business was most vital, supplying the various armies who were bivouaced in Lebanon.

Ksara

The largest producer of wines in Lebanon, Ksara is owned by four families, one of whom maintains an occasional residence on the property. The winery draws from approximately 300 hectares (ha) of grapevines, though they only own 20ha outright. Ksara produces an average of 1.7 million bottles annually, with red accounting for 65%, whites 20%. The remaining 15% is dedicated to dry roses, an important domestic category in which Ksara dominates with 70% of the market. Some of this makes its way to the UK.

Ksara was the first Middle Eastern winery to attain stringent ISO 9002 standards. A lawyer by trade, Mssr. Ghostine has been steering Ksara since 1990. He believes that, “Lebanese wine production will continue to grow a steady pace, making increasingly finer wines for the world market while continuing to satisfy domestic needs for a good, simple drink.” The man responsible for overseeing Ksara’s wide range of wines is oenologist Elie Maamari, who’s also an internationally-renowned wine judge.

Kefraya

Kefraya is the name of a wine-growing district in the Bekaa as well as the chateau presided over by Michel de Boustros. Production levels are about that of Ksara. De Boustros took his vision from growing high-quality wine grapes further when in 1977, Kefraya as a winery was first envisioned. The first vintage produced was the very successful 1982 still tasting supple and ripe served out of magnum. He began as growing wine grapes and other fruits for general production and distribution to other sources. Tempranillo and Merlot are being planted, but Syrah is the current favorite for Kefraya’s future. The first vineyard, comprised of Cabernet Sauvignon, was planted in 1961, and replanted 1996.

Kefraya’s philosophy is summed up by Mr. de Boustros as, “with good grapes and two different winemakers, you may have two wines of fine, but differing quality, whereas with only average grapes, you will have only average wine no matter if the winemaker is a genius. Here we have good soil, good vines and climate, and all the technological means to make a good wine.” The owner’s favourite is the 1996 vintage of their flagship red, Chateau Kefraya.

He’s a man after my own loyalties—a firm believer in the idea that wine should be chosen first and the food second. “I want people who are unconvinced of the ability of Lebanese wines to pair with foods not Lebanese to come to Kefraya, eat in our restaurant and to try our wines.” In order to reach their tasting room, one must pass through the middle of Kefraya’s medium-sized restaurant—surely no accident. His passion for opera is reflected in his choice of labels, bearing original artwork and named for operas, and in the pristinely landscaped gardens in the back of Kefraya named for opera’s finest composers. This is a man who’s worked hard to make real his dream, one that could just as easily be found in the adult fantasy land of Napa Valley.

His winemaker is Gabriel Rivero, a French-educated Spaniard with sixteen years experience in Burgundy. His top-level ’M’ is excellent, often compared to top Old or New World blends and lauded by critics as setting a new standard for Lebanon, capable of taking the best from the Old World and New—not unlike the potential that South Africa shows. The 1997, 1998, and 2000 vintages are both concentrated and very well-structured.

Serge Hochar

Serge Hochar’s Bordeaux-trained ability to produce wines was tested when a cellar containing an entire vintage was decimated in shelling that took place during one of the many battles of the early 1990s. Since 1930, when brother Ronald (heading marketing and finance) and Serge’s father Gaston established the winery in Beirut (now in Ghazir), the Hochars have been the standard-bearers for Lebanese wines. All the male members of the Hochar family are engaged in the family business, with Serge’s son Gaston ready to take the reins upon his father’s none-too-soon retirement (Gaston’s eldest son is Serge, continuing a family tradition). Recognised the world over, Musar exports 90% of its production with the UK its primary market.

Musar’s reds, like nearly all of the country’s red grapes, are grown in the Bekaa, but its white grapes come from an entirely different origin. The Semillon and Chardonnay that comprise the blend are sourced from its own vineyards in a very cool 5000 feet at Mount Lebanon.

Author of Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopaedia, Tom Stevenson, has been one of Serge Hochar’s biggest supporters for nearly 20 years, but believes that, “his wines have not moved on.” Stevenson argues that, “the high volatile acidity level lets the wines down and the worst part of it is that it is deliberately high.” While perhaps not technically correct, these wines maintain an integrity and unique style that separates it from other producers who’ve fallen under the spell of newer varietals, lush fruit, and obvious oak nuances that betray a willingness to be compared to the New World.

And after the big three?

As the “Big Three” wineries of Ksara, Kefraya, and Musar continue to collect accolades and further their mark on the world stage, they open doors for the lesser known producers.

© Copyright David Furer & BKWine

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