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Jefford on Monday: Back in Beirut

Andrew Jefford tastes Lebanon’s new white wines.

I’ve visited the Lebanon three times in the last quarter century.  The first occasion, in 1993, followed the end of the 1975-1990 civil war, when Beirut was still in ruins and the old Mercedes cars picked their way gingerly around the rubble.  By 2003, in times of uneasy peace, the SUVs had moved in; Beirut’s enduring zest for both business and pleasure was again evident (the country consumed three million bottles of wine in that year, almost half of it imported).  My latest visit, a couple of weeks ago, concluded with hornet-like Ferraris noisily out-darting each other in the small hours of a Saturday morning as they zipped past the serenely restored Phoenicia hotel and the gleaming new office blocks nearby.

One of the handicaps faced by Lebanese wine producers is that the country no longer possesses the variety of indigenous varieties which, we must assume, made its wines so notable in Biblical times (see Hosea 14:7, written in the eighth century BC)

Not that the Lebanon’s problems are over.  Syria’s savage and intricate civil war is being fought less than 70 km from the Bekaa, and this small country (half the size of Wales) is tolerantly hosting well over a million Syrian refugees, swelling its own population by a fifth.  The country’s infrastructure is tottering — the small hours are the only time a Ferrari is likely to return undented to its garage – and the Syrian influx threatens Lebanon’s ever-delicate ethnic balance.  “It seems there is a no-fight, no-change policy in Lebanon at present which everyone accepts,” says Etienne Debbané, part-owner of the Ixsir winery with Carlos Ghosn of Renault-Nissan and Hady Kahalé; Hubert de Boüard is consultant.  “All the parties are benefitting from this, but the day one party no longer benefits, there will be problems.”  With the recent election of the intransigent former general Michel Aoun to the Presidency, Lebanon has shown that it is not immune to the populist tide.

Throughout these years of trouble, Lebanon’s wine creators have quietly got on with planting, growing, harvesting and vinifying.  The struggles of the late Serge Hochar were well-known, but as Lebanese wine authority Michael Karam points out, “Serge Hochar was the proof that communication works.  Many others in Lebanon had his experiences and his suffering too, but he was the one who communicated it, whereas they didn’t”.  Those who worked for Château Ksara (the giant of the Lebanese scene), Château Kefraya and others have hair-whitening stories to share, too.  All you have to do is ask.

The struggles have not been wasted.  My view is that the high-altitude Bekaa Valley is a great terroir (if mysteriously so), capable of producing magnificent red wines; I’ll be writing more about these, and it, in a forthcoming blog.  What, though, of Lebanon’s whites?

One of the handicaps faced by Lebanese wine producers is that the country no longer possesses the variety of indigenous varieties which, we must assume, made its wines so notable in Biblical times (see Hosea 14:7, written in the eighth century BC).  “The main reason is that we were occupied by the Ottomans for 500 years,” says Ch Ksara’s Elie Maamari.  “A delegation came here from Montpellier in 2001 and spent 40 days looking for indigenous wine varieties, but they didn’t find anything new.”  Perhaps recent conflicts have taken their toll, too.  A retired viticulturalist called Jean Hage Chahine, based in the winegrowing town of Zahleh in the Bekaa, told Michael Karam (for his 2005 book Wines of Lebanon) that he had surveyed 22 indigenous wine-growing varieties in Lebanon in the 1950s.  By 2005, though, Chahine could only find six.

As it happens, the two principal indigenous varieties which are still used in Lebanon are white: Obaideh (also spelled Obeidy and Obeïdeh) and Merweh (or Merwah).  Serge Hochar used to allege that these varieties were ancestors of France’s Chardonnay and Sémillon respectively, with the Crusader paths a route of transmission, and the Wine Grapes book tentatively lists them as synonyms of these varieties.  Recent DNA evidence for Obaideh commissioned from José Vouillamoz by Joe Touma of Château St-Thomas, however, has disproved this conclusively.  Obaideh, according to Vouillamoz, “has a unique DNA profile that didn’t match any officially registered variety, or any other obscure non-registered variety.”  It’s used at present for both winemaking and arak production, and doubles as a table-grape, too.  (Merweh, a variety principally grown not in the Bekaa but on the Mediterranean side of Mount Lebanon, has not yet been analysed; I didn’t encounter any Merweh wines during my recent visit.)

Michael Karam has been urging Lebanon’s winemakers to make more single-variety Obaideh whites and Cinsault reds to give the country a pair of signature styles.  I’m not wholly convinced by the choice of Cinsault (can it ever make a ‘serious’ red, even here?), but Karam is absolutely right to push Obaideh.

