Last week’s tasting of Lebanese wines in London’s Borough market had been planned weeks before hand, but it happened to coincide with the same week as the attacks in Beirut, and on the next day, in Paris.
Can we ever understand the horrific events of the past week? The time calls out for civilisation. I agree with the message from the Charlie Hebdo illustrator, Joann Sfar, after the Paris attacks: “Our faith goes to music! Kisses! Life! Champagne and joy!”
For me, that means eating together, friends and a glass of wine. That is why a long lunch of mezze and Lebanese wine was the perfect tonic for the time.
A very brief history of food and wine in a complex region
The story of wine is the story of civilisation.
It was the ancient sea-faring Phoenicians that introduced, encouraged and propagated viticulture in the ancient world when vitis vinifera was still only a weed in many areas across the Mediterranean. Around the same time they also developed and spread the use of an alphabet.
In more recent times, the Lebanese are famously great emigrants and the Christian Lebanese have emigrated abroad since the late nineteenth century.
Claudia Roden explains the impact of Lebanese restaurant culture in her mouth-wateringly good cookbook, Arabesque:
“Today Lebanese restaurants with their typical menus have come to represent Arab food around the world. So big is their reputation that when a Syrian restaurant opens in London, it calls itself ‘Lebanese,’ and when hotels in Egypt put on a special Egyptian buffet, the dishes are Lebanese. How did that come about? One reason is that the Lebanese are famously bons viveurs who know how to make the best of their culinary heritage. They are also great entrepreneurs and they were the first in the Middle East to develop a restaurant trade. That trade spread to Europe and else where then the civil war forced many to seek their fortunes abroad in the 1970s and 1980s.”
Where there is a strong restaurant culture, wine can be found. Modern wine developed in Lebanon before the League of Nations awarded France the mandate for Syria and Mount Lebanon in 1920; Château Ksara was established by Jesuit priests in 1857. Wine was never banned in Lebanon, and the drinking of arak (distilled grapes with aniseed) was important in refining Lebanese food, especially the mezze tradition, which some say was born in the Bekaa Valley.
What is Mezze?
Mezze is not just about the small plates but the art of living and socialising. It can include, but is not limited to, a plate of olives or pistachio, pickled turnips and cucumbers, labneh, feta and haloumi, very large thin breads called marouk, omelettes, thin pizzas, and kibbeh made of lamb and bulgar wheat.
The mezze is followed by the main dishes, which Claudia Roden explains, are influenced by the “old Greek Orthodox and Sunni grande bourgeoisie of Beirut and the Maronite grand seigneurs, combined with simple rural dishes and festive dishes associated with festive holidays”.
Other cuisines that share the same “bass note” spices in their cooking – think the earthy and warm flavours of cinnamon, cumin and allspice – will also unlock the potential of the wines.
3 Lebanese Wine Styles and What It Tastes Like
This is not a definitive list of the styles of wine available from the 39 wineries in Lebanon. What matters is to get a feel for the lay of the land so you find the wine for your tastes. These are the three styles worth looking out for.
Look for blends. They have great texture and good weight, combined with spicy exotic floral notes – thanks to the Muscat and other aromatic varieties – and make an exciting match with foods featuring brown spices, such as cumin and nutmeg.
Throw away the rule book – try these white wines these with lamb dishes such as Moussaka or Baingain Bharta (Indian aubergine curry). Or simply enjoy a glass with a handful of pistachio or olives.
- Karam Winery Cloud 9 (Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat and Semillon, 13% alc)
- Domaine Wardy Clos Blanc (Obeideh, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, Muscat, 13% alc)
- Domaine des Tourelles White (Viognier, Chardonnay, Muscat, 13% alc)
Gentle savoury reds
The grape with the most history in Lebanon is Cinsault, which benefits from blending with other grapes. It is 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 the grapes to the locals. Touriga Nacional in the blend, such as seen in the excellent St Jean 2007 red blend from Karam Winery, and sometimes Tempranillo, are worth seeking out for their interesting textures. These are great food friendly wines, not overly fruity and with reasonable alcohol levels for midweek drinking.
- Château St Thomas Les Gourmets 2012 (Cinsault, Grenache, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, 13.5% alc)
- Karam Winery St Jean 2007 (Touriga Nacional, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, 13% alc)
- Domaine Wardy Château Les Cedres 2011 (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, 13% alc)
In the spirit of Château Musar, here are the wines that dance to the beat of their own tune. Some bottles of the Château Sanctus may have been slightly volatile but this unfiltered and cloudy 2005 was an exciting full bodied wine that won’t leave you feeling indifferent. If you enjoy big wines with big flavours, then you will enjoy the liquorice, bourbon, rye and orange peel characters.
- Château Sanctus 2005 (Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, 13%)
- Château Sanctus 2009 (Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon, 13%)
- Coteaux de Botrys Syrah 2007 (Syrah, 13.5%)
Now is the time to eat, drink and be merry.
Many thanks to Union Vinicole du Liban and the wineries: Adyar, Château Heritage, Château Ka, Château Kefraya, Château Ksara, Château Nakad, Château Oumsiyat, Château St Thomas, Château Sanctus, Coteaux de Botrys, Domaine des Tourelles, Domaine Wardy, IXSIR, Karam Winery.
Lunch at Arabica (3 Rochester Walk, London SE1 9AF)