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Lebanon Part II

Text and Photographs ©2012 Tom Cannavan

This is part II of a major profile of Lebanon and its wines. Go to Lebanon Part I for maps, background, history and profiles of three more Châteaux: Musar, Ksara and St Thomas.

The Bekaa Valley, continued

DOMAINE DES TOURELLES

Domaine des Tourelles is one of Lebanon's oldest wineries, founded in the 1860s by a young French engineer named François-Eugene Brun. Based in Lebanon to work on building the Beirut to Damascus road, he settled in the village of Chtaura, said to have reminded him of his birthplace in southern France. In 1865, at the age of 24, he planted a vineyard on a plot of land next door to the village house of his boss on the engineering project. 1868 saw his first vintage.

three family members Having married a French woman living locally, François-Eugene went on to have five children, and successive generations of Bruns continued at the Domaine until 2000, when Pierre-Louis Brun died without children. Relatives were sought amongst the Lebanese Diaspora, and eventually the Domaine (which had other established Lebanese estate's queuing up to buy it) was sold to two families, Nayla Kanaan Issa-el-Khoury and Elie F. Issa. The Issa's children lived in the village and had grown up knowing 'uncle Pierre' and today two of them, Christiane in charge of marketing and Faouzi in charge of winemaking run the domaine along with Emile Issa-el-Khoury (left of picture).

The two families farm the 20 hectares of vineyard around the winery in the village of Chtaura, plus another 80 hectares under contract. Christiane talks fondly of 'uncle Pierre', and proudly points out two old, browning and faded certificates on the wall - a gold medal in Paris and Bronze medal London both from the 1890s, and the first international medals for Lebanese wines in competition.

Walking through the vineyards, still under a foot of snow from recent storms, Faouzi tells me he trained in Oenology at the University of Montpellier, as did founder François-Eugene Brun. One of his main projects has been choosing the terroir carefully for each variety: "Grapes like Cabernet need longer hanging times, with gravels over clay to retain some water." With dry summer weather and little disease, he does not use synthetic chemicals.

old equipment As we reach the winery it is clear this is part functional building, part museum. Other than the lab for testing wines and some swanky, refurbished barrel rooms, the equipment and building look as if they have not been touched in 100 years, which it appears is close to the truth: "Old equipment makes great wine," Faouzi enthuses "If you look at our walls and ceilings you will also see we are a dusty winery - we love dust, it is an anti-oxidant, a disinfectant. It encourages wild yeasts and the population is strong." The tanks are very old concrete, lined with epoxy and even without cooling they maintain 15ºC even when summer temperature is 30c outside. "When we changed the old wooden doors in the tanks for stainless steel it took six hours to cut through each 30cm thick wall of the old, very hard concrete." The photo shows some of the latest gadgets in the winery.

The range of wines and Araks here is very good indeed, the old equipment certainly making good - and modern - wines. They have five wines in their portfolio, but a Chardonnay mono varietal will be bottled for the first time this year. Faouzi finishes by laying down the four things that he says are the 'secret' of Domaine des Tourelles: "Concrete tanks; Indigenous yeast, Indigenous terroir; Indigenous winemaker."

for tasting notes on 13 wines from Domaine des Tourelles

CHATEAU KEFRAYA

fabrice Château Kefraya is another major estate of the Bekaa Valley, farming 121 hectares on the foothills of Mount Barouk, 20k south of the town of Chtaura. The vineyards are planted in a series of terraces and slopes, at an altitude between 950 and 1100 meters. The soils are clay-limestone, some very rocky. It is an estate that is very well set-up for visitors, including an excellent restaurant. The winery is truly state-of-the-art, including optical automatic sorting of grapes and full temperature control: it is perhaps the most modern and technically well-equipment winery I saw on my tour.

Kefraya was established in 1951 by its owner Michel de Bustros, the winery built on a man-made hill constructed by the Romans to house a fort. The fallow land was ploughed and rocks blasted to create the terraces and the largest contiguous vineyard in Lebanon. Kefraya only sold its grapes until 1979, before starting to make wine. Today they take grapes from a total of 430 hectares in the Kefraya region, including contracted vineyards under their total control. I met up with French winemaker Fabrice Guiberteau (pictured), who arrived here via a very circuitous route during the 2006 war when Beirut was a no-go area.

