Overlooking the electrical storm over Beirut from my hotel room*, the city is peaceful. The rain has forced me back to the hotel. It is peaceful on the streets and for a Saturday afternoon it looks too quiet. Most of the people on the streets are either army or kids playing soccer on the empty roads. Especially around the park where families of 24 army who have been kidnapped by IS last month are occupying to demand action.
In the farmer’s market there was a stall for the excellent Domaine de Bargylus from Syria being served with oysters. It was scene that could have easily been from one of my weekends in London. Although I am not sure how the wine crossed over the mountains into Lebanon. The market is between the new “Souk” shopping centre area controversially built on the destroyed ancient souks of Beirut. And a striking old building that was once a Press that is now just a facade pock-marked with bullet holes.
It is almost impossible to not talk about the politics when talking about the wine. It is all around you. This week has been an education in the modern history of Lebanon as well as the religious sects. This is terroir in widest definition possible – where land includes the geopolitical landscape.
Beirut knows how to party. Last night we walked along Gemmayze where people are spilling out of bars onto the street. One tiny bar after another crammed on one road. We found a seat at a small place called the Dragonfly where it feels like a throwback to another time. The art deco panelling and the fan on the roof lazily on, the place is full of people drinking cocktails.
One of the vintages that keeps standing out amongst our tastings is the 2006 vintage. “Ah, that was the war vintage,” a few people have said wistfully. Most of what I know about the war has come from the people here, and some snippets on the news that invariably blur into one big “Middle East” so I don’t feel too qualified to talk about the regional politics in depth. (Andrew Neather visited the Syrian refugee camp for the Evening Standard). If I put myself in their shoes, I can’t help but wonder how it would be to try to sustain a business when there is so much instability. To be a winery in the Bekaa Valley is to believe in wine against the odds.
Over the summer in 2006, the Israeli army bombed sites across Lebanon in response to Hezbollah. Bridges and structures, the dairy factory and the Bekaa Valley. There were not exports and imports in that year. It is a testament to the wines and the people that a vintage was even made. Many were unsure that there would be a vintage. The wines show tension in more ways than one…
People refer to the war but there have been many wars in Lebanon. Akram at Chateau Ka refers to the Lebanese Civil War (from 1975 to 1990) when he speaks of the winery razed to the ground and starting again. This is also the war we are referring to at Domaine des Tourelles when we tasted their red from 1976. It was still standing, defiantly as a testament to wine over war.
To get a glimpse of the flavours of Lebanon, look at the entry level wines. While winemakers have been busy with making the top wines iconic, the entry level wines often show what happens when the grapes speak for themselves about the land and are unhindered by too much oak. If oak was a traveller it would be the colonial English with the linen suit and Panama hat. It transports itself to new lands and makes the local fit in around it. It makes the wine dress as other wines, and perhaps this is what the winemaker wants.
When asked about indigenous grapes, it is worth noting that French grapes have been used so long in Lebanon that they have become part of its history. The grape with the most history is Cinsault, a difficult grape to tame with oak and needs to be treated delicately in the winery. The Jesuits brought Cinsault, along with Carignan, into the country from Algeria and then distributed to the locals. A lot has been ripped up in the 1990s, but I would argue to bring it back if the ageing potential of the Domaine des Tourelles is anything to go by.
Some instances of where the land spoke and they also showed the capacity to age:
Chateau Kefraya Les Bretèches 2008
The land speaks in this earthy wine with warm earthy spices that may be in the same family of other warm spices in Lebanese cuisines, such as Cumin and All Spice in lamb kibbeh. Tasting this in a vertical, it shows how the good acidity from the high altitude in this region develops over time into freshness and lift.
Domaine des Tourelles Red 2011, 2010, 2006
Syrah, Cabernet and Cinsault. The 2011 is the most young and upfront, sweet and savoury characters on the nose, lead to full dark cherry characters on the palate with fine tannins. The 2010 is a typical vintage – stronger, richer, powerful the fruit is pure and mineral. Silky and easy to drink – it is a balanced wine. The 2006 showed complex butchers block, mineral, dark olive characters, it reminded of a Rhone at the same age.
Chateau Ksara Le Souverain 2006
A slight smokiness gives an edge to the soft and pretty fruits. Everything is well balanced and integrated with a long aftertaste of dark cherry on the finish.
Ixsir Altitudes White 2014
A blend of Muscat (60%), Viognier and Chardonnay this is a modern, clean style of white apero wine that has exotic aromas similar to the food flavours found in Lebanon – orange blossom, rose water, Matiche. This can handle complex and full bodied foods and spices but also had as an aperitif. Another white, but with less polish and more depth is the Domaine des Tourelles blanc.
On the last night at the bar at The Phoenicia Hotel in Beirut we tried a selection of wines that we did not get on the trip. Other wines that I had on the trip worth mentioning is the Wardy, a white Obediah, which is one of Lebanon’s only indigenous varieties. It had excellent texture and body and a brilliant wine with complex sweet and sour flavours. We also had a small winery called Atibaia 2009, from up near Bhatroun this has all the freshness and warm earthiness of the Bekaa Valley but with excellent finesse in the tannins. The night finished at the excellent Chez Liza (which also has a branch in Paris) with 2013 Domaine des Tourelles, 2009 Bargeylus from Syria, and a martini with orange blossom.
* I started this post in Beirut, but with a jam-packed itinerary and few minutes with wi-fi I am finishing this post on the Eurostar to Paris for Burgundy En Primeur tastings. I am now enamoured with the people, food and wines of Lebanon and hope to be back again soon. I sincerely wish them peace.
The winemakers may agree with me, that we all want to Make Wine not War. Thank you to Wines of Lebanon for taking me on this journey across a wine region that has so much to offer the wine lover.
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