What is Lebanese wine, especially from the Bekaa Valley? What is Lebanon? Everyone is still out drinking Arak at Domaine des Tourelles, but I wanted to come home and write it all down before I lose it in an aniseed haze.
It is amazing what happens when you don’t have a phone. Your eyes become the camera. Today was the first day I saw the Bekaa Valley in the light. The two mountains that cradle the valley are Mount Lebanon (towards Beirut) and the Anti-Lebanon mountains which form a natural barrier with Syria. Breathe it in – the bright white and bare soils on the hill behind the wineries that look almost biblical. So barren in parts after 1000s of years of civilisation, it is hard to imagine them ever having the luxury of trees.
We stopped at Chateau Ka first for breakfast. We had Knefe (sweet cheese with rose water and orange blossom syrup in a bread roll) and Mankouché (za’atar and sesame seeds on warm pitta bread) which we stuffed with cucumber, tomato and mint – perhaps a little slather of labne. In an industrial park, this winery means business. These are wines that you can find at Waitrose and Virgin Wines. They also have a new beer and state-of-the-art brewery where they make Beirut Beer. Only two months since launch, you can find this at Maroush cafés in London.
You can imagine this family sitting around the dinner table discussing the company. The sisters look after the winery and the father and brother is working on the new brewery. They also have an alco-pop business, capturing the Saudi market for young boys who want to stand around bars but can not drink. A smart business strategy as anyone who runs a winery knows how much money needs to be ploughed into it.
My favourite wine of their range is not the “prestige wine” but a wine that can be found at Waitrose, Source de Rouge 2012. The oak is dialled down, unlike the rather intense Fleur de Ka. Fleur de Ka is in the classical old style French oak that is matured in 18-24 months French and American oak. You can find this wine at Abu Dhabi duty free. Strong and intense.
Already I was picking up a trend about the Bekaa Valley.
When we left, the owner Akram Kassatly wanted to say, “I sincerely hope we have peace.” In the middle of a new winery it is hard to conceive that over the mountains there is a bloody and unpredictable war going on. For a business person like Akram, and most people I spoke to today, the war stopped their plans in their tracks.
Even a winery like Chateau Ksara. Here is a place with 2 kilometres of caves (a natural wonder, much like Champagne) underneath the winery that was once owned by Jesuit priests in 1857. They have survived so much over 158 years, including the Ottoman Empire. Looking out over the front of this impressive winery onto the Anti-Lebanon mountains, the owner Zafi says, “No one knows what their plans are….”
The winemaker at Chateau Ksara is James Palge who previously worked for Prieure Lichine (Sasha Lichine of Whispering Angel Rosé fame). He was only meant to say for a week but ended up staying over 20 years. Is it any surprise that Lebanon do excellent Rosé? The weather and cuisine are made for it. Especially the salads with bright pink pomegranate seeds.
It is always impressive walking through a cave of stored, back vintages piled up and covered in a black cotton wool fungus. There have been a few Italian wineries that have all their best vintages depleted. You can only understand a wine through tasting through the back vintages – especially fine wines. It is also losing some of your heritage.
This was not a problem as Chateau Ksara go back to 1918 in the reds and 1937 for the sweet wines. We were fortunate to open a bottle of the sweet wine for the cellar – a 1937 Macabeo Grenache Blanc. It tasted like the a liquified creme brûlée. I took the precious glass to lunch where we were generously had a four course meal in a very peaceful dining area with skylights. I like to stick to one wine at dinner, and this was the Le Sourverain. Only 10,000 bottles made, it is blend of Cabernet Franc and Annarnoa (Petit Verdot cross with Merlot), it is slightly smokey and dark cherry with a good tannic structure and freshness.
Another few points for Bekaa Valley: freshness and ageability.
They can be big “Southern French” blends but they have a lift and freshness all their own from the high altitude in the Bekaa Valley (about 1000 metres). It has 1 metre of clay and then calcareous soils – this maintains the water against the bright light and reflection of the area.
The last stop on our trip was Domaine des Tourelles. An atmospheric Chateau which has retained all its original features (and native yeasts). Everything, as much as possible is kept in a traditional way.
One of the best (and funniest) tastings I have been to in a while, we sat in young Faouzi Issa’s office to taste back vintages of Domaine des Tourelles. He had spent time at Chateau Margaux – we joked about the fading yellow walls being very similar. And a few other jokes that are bit more… better ask me in person.
There are three main wines: Domaine des Tourelles (Cabernet Syrah Cinsault, unoaked), Marquis de Bey (polished, se.xy) and Syrah du Liban (full blast 100% Syrah). The question was: how much of this is the expression of the region and how much is oak? And does it really matter, if oak is needed for ageing…
For me, the unoaked Domaine des Tourelles red was a glimpse of the land. This is powerful fruit but not masked with oak. It would seem natural to have oak on big wines but after tasting the 1976 Domaine des Tourelles it shows that it can age (an historic year for Lebanon during the war). The 2006 was further developing its minerality into a butcher block and meaty way.
And then we finished with Arak with aniseed that is mostly grown in Syria. And that is where I ended the night. I don’t want a headache when we visit Byblos, the oldest continuously lived city in the world.