In The Beginning

I like a challenge so, when I got an email asking about a tasting mentioning all the Biblical references to wine and suggesting that, as a result, countries like Israel and Lebanon must have some interesting old vineyards, it sounded like a great theme. And I took the idea a stage further and included wines from other countries with long wine histories including Georgia; archaeological evidence suggests that might have been the first country in the world where wine was actually made, some 8000 years ago. The title I gave to the tasting: ‘In the Beginning’.

Traditionally, Georgian wine was made in qvevris – clay pots that were filled with grapes, sealed and buried in the ground for several months while the fermentation took place. That process is still in use there – and elsewhere, as those who read my last blog, ‘Clay Pots or Lunch’ will know.

Georgian white

But not all Georgian wine is made in this way and the example we tasted, Schuchmann’s Mtsvane (Wine Society, £11.50), is tank fermented. The native Mtsvane grape gave this white an attractive freshness and herbiness and a pleasant underlying richness, with delicately nutty hints on the finish from brief ageing in oak barrels.

Israel’s wines are not widely available in the UK, so I was pleased to pick up a bottle of Recanati’s Carignan/Petite Sirah in Marks and Spencer’s for £10.

Israeli red

This red, from the Judean Hills, west of Jerusalem, was lighter than I expected based on the blend of grapes, but very fruity and flavoursome and easily drinkable nevertheless.

Ksara red

The Ksara Reserve du Couvent, a Cabernet/Syrah blend from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley (Wine Society, £10.50) was altogether chunkier and more full-bodied and would have benefitted from being tasted with robust food and, probably, from decanting, too. But it was a very appropriate wine for an ‘In the Beginning’ tasting as the monks at Ksara were instrumental in introducing new French vine varieties and production methods into Lebanon in the mid-19th century, creating the basis of the modern wine industry in the country.

So, something that started as an unusual challenge ended, by general agreement, as a thoroughly enjoyable and interesting tasting.

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Lebanon’s Heroic Wines

musar 4 (2)The wine world has many stories of triumph over adversity yet, surely, the most remarkable is that of Chateau Musar.  Musar’s vineyards are in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and its winery just outside Beirut, a couple of hours drive away over the mountains.  As a result, more than half of the vintages since 1975 have been made in a war zone or, at least, with the threat of war close by.  So, it is a truly heroic achievement that, in all that time, only 1 year has been missed.

And, when you taste the wines, as I did recently with the Bristol Tasting Circle, this desire to survive comes through.  Few of Musar’s wines are designed for drinking young.  The reds we tasted went as far back as 1996, the whites to 1991 and even the rosés – elsewhere often made for drinking within a year or so of the vintage – included a bottle from 2004.

The key to this longevity is a mixture of the growing conditions and the winemaking.  Although the Bekaa Valley sits at a warm latitude of 34˚N, its altitude – over 1000m (3000ft) above sea level – gives cool nights which help to retain the acidity in the organically-grown grapes – a vital element in making these full-bodied wines so well balanced. 

In the winery, everything is done with minimal intervention: indigenous yeasts, little added sulphur, no fining or filtering; simply harvest clean, ripe grapes and then let the natural processes do the rest.

The reds we tasted – interestingly before the whites – were mainly based around southern French varieties, particularly Cinsault and Carignan with a little Cabernet Sauvignon added, while the distinctive, spicy and honeyed dry whites were made from 2 local specialities, Obaideh and Merwah (although Jancis Robinson MW suggests that they may really be Chardonnay and Semillon, respectively).

This was a fascinating tasting of some unique and heroic wines.  All are available from local independent wine merchant ‘The Little Tipple’, email norman@littletipple.co.uk for details and prices.

 

Lebanon’s Bristol Connection

lebanon-btcLebanon isn’t one of the world’s largest wine producing countries nor, for many consumers, one of the best-known, but it’s certainly one of the oldest with a history going back to ancient times.  During the Middle Ages, Lebanese wines were highly regarded and widely traded but, once the region was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, winemaking was restricted to that needed for religious purposes only.

Thanks to the Jesuits, things improved during the latter half of the 19th century and wine was again exported.  But it wasn’t until an event in Bristol – yes! Bristol – that Lebanese wine really hit the headlines internationally. 

The date was 1979 and, at Bristol’s Wine Fair that year, Serge Hochar took a stand to promote his wine, Chateau Musar.  At the time, no-one in England had heard of Musar, but influential writer Michael Broadbent tasted it and declared it the ‘discovery of the Fair’.  That opened the gates for Lebanese wine and they have been open ever since.

So, when the Bristol Tasting Circle announced that writer Michael Karam, surely one of Lebanon’s best wine ambassadors, was to host a tasting, I knew it was not to be missed.  And, just to prove that Lebanon is so much more than just Musar, he brought along wines from 6 other estates.

The whites were more aromatic than might be expected from the warm latitude in which they are grown but the Bekaa Valley stands at an altitude of over 1000m (3000ft) which clearly has a cooling effect.  Blends mainly involved well-known grape varieties such as Chardonnay, Viognier and Muscat, although local speciality Obeideh added spice and a certain exotic character where it was used.

The reds were generally based around southern French varieties – Syrah, Cinsault and Grenache – plus Cabernet Sauvignon and, while mainly quite chewy and robust in style, all showed good depth of fruit and an attractive lightness of touch.

It was difficult to pick a favourite from so many delicious wines but, perhaps Ksara’s Reserve du Couvent Red just edged it for me.  But, in truth, the real winner on the night was Michael Karam, himself, whose justifiable passion for his country and its wines shone through for all to see.