Lebanon is one of the world’s oldest wine regions. Grapes were grown in the Biblical land of Canaan on the slopes of Mount Lebanon at least 4,000 years BC and the Phoenicians were possibly the first to export wine, by ship to Egypt.
In the last quarter of the first century BC the Romans built a temple to Bacchus, their god of wine, in Baalbeck in the Bekaa valley. This valley has been the historic site of grape growing and most of the best-known estates are based or grow grapes there.
Currently the wine industry in Lebanon is booming. The country has about 2,000 hectares under vine involving about 25 different international and local grape varieties. The number of wineries rose from five at the end of the 1975-1990 civil war to about 40 today.
Local winemakers are moving away from international grape varieties and French-centric styles to make wines with indigenous grapes such as obeideh and marweh. An organisation known as the Wine Mosaic is working to preserve indigenous grapes in the Mediterranean region.
I visited three vineyards in April. The first was Chateau Kefraya in the Bekaa valley at an average of 965 metres elevation. Fabrice Guiberzeau, originally from Cognac via Morocco, is the immensely talented winemaker. He said the wide diurnal range – the gap between the day’s highest and lowest temperatures – was the secret of growing grapes there.
The terroir varies from limestone to sand to rocks, with lots of iron. Grapes are not irrigated. The winery was established in 1978 with the first vintage in 1979. Only estate grapes are used. The site has 430 hectares, with 300 under vines.
Guiberzeau spends a lot of time in the vineyard: “You must live in the vineyard to make great wine. The key is great fruit.”
A feature of the vineyard is the hypogea – Roman tombs discovered when vines were first planted. The site is very rocky and dynamite was used to break up the rocks. They founders discovered Kefraya was built on the site of a Roman village with a large number of tombs.
Guiberzeau offered a range of barrel samples. A highlight was a 2012 carmenere with 20 per cent syrah that was quite magnificent, redolent of dark fruits and spices.
Guiberzeau also made a 2012 cabernet sauvignon matured separately in French and American oak. Despite the fact it was the same vintage and the same grape and winemaking process, they seemed like different wines.
We tasted a 2012 chardonnay matured for 18 months in Moreau new French oak that was nutty and delicious, with aromas of apricots and pears. “There are no rules when it comes to ageing wine in oak,” Guiberzeau said, “you just have to taste it regularly until you know it’s ready to be bottled.”
Another delight was a 2011 blend of chardonnay (60 per cent) and viognier, also matured for 18 months in new oak. The former provides minerality, toastiness and pineapple aromas while the latter offered texture and a sense of power and size.
The 2010 bend of cabernet sauvignon (70 per cent) and syrah was due to be bottled in April 2014. It is a superb wine – a mass of perfume and dark fruits encased in a framework of quality tannin from 100 per cent new oak. It feels like a new world wine, such is the intensity of the fruit. This is a wine that be a sensation in two decades. “It is important to respect the fruit,” Guiberzeau said, noting that he spent three months trying to find the best balance of grapes for this wine.
Another highlight was his Nectar de Kefraya, a wonderfully concentrated dessert wine that will delight palates around the world. Try it with a strong blue cheese, or perhaps foie gras if you like that kind of food.
The next visit was Chateau Ksara. Jesuit priests founded Ksara in 1857 but in 1973 the then government forced them to sell to a local company. It has the largest collection of natural caves of any vineyard in Lebanon. The Roman used the caves to store wine 3,000 years ago.
The caves, about 8 to 12 metres underground, are natural refrigerators. They maintain a constant temperature of between 11-13C all year round, with 80 per cent humidity. A fungus grows in the humidity that helps to preserve wine.
Winemaker James Palge has been with Ksara since 1994. Ksara produces almost three million bottles a year, the largest output of any Lebanese vineyard, and exports about 40 per cent of that total.
I enjoyed all but one of the 10 wines I tasted. Highlight of the visit was when Palge opened a bottle of 1942 white made by the Jesuits. It was still alive and tasted of coffee and walnuts, and was almost a spiritual experience.
Next week’s column will talk more about Ksara and the third vineyard I visited, Chateau Musar, one of Lebanon’s oldest and best-known vineyards.
* Stephen Quinn travelled to Lebanon courtesy of HORECA, the main food and wine conference in the region.
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