Fabrice explained that there is no irrigation at Kefraya - it is all dry farmed. "It is important to make each vintage according to the rain and vintage conditions," he says, and whilst farming is not organic, synthetic chemicals are rarely used and only as a last resort. Forty percent of the vineyard is trained in free-standing gobolet, with 60% on wires though by world standards planting is not dense at 3.3 thousand plants per hectare. "Vinification is basically 'Bordelais'," says Fabrice using wooden vats of 6000 litres and steel vats of 15000 litres (replacing much bigger steel tanks since he arrived).

gardens Though Mr de Bustros was not there on my visit, his personality is everywhere. His love of opera and the arts is celebrated, including on the bottles: each year the white wine is named after an operatic heroine, whilst the label is from an original work by a Lebanese woman artist. From the acres of immaculately tended gardens, to the fine restaurant, to the gallery of Lebanese art, it is clear that having hewn his vineyards from the rocks and built his business through a period of great uncertainty for the country, Kefraya is his personal vision realised. (Photo courtesy Château Kefraya).

for tasting notes on 15 wines from Château Kefraya

CHATEAU KA

Jean and Ghida This was a visit full of interest. Château Ka is a tiny part of a huge fruit juice, jam and alco-pop production plant belonging to the Kassatly family (whose products are a household name in Lebanon). Though current owner Akram Kassatly "realised a dream," when he launched the winery next door to the beverage factory in 2005, in fact his father, Nicolas Kassatly, had established a wine operation as far back as 1919. Indeed, Akram's own attempts to establish a winery had more than one false start.

I met with Akram's daughter, marketing manager Ghida Kassatly and young winemaker Jean Tannoury (pictured), who trained at Dijon wine school in Burgundy as had Akram in 1968. They told me the story of how Akram returned to Lebanon from France and together with his brother bought a vineyard in the village of Chtaura and spent five years building up a business. Their first release under the Kassatly Chtaura label was in 1974.

bottle However, that year also saw political tensions rise in Lebanon and within a year the destructive 1975 - 1990 civil war had broken out, leading to the virtual breakdown of Lebanon with the militia looting the winery and destroying the tanks. It was not until the war ended in the early 1990s that the Kassatly's slowly began to rebuild the business, but this time taking a strategic decision to make fruit beverages, syrups and carbonated drinks as a "less costly and less risky investment."

In fact, the new Kassatly Chtaura business was so successful that in 2005 Akram had the courage to start producing wine once again. Initially buying a few acres of vineyard around the winery, production has gradually increased through contracts with local farmers and vineyards, ramping up production to 500,000 litres, quickly making them one of Lebanon's bigger players. Today, 75 hectares of their own vineyards have been planted and these are now estate wines with no bought-in fruit. Almost all of the plantings are deep in Hezbollah territory around the temple of Baalbek, and I asked Ghida if this presented any problems. "many of the farmers working for us there are Muslim," she told me. "Indeed all of our employees are Lebanese, which helps be accepted in the Hezbollah area." "But it is no problem growing grapes there," confirmed Jean, "There is no fermentation or wine making, just farming."

As we walked around the winery I noticed that all of the barrels for ageing are larger 300-litre barrels rather than the 225-litre size of Bordeaux. Jean confesses that he is toning down his use of oak, with shorter maturations too. The vast majority of barrels are French oak, with a little American too. Château Ka is one of three wineries (along with Château Ksara and Domaine des Tourelles) who will have a wine stocked by Marks & Spencer from May 2012, a source of obvious pride for Ghida and Jean.

for tasting notes on six wines from Château Ka

Outside the Bekaa Valley

map The long, elevated Bekaa Valley that runs southwest to northeast between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon Mountains is by far the most important vineyard area in Lebanon. Around 90% of all wine production emenates from there, and almost all wineries take fruit from there. But there are a few other sizeable pockets of grape growing, some on the opposite slopes of the mountains towards the coast to the north, some much further south towards the border with Israel and some in the east, closer to the Syrian border.

My visit took in two wineries from these regions, travelling north from Beirut to the historic port of Byblos and, above it, the hills of Batroun which are now home to several boutique wineries including big money start-up, Ixsir. To the south around Jezzine, Château Karam has pioneered a modern wine industry though more growers are now operating in the area. As discussed above, Château Ka has planted all of its vineyards in the Hezbollah-controlled Baalbek area, though again others are now growing wine grapes there too.

IXSIR

hady Ixsir (the name is derived from "Elixir") is one of Lebanon's newest wineries, established in 2009 and with a brand new winery situated in the hills above Batroun in the Lebanon mountains.