Lebanon’s white wines are, in general, less convincing than its reds: they can often be weighty and obvious in style, with a faintly gluey character (rather like some whites from that other high-altitude winegrowing plateau, Mendoza in Argentina).  Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc are both widely planted, but neither seems very happy in the Levant to me; there are good Chardonnays from Lebanon, though few (tasting notes for exceptions are given below).  Many Lebanese whites are blends of different varieties, often given an aromatic lift from Muscat: a help, but not salvation.  All of these varieties save Muscat race to ripeness, and are August-harvested save at the highest altitudes.

Obaideh, by contrast, can sit out the full season until harvest in late September or even October, and still provide shapely, balanced wine with modest alcohol levels (though these matter less than the fixsirull-season ripening).  It is not a markedly demonstrative variety, but at best it is subtle and refined, with enough weight and heft to provide satisfactory mealtime drinking, and with an aromatic finesse all of its own.  Its indigenous status means that the vines themselves tend to be older than for Lebanon’s white international varieties.  There are drawbacks, though: it’s a fussy vine which needs care, so farmers aren’t always keen on tending it; and its heartland in the Bekaa is around Baalbek, nowadays a Hezbollah stronghold.  As ever in the Lebanon, the challenges faced by wine producers are exceptional.  Joe Touma of Ch St-Thomas is a determined supporter of the variety he spells Obeidy, but harvesting of his key vineyard was held up for ten days in 2014 — as the Lebanese Army battled Isis.

Tasting Lebanon’s white wines


Ch St-Thomas, Obaidy 2015

Aromatically, this unoaked, gold-white wine is fresh, clean and agreeably understated, with just a whisper of spice to it.  On the palate, it has some of the plump fleshiness typical of Bekaa wines without being corpulent, a sense of incipient structure, soft acidity, more faintly earthy spice and a cleansing subtle bitterness to finish.  Drinkable and gastronomic.  90

Domaine Wardy, Obeïdeh 2013

This pale gold white is also aromatically muted but intriguing: shy summer fruits and earth after rain.  In the mouth, it is concentrated, shapely and elegant, with more yellow summer fruit and a little orange, too.  It has a soft balance and a vinous finish: classy and delicious.  91


Domaine Wardy, Perle du Château 2012

This wine had the subtlest Chardonnay aromas I encountered on the visit, with elegant, restrained flavours.  There always seems to be a slight sucrosity to Lebanese Chardonnay, though.  89

Ch Ksara, Chardonnay 2006

Ksara’s Chardonnay comes from a single vineyard grown at 1,460 metres.  The 2006 vintage is now gold in colour with succulent, rich, nutty aromas and flavours.  The advantage of the altitude is that the wine is relatively petite in dimensions; the fruit character is sweet and toothsome.  88

White Blends

Ch St-Thomas, Les Gourmets 2015

Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier and Obaidy combine in this lively, fresh white with green-apple scents and perfumed, musky palate with some earthy spice.  88

Domaine Wardy, Clos Blanc 2015

This is a blend of 45 per cent Obeïdeh with the balance made up of Chardonnay, Viognier, Muscat and Sauvignon Blanc.  There’s some attractive aromatic lift from the Muscat and Viognier, while the Obeïdeh and the Chardonnay carry the middle palate towards an opulent but aromatically freshened finish.  Great purity and precision here.  91 

Ixsir, Grand Réserve 2014

This barrel-fermented blend of Viognier and Chardonnay has a faint crème brûlée note on the nose.  On the palate, it is deep, soft-textured and fine-grained, though the interest perhaps comes more from the evident care with which it has been crafted than from the intrinsic merits of its fruit.  89

Ch Kefraya, Comtesse de M 2013

Another barrel-fermented blend of Chardonnay (60 per cent) and Viognier with just a pinch of Vermentino, this has soft, creamy scents and a mild, apricot-like richness of flavour with plenty of lees nourishment.  Very good wine, though not for the oak-shy.  91

… and a Rosé to finish

Ch Kefraya, Rosé 2015

Lebanon has got the rosé bug just like everywhere else – and 67 per cent of all the rosé sold in Lebanon is just one brand, Ch Ksara’s generously rounded Rosé Sunset.  The best Lebanese rosé of those I recently sampled is that crafted (principally from Cinsualt) by Kefraya’s Fabrice Guiberteau: pale and understated, with some of the discretion and soft drinkability that makes Provence rosés so successful.  88

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