Tuesday 24 May 2011

The Wines of Lebanon

What next for Lebanon? The ten or so members of the Union Vinicole du Liban, under the gnomic chairmanship of Serge Hochar, long ago conquered the London press. That they’re the most hospitable bunch (second only to the Portuguese) helps of course, and then there are the wines, which I tasted my way through  at a raucous dinner at the Dock Kitchen restaurant in west London.

Lebanese winemaking is at an interesting stage of development, with a handful of veteran producers (led as ever by Hochar’s Chateau Musar) setting the benchmark for quality. After them come a clutch of dynamic properties making fascinating wines – all of them intent on finding a unique personality for the region.

The best of the wines are bright, acidic and fresh, fruit of high altitudes (many of the vineyards are planted at over 1000m), long sunny days and cool nights.

The fact that French varieties - Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Syrah, Merlot, Grenache and Mourvedre - are planted so widely is historical accident, but a happy one. Cinsault thrives here, producing wines that are laden with bright fruit on the strawberry/raspberry scale, fresh acids and really attractive length.

Apart from Musar’s extraordinary white wines (he claims they are not ready for 20 years or more from bottling) I didn’t taste many whites. As in so many hot and arid regions (Roussillon comes to mind), white wines often come out flaccid and hollow. So I’m not going to bother with them here.

But the reds can be sublime. Lebanon is on the verge of something. Stable government (albeit surrounded by countries in turmoil), some serious investors taking interest (IXSIR is a new $10m project owned by multimillionaire car-industry executive Carlos Ghosn), consultants like Stefan Derenoncourt and Chateau Angelus owner Hubert de Bouard making wine, and a burgeoning number of wineries (there are now over 40, from a handful 20 years ago).

It’s the country to invest in, and the wines that come naturally to Lebanon are fashionable: light, lowish in alcohol (hardly any come in at above 13.5%) and fresh.

All this implies that there will be a bandwagon to jump on, and we are going to see many more Lebanese wines. I only hope they retain their style and don’t start chasing the international market. I don’t want to see any over-made, starry but characterless $100 Lebanese wines.

The wines

Chateau Musar Jeune 2009
Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah
Very fresh, bright nose. Palate mouthwatering and bright. Not complex but attractive with red berry fruit
£8.00 - £9.99

Bright floral nose with fresh, delicious and very light palate. Falls down a little on acid – the mid palate doesn’t keep up the early promise, but it compensates with nice length. Overwhelmed by the Shankleesh, the delicious cream cheese and tomato salad

Domaine des Tourelles Marquis des Beys 2004
Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah
Really delicate powerful dense palate with cigar box perfume, exotic grippy tannins, notes of graphite, black olives and dark soft fruits. Superlative wine selling for about £20 a bottle

Chateau Musar 2004
Launched May 2011. Earth on the nose and some leathery, smoky notes. Dense, and like all the Musar reds with lovely refreshing acids alongside the red and black fruit. Mouthwatering, drinking well now – perfect with fatty lamb chops – but look at the Musar back-catalogue and keep it for 40 years.

Chateau Musar 2003
Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan
Earthy nose, sweet earth and straw aromas. Deep sweet dense palate with lots of chalky tannins, pencil, graphite, blackberry and black olive, very ripe red plums and some pruney notes. Lovely with great length, drying at the end but still with this incredibly fresh acid which keeps it juicy and fresh

Chateau Musar 1998
Lovely bright colour. A wine that has power and finesse.  Wonderful fresh tannins and sweet delicate red (overwhelmingly red now it’s got some age) fruit, with exotic cedar and perfumes that you don’t see in the younger wines. A delicious wine, full of character, perfectly balanced – looks like a wine made by a winemaker at the height of his powers but Musar’s Tarek Sabre had been in the job about 5 years when he made this. Serge Hochar is convinced it’s ‘almost ready’, but then he says that about all his wines. I would say it’s a point

Chateau Musar 1974
How can the taste of a wine made 1000m high in the Arabian hills remind you of the floor of an English wood just after spring rain? Superb earthy, bright, truffle palate with wonderful young and fresh tannins, still bold and precise, with old Burgundian elegance and power. It’s still got years to go. 1974 was a difficult year and according to Stephen Williams at the Antique Wine Company Hochar was unsure about its quality for 20 years. ‘But something miraculous happened’, Williams says. Magnificent. Ten years later Hochar became Decanter’s first-ever Man of the Year. Salut!

Chateau St Thomas Les Emirs 2007
Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache
Juicy bright and fruity, lots of dusty tannins slightly take over the palate and leave it dry at the end

Chateau St Thomas 2005
Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah
Clos St Thomas or Chateau St Thomas? I’m still hazy, but then it was a very good dinner. This is a lovely wine – meaty and perfumed sweetish nose with animal skin. Bright and juicy with slightly grassy fruit. Not a massive length but delicious while it lasts

Chateau St Thomas Les Gourmets 2008
Superb grip from the beginning. Lovely ripe dark raspberry, long and ripe sweet tannins, very juicy and mouthwatering acids. Delicious

Chateau Kefraya Comte de M 2006
A nose of aniseed and a luxurious sweet palate with figs, dark fruit, menthol and cedar. Ripe integrated tannins – slightly short on the finish for a relatively expensive wine.

IXSIR Altitudes 2009
Syrah, Caladoc (a Malbec-Grenache cross)
Very fresh with ripe raspberry fruit and strong, tenacious acids. The Syrah comes from vineyards planted at 1,700m. Long, fine finish

Chateau Ksara Reserve du Couvent
Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon
Very sharp acid bite goes beautifully with fatty, beautifully cooked lamb cutlets. Cooked fruits, blackberry and plum, some fresh green pepper flavours, very long and satisfying.

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