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Lebanon wines: Up – Down – Up

Lebanon wines: Up – Down – Up

While there may be challenges for travel to Lebanon, there are no problems in celebrating the wines of a country that has been producing wines since the beginning of time. Prophet Hosea (780-725BC) is noted as urging his followers to return to Yahweh so, “they will blossom as the vine, (and) their fragrance will be like the wine of Lebanon.” The Phoenicians are recognized as promoting wine and viticulture throughout the Mediterranean during this period.

When the country became part of the Caliphate there was a decline in wine production; however, wine production was tolerated by the Christian population under the millet system and could be used for religious purposes – enabling a small part of the industry to remain intact.

Although the first winery in Lebanon was Chateau Joseph Spath (Chateau Chbat) in 1847 it was not until 1857 that Jesuit missionaries formally introduced viticulture and new vines from French-governed Algeria were planted, developing the foundation for the modern Lebanon wine industry.


In 1918 the French civil and military administration governing Lebanon’s post-independence as a cosmopolitan, financial hub enabled the introduction of an economic golden age and it was accompanied by an increased demand for wine.

Unfortunately for the wine industry, in 1975 the country entered a 15-year civil war that dampened the wine demand. Finally, in 1992 peace was negotiated creating opportunities for new markets and new products.

Even with political issues that continuously rock the economy, Lebanon produces about 600,000 cases of wine a year and there are currently 30+ active wineries. Approximately 50 percent of production is exported to UK (32 percent), France (17 percent) and USA (14 percent), Canada (5 percent), Germany (4 percent) and Belgium (4 percent). The industry is currently valued at $41 million.

Governance

The first comprehensive Lebanese wine laws were drafted in May 2000. Although not as detailed or comprehensive as the French AOC laws they are based on, they outline each of the significant elements required for a national-level wine-regulation system.

• Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL)

The UVL is Lebanon’s official association of wine producers. Founded in 1997, one year after Lebanon joined the Office International de la Vigne et du Vin (OIV), the objective is to consolidate and build on Lebanon’s image as a wine producing country by highlighting its history and promoting its potential. UVL offers a way for Lebanon’s wine producers to share information and interests. It has also developed legitimacy for Lebanon’s export ambitions with the EU and other international markets such as the UK and USA.

Great Grapes Make Great Wine
Reds

1. Cabernet Franc. New to Lebanon; planted in Bekaa and Bhamdoun.

2. Cabernet Sauvignon. The most popular grape accounts for approximately 40 percent of the country’s wine grapes under vine. Used by all major Lebanese wineries in blends or as a varietal.

3. Carignan. Popular for decades in Lebanon, it offers a dark hue, good acidity and high alcohol. It is used to structure reds destined for ageing.

4. Cinsault. Used for over 150 years, today it accounts for 35 percent of Lebanon’s total wine grapes.

5. Gamay. Limited quantities are planted for nouveau wines.

6. Grenache. Popular with Lebanese producers as it offers a high alcoholic content.

7. Merlot. Used extensively in upper and mid-range wines.

8. Mourvedre. Popular with a few producers who appreciate its ability to contribute to well-structured wines.

9. Petit Verdot. Used by wineries who have it contribute to wine’s ageing potential because of its high tannin content.

10. Syrah. Producers value its longevity, aromas and flavors of prunes, spices and berries.

11. Tempranillo. An important Spanish grape that is popular with a few producers.

Whites

1. Chardonnay. Newly arrived in Lebanon and successful in the Bekaa terroir.

2. Gewürztraminer. Limited use.

3. Clairette. Popular but with limited use.

4. Merweh. Used in wines and arak.

5. Muscat. White grape planted in limited quantities and used as a blend.

6. Sauvignon Blanc. Versatile, highly acidic and used extensively in white wines.

7. Semillon. Limited use.

8. Viognier. Recently planted, it is used as a blend with Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Muscat to make premium whites.

Locations

Beqaa Valley. Chateau Ksara is the biggest winery (70 percent of country’s production).
Curated Reviews

At a recent wine tasting event held at the Astor Center, I had the good fortune to be reintroduced to the wines of Lebanon. A few of my choices include:

1. Chateau Qanafar – Blanc de Qanafar 2015. 100% Sauvignon Blanc

This family-owned winery grows their own grapes and the vineyards are planted at an average altitude of 4000 feet on gently sloping hills, producing berries of exceptional color and flavor.

