THE NEXT GREAT THING

To say that my experiences with wines from the Middle East have not been good is an understatement.   While in Israel I tasted mediocre wines at a Kibbutz, in Morocco I quickly switched from wine to Flag Spéciale (a pilsner brewed by the Castel Group) and the wine served while cruising the Nile had more in common with battery acid than any wine that I’ve ever tasted.   So, my expectations were not very high when I attended a tasting of Lebanese wines at the Astor Center as part of the 1st annual New York City Lebanese Wine Day.

First, a little history.   Lebanon is one of the oldest wine producing regions in the world and has been making wine for over 5,000 years.  They are currently  experiencing unprecedented growth since the end of the Lebanese civil war in 1990.   While there are three major wine regions, over 75% of the production is in the Bekaa Valley, a fertile plateau in eastern Lebanon, about 50 miles from the coast.  According to Eddy Naim, the managing partner at Chateau Qanafar, “The more qualitative vineyards are found on the western mountain range of the valley, where the vineyards face east to capture the morning sun.  The other noteworthy aspect of Lebanon’s terroir is its soil, 80% of which is limestone, one of the most sought after soils for growing grapes.”

1 IMG_6185The first table I went to was Domaine Des Tourelles.   Turns out that was a good place to start, as they are the oldest producer in Lebanon and have been making wine continuously since 1868 when Frenchman Francois-Eugene Brun founded the winery in the Bekaa Valley.  While they are the oldest producer, they have one of the youngest winery teams. Their winemaker, Faouzi E. Issa, is one of the youngest in the region having made his first vintage at the age of 25.  Faouzi has a background as an agricultural engineer and graduated in Oenology from Supagro de Montpellier, a French Institute for studying agricultural science.   After working at Chateau Margaux and Rotie Rostaing wineries in Bordeaux, he returned to Lebanon.  Faouzi clarifies, “The managerial team is formed by four young men, all in their thirties, they bring energy and innovation to the long established winemaking tradition at Domaine des Tourelles.”   And while they still respect the French winemaking culture, they are more confident about doing things their own way, like going natural and experimenting with new wines, like the new 100% Cinsault.    I started my tasting with a pair of whites from 2015: Marquis des Beys (100% Chardonnay) and the Domaine Des Tourelles (a blend of Viognier, Chardonnay, Muscat and Obaeideh).     I then moved to the 2014 Vielles Vignes Red, a wine from their oldest wines which was being launched at the event.    This wine was 100% Cinsault, a red grape whose tolerance for heat makes it a good choice in the Languedoc-Roussillon of France, Corsica and the former French colonies of Algeria and Morocco.   The wine was not just surprisingly good, but downright delicious.   An excellent introduction to the wines of Lebanon!

4 IMG_6177My next stop was the Batroun Mountains in the northwest corner of Lebanon, where I tasted the wines of Batroun Mountains Winery, another family owned winery.   My discussions with Assaad Hark, winemaker and proprietor at Batroun Mountains zeroed in on high altitude vines.   Assad explains: “High altitude is crucial for producing balanced mature grapes in Lebanon. But there are also challenges with the vineyard being in such a remote location:  it can be time consuming and rough on equipment due to the difficult terrain.   Assaad, who earned his winemaking education at UC Davis, spent most of his adult years in the United States and was influenced by the American style of winemaking.  This he combines with French tradition.  Here I went with their white wines and tried their Riesling and their Chardonnay, both from 2015 and both quite delicious.   A far cry from my earlier experiences with wines from the region.

3 IMG_6180Chateau Qanafar was next, a family owned winery with most of their vineyards at an average altitude of 4,000 feet.  George A. Naim, Chairman of Qanafar, continued the discussion of growing grapes at a high altitude.  “The dryness of the mountains result in high concentrations of flavors and aromas in the grapes and eventually in the wines. The mountains vineyards are less prone to frost than the floor of the valley and the cool weather at night in the mountains is ideal for allowing the vine to convert the energy it took during the warm day into pleasant flavors.    Because of the altitude of our vineyards, they are not prone to diseases as much as those vineyards facing the sea where there is a humid atmosphere.  As a result there is much less of a need to spray with insecticides.”  Managing Partner Eddy Naim adds: “The altitude helps compensate for the warm summer weather; our daytime temperatures average around 90 F but at night it can drop to the 60s, and this lower temperature helps preserve the natural acidity of the grapes.  The result is well-ripened berries bringing intense fruity flavors balanced by a crisp acidity, helping us avoid flabby or jammy wines.”      As for the wines tasted, I tried the 2015 Blanc de Qanafar White, a Sauvignon Blanc and the Chateau Qanafar Red, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah.   As with my previous tastings, these wines continued to heighten my opinion of Lebanese wines and winemaking.

IMG_6172I ended my tasting with the wines of Atibaia, a small producer in North Lebanon.  Atibaia is a family-owned winery located in the mountains above Batroun and was established in 2005.   In the tradition of Bordeaux, they grow three grape varities: Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Petit Verdot, which are blended together.   While they only make one wine, their Bordeaux Blend, three years were available at the tasting, so I was able to do a vertical tasting of 2010-2012.  While I was chatting with the pourer, expressing my opinion of Lebanese wine in general (surprisingly good) and the wines of Atibaia in particular (all were good, though I preferred the 2011) I noticed her name tag read Jennifer Massoud.   I know that name!   “Are you by any chance any relation to the Massouds of Paumanok Vineyards on the North Fork of Long Island?” I asked.  “Yes,” she responded, “Charles and Kareem are cousins.”   Small world!   I’ve been tasting wines at Paumanok since the day they opened their tasting room in 1983 and have been chatting about vines and wines with owner Charles and current winemaker Kareem ever since.

Jennifer is responsible for everything at Atibaia, except for the winemaking.  That includes marketing, export, communications and tourism.  While not currently involved in the winemaking, she would like to learn more and just acquired a degree in wine and spirits from Kedge University in Bordeaux.   Jennifer has witnessed a surge in the past ten years in small producers in Lebanon that produce quality wines which have given a boost to the entire industry.  “We are seeing more and more interesting things coming from Lebanon and the export market is growing.”   As for inroads into the US market, Faouzi of Domaine des Tourelles, thinks it is inevitable: “We have a great terroir, a great history, great wines and a great story.”   As for the US market, “We think that our wines, with their uniqueness and the quality, will certainly make successful inroads into the United States and attract wine lovers to discover and enjoy them.”  So far the initial feedback has been encouraging.

It is here, in Lebanon, that ancient history, French tradition and modern winemaking techniques combine together to form a new exciting wine region.   Which is an odd thing to say, since they started making wine 2,000 years before the birth of Alexander the Great.  But for the American consumer they are quite new.  Only time will tell if the wines of Lebanon become the next great thing in the American wine market.   But as for me, it’s the next great thing on my list of wines to try.

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