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Please note: in 2012 wine-pages published an updated, in-depth report on the wines of Lebanon. View it here: Lebanon: land of hope and opportunity.

The Lebanon

by Michael Karam, 06/06

It has become a creaking cliché. Mention Lebanese wine and invariably someone will offer an opinion on Château Musar. Lebanese wine and Musar are practically synonymous, but Musar's wines are so idiosyncratic, that there's a danger those who can't abide them (about as many as as those who genuflect at the name) will form an impression that all Lebanese wines are produced in the same style. I will quote someone I met in London recently: "old fashioned, high VA, smelling-of-old-socks."

Thankfully, Hochar is out there by himself: individual and brave; loved and loathed in equal measure. But there are now around 20 producers (compared to five in 1993) turning out 'modern' wines of a high quality.

The message may be taking time to filter through, but Lebanon is no longer a one wine country. I have chosen some favourite producers, in a selection of thumbnail sketches listed in no particular order.

For all UK stockists of Lebanese wines click here. For US stockists click here

Château Ksara


The country's oldest winery will be celebrating its 150th birthday in 2007. A household name in Lebanon for the second half of the 20th century, the 1975-90 civil war caused the winery's fortunes to dip until the early '90s, when new investors and a new general manager stopped the rot. Today it produces two million bottles annually - six reds, four whites and two rosés, as well as Lebanon's bestselling arak (an aniseed-based eau de vie similar to ouzo). The mid-priced Cabernet-based Reserve du Couvent is the top seller, but my choice is the sumptuous Château Ksara 2001, a Cabernet, Merlot, Petit Verdot blend that is supple and smooth with a nose of strawberries and cherries over hot cinnamon. Also, if you can find it in the UK, try the Gamay/Tempranillo Cuvee de Printemps for serious summer quaffing. Stockists include: Casevalue.com, everywine.co.uk, Handford, Noel Young, SBN Wine, Le Vigneron, Vintage House.

Château Kefraya


Slightly behind Château Ksara in terms of production (1.8 million bottles). Owned by the charismatic Druze politician Walid Jumblat, who bought a controlling stake from the De Bustros family in the late '80s, Kefraya first came to international prominence with its 'Parkerised' Cabernet/Syrah Comte de M 1996, the first wine to properly step out of Musar's shadow. Today, the winery produces nine wines. The classy, but in my opinion overpriced, Comte de M aside, I plump for the Cabernet, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvedre, Château Kefraya 2001, which is equally as silky and complex as its senior stable mate. The excellent Blanc de Blanc is also worth a spin. Stockists include: Eton Vintners, James Nicholson, Handford.
 

Château Musar


Musar needs no introduction, but readers may not be as familiar with the Hochar Pére et Fils 2000, Musar's second and, according to Serge Hochar, “more accessible” creation. A Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan blend, it is, as with all Hochar's wines, one that you will either love or dismiss as an anachronism (or worse). I like it. A nose of rain on wood, tobacco and oranges, while in the mouth, it is all berries and chocolate. One really should sample the eccentric, trippy and generally thought-provoking 'Château' whites and the chocolaty Cuvée Réserve Rosé. Stockists include: Arthur Rackham, Handford, Martinez, Nickolls & Perks, Portland, Raeburn, Villeneuve, Wine Raks.

Massaya


A boutique winery founded by Ramzi and Sami Ghosn and their high-profile French partners - the Brunier brothers and Dominic Hébrard - in the mid '90s. The wines have matched their youthful, sexy and exciting image with a slew of plaudits for their three reds, two whites and a rosé, which in record time have broken into the upper echelons of the French and UK markets (in Paris they can be found at the Ritz, Le Crillion and the Georges V). Try the Reserve Silver Selection, a Rhone-style wine made with Syrah and Grenache. It has a nose of ripe, dry fruits that becomes sweeter and fruitier on the mouth. Also mentioned in various dispatches is the senior Gold Reserve, a Cabernet Sauvignon-driven, Bordeaux-style wine. Stockists include: Arthur Rackham, Hedley-Wright, James Nicholson, Noel Young, Roberson, Uncorked, Wine Society.
 

Domaine Wardy


Wardy has a portfolio of 12 wines, including five varietals and a very gluggable, Christmas blend. Owner Selim Wardy has now produced what he calls a Private Selection red from Syrah and Cabernet picked from what he tells me is the highest vineyard (1,700m) in the Middle East, using the lowest yield (20 to 25 hl per ha). When all the marketing dust has settled, what we have is a terrifically suave wine that, while a little pricey, is a fine ambassador for the new generation of Lebanese wines. There is a Private Selection white, made from Viognier and Muscat, possessing excellent acidity and with a terrific nose of mango, peach, and nuts. UK stockists not known.

Cave Kouroum


This is a Kefraya winery that produces ten wines under the careful eye of the colorful, hippy winemaker Yves Morard, who did so much to put the neighbouring Château Kefraya on the map in the '80s and early '90s. His Syrah/Cabernet Sauvignon, weighing in at a whopping 14.5% alcohol, recently won a brace of prizes at Vin Expo. Still a little too playful, it has the structure to carry it along and allow the full spectrum of flavors to develop. Morard is from the Rhone and this gutsy wine shows his roots. Also worth a try are the Sept Cépages and Rouge de Nuit. UK stockists not known.
 