Whilst Lebanon is dominated by traditional family wineries, Ixsir is something different. It has been established by a group of partners with clear international ambitions. Their new eco-friendly winery, still undergoing finishing touches at the time of my visit, has just been named as one of CNN's 'Greenest Buildings of 2011' and would not be out of place in the smartest quarters of Spain or France.

I met up with Hady Kahale (right) general manager of Ixsir and one of its founders, who showed me round the restored 400-year-old house that will soon be the visitor centre, and then down through a tunnel that connects it to the ultra-modern winery, buried in the hillside, roofed with turf (and soon a display vineyard), lit by skylights, harvesting rainwater and using minimal energy to run it. "It's a completely independent eco system," says Hady, "with water from its own well, recycling water for irrigation and all residues composted." They have just planted six hectares of vineyard immediately around the winery with Syrah and Petit Verdot, but have contracts with wine growers in the local Batroun region, the Bekaa Valley and around Jezzine in the South.

I was introduced to Ixsir's Spanish winemaker and partner in the business, Gaby Rivero, ex-technical director of Château Kefraya who also spent nine years as winemaker at Bordeaux's Château Sociando Mallet. There's a strong Bordeaux connection here as consultant is Hubert De Boüard of Château Angelus, and the 225 litre barrels for the winery came from Angelus for the first year of project. I noticed that newer barrels were of a much larger 400-litre size and Hady concedes that is a strategic move: "we don't like too much oak."

400 year old house Hady explains that growing grapes here on the western slopes of the Lebanon mountains has an ancient history: "Grapes have been grown here for 1000 years, but that stopped in 1500s when the Ottomans ruled and the mountain vineyards ceased production completely." The Lebanon ranges averages 2000 metres, and Ixsir has vineyards all over the valley and the hillsides. "Our Syrah comes from one of the highest vineyards in Lebanon at 1800 metres, planted into pure limestone rock with more or less no top soil," Hady tells me.

Today there are seven wineries in the Batroun region. "Everybody knows the Bekaa," says Hady, but Ixsir is focused on this area: the initial six hectares of planting will be expand in time as one of the estate's owners has substantial land in the area. They have planted at a density of 7000 plants per hectare, whilst the Lebanese average is closer to 3000. The hillside is limestone, and the only problem Hady can foresee is the "50 winds", hot summer winds blowing from the desert that in 2010 saw 40% of the grape crop lost as temperatures topped 40ºC for three solid weeks.

for tasting notes on seven wines from Ixsir

Karam winery

habib karam The Karam winery is a boutique project producing only around 60,000 bottles. It is the only winery based in the south of the country with its vineyards in the Jezzine area. However, this is another historical vineyard region with records of viticulture here going back to pre-Roman times. The winery is the joint venture between two brothers who grew up on an ancestral vine estate. Elder brother Habib (pictured with his family) is the driving force. The senior pilot with Middle East Airlines by day, he says that "after frequently gazing down on the vineyards I decided to realise my dream of winemaking." Habib's younger brother Ousama is a grape, fruit and wine importer and distributor in the USA.

The Lebanon mountain vineyards are around an hour and a half's drive south of Beirut. At an altitude of 1400 metres, soils range from hot, dry gravel to moist loam. As pioneers of modern day winemaking in Jezzine, the Karam brothers thirst for adventure and risk-taking means this is also one of Lebanon's most experimental estates too.

wines As well as growing the palette of Bordeaux and Southern French grapes like Muscat, Viognier, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc for whites; Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot and Petit Verdot for reds, they have also planted Albariño, Touriga Nacional and Graciano. The packaging and branding is equally quirky, with "Cloud Nine" and "Arc-En-Ciel" playfully referencing Captain Karam's alter ego.

Sadly a travel scheduling problem meant I could not make the journey down to Habib Karam's winery, so the six wines reviewed below were delivered to Beirut for me to taste. A visit to Karam is a must for my next visit to Lebanon.

for tasting notes on six wines from Karam winery

Conclusions

Whether or not Lebanon's winemakers will have the peace and stability to allow the rapid expansion and improvement of the past 20 years to continue is a question only time will answer. But I returned from this week filled with enthusiasm for the country and the people, and certain that this viticultural paradise has the raw materials, in earth, grapes and people, to make great wine. Given it is such a young industry, mistakes have undoubtedly been made - too much oak in top cuvées, some indiscriminate planting of varieties without fully understanding the terroir - but Lebanon is a wine country full of hope, opportunity and promise.


go to part I - maps, background, history and profiles of three wineries