Chateau Ksara is the oldest continuous winemaking operation in Lebanon.
Jesuit priests founded Ksara in 1857, and this religious and teaching order continued to make wine until 1973 when a local consortium purchased the estate.
Ksara has the largest output of any Lebanese vineyard, producing almost three million bottles a year. It exports about 40 per cent of that total, higher than the national export average of about 30 per cent.
The chateau has the largest area of natural caves of any vineyard in Lebanon. The caves are about 8 to 12 metres below ground, and are natural refrigerators. They maintain a constant temperature of between 11-13 degrees Celsius all year round, with 80 per cent humidity. A fungus grows in the humidity that helps to preserve wine.
James Palge has been one of Ksara’s winemakers since 1994 after arriving from France. He is also the technical director.
A highlight of my visit occurred when Palge opened a 1942 white made by the Jesuits. The bottle was covered in fungus that needed to be removed before the wine was presented. It was a majestic sweet wine, smelling and tasting of coffee and walnuts, and could almost be described as a spiritual experience.
Ksara is available in most restaurants in Lebanon, and is served on the national carrier Middle East Airlines. I tasted their 2012 blanc de blancs on my flight to Beirut. It is a blend of 50 per cent sauvignon blanc, 30 per cent semillon and 20 per cent chardonnay, and the best-selling white in Lebanon. It is easy to see why this delicate and floral wine is so popular.
Another memorable wine was the 2012 gris de gris, a blend of carignan and grenache gris. It is delicate yet has splendid acid zing combined with aromas and flavours of green apples and flowers.
The flagship wine is the Le Souverain, a 50:50 blend of cabernet sauvignon and arinarnoa. The latter is a hybrid of merlot and petit verdot developed in 1956.
The 2008 vintage is the current release and is majestic. Huge aromas of blackberries, chocolate, carob and liquorice greet the nose before subtle yet perfumed textures adorn the mouth. A wine to keep for decades for special occasions.
Elie Maamari is the chief winemaker at Chateau Ksara. His first vintage working alone was in 1982, at the height of the civil war. Maamari is proud that even during the war years (1975-1990) the vineyard produced a vintage every year.
Currently Lebanon has about 2,000 hectares under vine. Maamari believes the industry needs to focus on quality because the maximum vineyard surface available in Lebanon is only 3,000 hectares. “That is why quality is very important since we can never compete with volume.”
Another of the best-known vineyards in Lebanon is Chateau Musar, founded in 1930. Gaston Hochar is the general manager, and grandson of the founder. They share the same name.
The winery is in the Ghazir area north of Beirut and overlooks the hills and bright blue waters around the town of Jounieh. Most grapes come from vines that received organic certification.
Musar produces four levels in descending order: Chateau Musar, Hochar Père et Fils, Cuvée Musar and Jeunesse. Most of the levels consist of a white, a rosé and a red. All wines are blends. The reds and rose tend to use traditional international grapes while the whites employ indigenous varieties.
Jeunesse means young and these are intended to be consumed early. At the other end of the spectrum, the Chateau Musar wines are only available after a long time in the cellar. Musar releases its flagship white after eight years, while the red is available after seven years.
A colleague, Quentin Sadler, and I tasted the 2007 red, the current vintage, then a 1998 and a 1977. The 2007 red is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, carignan and cinsault. Think flavours of mocha, black fruits, spices and herbs like wild thyme (known locally as “zattar”) encased in an elegant structure of soft tannins.
The white is a blend of obeideh (66 per cent) and merwah, the two most common indigenous grapes. The 2006 is the current release.
These two white grapes are also used for arak, the local anise-flavoured spirit. Huge bags of aniseed sat near the entrance of the winery when we visited, giving the place a playful smell as we walked around.
I love the aromas of the Chateau Musar red and white. The reds have a funky and earthy nose and are very distinctive. Indeed, while judging in Beirut I found it easy to identify the Musar red in a blind tasting. A feature of the white is the way the flavours and aromas change each time one approaches the glass.
Musar only uses natural yeasts and Gaston Hochar was at pains to emphasise that there was no formula to Musar’s flagship wines. “We let the wines makes themselves,” he said modestly. But such joy is no accident.
We tasted a range of barrel samples from 2013 that will make up the flagship red: cabernet sauvignon, carignan and cinsault. Separately they are fascinating but combined they work a special magic.
Musar reds have become cult wines. Museum releases command high prices. For example, the 1977 Chateau Musar red sold for £3.99 a bottle when released in the United Kingdom in 1984. It currently sells for $US 420 a bottle at the winery. The 1996 vintage sells for $US 990 a bottle.
Limited space means I cannot mention other fine wines from estates such as Karam Winery, Chateau Naka, Chateau Florentine and Ixsir. Lebanese wine exudes quality.
* Stephen Quinn travelled to Lebanon courtesy of HORECA, the main food and wine conference in the region.