Clos St Thomas


The Touma family made their name in Arak. In the mid '90s they moved into wine production proper and the result was Clos St Thomas (Touma is Arabic for Thomas). The flagship Château is a beefy monster of a wine but pound-for-pound I believe their best wine is Les Emirs, which, if you can move beyond the label (that at first glance looks like a prog-rock album cover), is a boisterous Cabernet/Grenache blend that bombards the nose with coffee, tobacco and vanilla, while dripping cherries and spices in the mouth. The Chardonnay 2004 is also a revelation. This producer's day in the sun is long overdue. Stockists include: Eton Vintners.

Domaine des Tourelles


Lebanon's second oldest producer. It may produce what is arguably the finest arak in the world, but recent wines have failed to impress. The new owners and the new winemaker, Gerard D'Hautville, have taken giants steps to remedy this. The result is a wine that does justice to the winery's heritage. Le Marquis des Beys has a fabulous nose, awash with plums, blackcurrant, tobacco and spices. It is still a bit youthful, but has great structure and cracking tannin content. If Domaine des Tourelles can be consistent and hold onto D'Hautville, this is my tip for future greatness. UK stockists not known.
 

Other producers

Heritage is a micro-winery owned by another Touma, Dargham, or Dr D as his label proclaims. I recommend his Grand Vin Bourgeois. It is elegant, rounded, and fruity, underpinned with spices.

Château Fakra is a small producer in Mount Lebanon. Its top wine is Selection Privée 2001, a very classy and correct Cabernet Sauvignon.

Clos de Qana is a new winery, located in Ras al Harf in the Lamartine Valley. The Château de Cana 2001 is an absolute knockout Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah, awash with liquorice, berries, thyme and even a hint of sumac.

Moving to Jdeita in the Bekaa, Vin Nakad is one of Lebanon's oldest producers. My favorite is the Château 2000, a sturdy, medium-bodied wine that has developed a pleasing suppleness with notes of popcorn and jam.

The Karam Winery and Château Belle-Vue produce less than 50,000 bottles between them, but the results are impressive: Belle-Vue, got a listing in the latest edition of Sotheby's Wine Encyclopedia for its second tier Renaissance, a blend of Cabernet and Merlot, brimming with the usual fruity and spicy suspects, while Karam's flagship St John, a Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah blend has a nose that is a tsunami of caramel and fruits and which possesses the structure and tannins to hint at delicious promise.

Finally there is Nabise Mont Liban. I like the Château 2002 which is made from Cabernets Sauvignon and Franc, Merlot and Syrah. It has aroma's of framboise, musk and hints of vanilla, while it is silky and long in the mouth.

For all UK stockists of Lebanese wines click here. For US stockists click here

Visiting the Bekaa Valley




Today there are at least six wineries in the Bekaa Valley where visitors are regularly welcome. Combined with visits to the Roman ruins at Baalbek and Anjar, the town of Zahleh, the tomb of Noah in Kerak, the marshlands of Amiq, the Jesuit monastery at Tanail and Lake Qaroun, they make for a full day's excursion.

Château Ksara has been making wine since 1857, a tradition started by the Jesuit brothers. The estate is a rich source of Bekaa history. It is home to the first observatory in the Middle East and has two kilometres of Roman passages now used as the winery's cellars. Ksara offers guided tours. There is a tasting room and a gift shop as well as a sound and light show in various languages. Tel: +961 08 813495/818254

Located on the Chtaura main road just past the Massabki Hotel, is Domaine Des Tourelles. A phone call to Christiane Issa, giving at least 24 hours notice, will guarantee a tour of one of the oldest wineries in the Bekaa (with many of the original features that date back to the turn of the century) culminating with a tasting in the winery's garden, where Christiane will also offer you her special concoction of triple sec served in a chocolate cup. Tel: +961 03 775943.

Massaya serves country-style lunches made from Bekaa produce and prepared by local cooks. The lunches are served all year round - indoors in winter around a huge roaring fire, and in the gardens in spring, summer and autumn - and the all-in price of around £12 includes unlimited wine and arak. In the summer there are open-air blues concerts, fuelled by Ramzi Ghosn's arak jellies. Bookings required. Tel: +961 08 510135

For a day trip to the picturesque Western Bekaa, start with Clos St Thomas, located at the far end of Qab Elias in the West Bekaa. Either Sayeed Touma, his daughters or at the very least someone from the staff will let you taste the six wines. Said also makes a port-like liqueur, and if you are very lucky he may let you taste his brandy. Tel: +961 08 500812. Then head south, taking a leisurely drive past the beautiful swamps at Amiq and the billowing silver birches that line the crop fields to Cave Kouroum. The Rahal family, which owns the winery, has plans to open a restaurant and motel by the spring, but for the time being the tasting room is up and running. Just show up. Tel: +961 05 953401. A few kilometres further south is Château Kefraya, with its manicured lawns, tasting room and highly rated restaurant. There is an extensive menu and wines are sold at off-trade prices. Bookings required during the summer and holiday periods. Tel: +961 08 645333