Eddy Naim, winemaker explains, “The soil, primarily clay and limestone is a highly desirable combination which helps water retention in dry weather and provides high porosity in heavy rain periods. It also delays berry maturation (ideal for Lebanon’s climate!). The domain produces a natural wine without modifying the grapes’ attributes (no adjustments in acidity, sugar, tannin, etc. with oenological products), while using a minimal amount of sulfites. It doesn’t try to replicate the same organoleptic profile of its wines year after year, only its quality. The blend, if necessary, is changed to maintain the same quality level.”


Notes: To the eye, clear – almost transparent. The nose detects a sweet juicy perfume scent which continues through to the palate where there is a very floral taste that is tempered by a slightly sour citrus experience that suggests grapefruit. Pair with green salad with Chevre and citrus in a caramelized bell pepper vinaigrette or grilled marinated prawns.

2. Karam Wines. Cloud Nine 2015. 45% Viognier, 10% Muscat, 30% Sauvignon Blanc, 15% Semillon. Awards: Prix Special Sommeliers Award, Best White wine in the Mediterranean Basin in Bordeaux Vinexpo (2015).

Developed by two brothers (a pilot and business executive) with a passion for wine who set out to make their own in their place of birth, Jezzine, making it the first vineyard in the south of Lebanon. Vines are planted at high altitudes.

Notes: To the eye, light yellow – think of a beautiful sunny summer day. The nose detects citrus fruits, green apples, pineapples, honeysuckle and daises. The sweet lemon /acidity taste on the palate suggests that it will be wonderful as a light but refreshing aperitif or dessert wine. Pair with Brie, honey and pistachio nuts, chicken salad or cold pasta salad.

3. Domaine de Baal – Domaine de Baal White 2013. 50% Chardonnay, 50% Sauvignon; 20% aged in French oak barrels for 10-18 months.

This boutique winery was started by Sebastien Khoury. The vines were planted in 1994 and the grapes are grown at an altitude of 1150 meters above sea level on the “terraces” of Domaine de Baal. No chemicals are used in the production process and the wines contain very little sulfites. The focus is on quality and not quantity. De Baal produces only 20,000 bottles per year.

The vineyard is grown on terraces and tasks are done manually. The terraces face the south and are made of red clay soil situated on limestone rock that offers the wines extra freshness and mineral notes. The wines are naturally made with wild yeast and low amounts of sulfites and are aged in barrels.

The de Baal domaine is located near the city of Zahle, in the center of the Bekaa Valley that was called the “wheat attic” at the time of the Romans. Surrounded by mountains with Mount Lebanon on the West and the Anti-Liban on the east, The Bekaa Valley provides an ideal climate for vineyards.

Notes: To the eye, the wine has a pale-yellow tint. The nose detects an elegant whiff of minerality with hints of citrus and grapefruit plus flowers and green bushes. Almost sweet on the front palate but leads to a new level of freshness. The Chardonnay plus the oak ageing delivers a spicy flavor and a warm earthy finish.  Pair with grilled salmon and Camembert cheese.

4. Chateau Nakad – Chateau des Coteaux 2010. 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 50% Syrah. Aged in French oak for 12 months.

These vineyards have developed over three generations of winemakers from the Bekaa Valley. In 1923, during the French Mandate in Lebanon, Joseph Nakad’s wine was a favorite among France’s deployed soldiers. The military commissioned large quantities of his vintages to lift the spirits of the troops. When his son, Salim, took over the business Chateau Nakad became among the leading enterprises in the Lebanese wine industry. Today, the company is run by Joseph’s grandchildren and the reputation of the brand has grown internationally.

The winery is located in the village of Jdita/Chtaura in the Bekaa Valley and built on the remains of wine cellars that date back to the Bronze Age.

The family produces red, rose, white and sweet wine plus traditional Lebanese anisette liquor, Arack As-Samir and Afandello, an artisanal orange flavored liquor, and Misk, a mastiha liquor.

Notes: To the eye, deep purple trending toward cherry red. To the nose – earth and tobacco while the palate finds very old sour cherries. Pair with beef burger with blue cheese, Calabrese sausage and cheddar pizza, or spare ribs with dark beer and honey.

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