Andrew Jefford enjoys the rich pleasures of Lebanon’s red wines...
“You go from sea to mountain to plateau to mountain,” described Hady Kahalé, a co-owner of Lebanese wine producer Ixsir. “And in climate terms, you go from tropical to Mediterranean to continental to desert. And all in 80 km.” The trials of Lebanon’s wine community through the long years of war and civil disruption have been well-documented. What, though, of their struggles with landscape and climate?
Rift Valley North
Most of Lebanon’s 3,000 ha of wines (of which 2,300 ha are used for wine and another 700 ha for arak) are found in the Bekaa ‘valley’ – that’s the plateau mentioned by Hady Kahalé, with its continental climate. It is, in fact, part of the great jigsaw of rift and fault systems which continues southwards first via the Sea of Galilee, the Dead Sea and later the Red Sea, and then along Eastern Africa via the Great Rift Valley to Mozambique.
Mount Lebanon lies to the west side of the Bekaa, where great cedars still shoulder winter snow (the peak of this massif lies 3,088m); to the east, the barer slopes of the Anti-Lebanon mountains culminate at Mount Hermon (2,814m) before running south to the Golan Heights. The land between lies at around the 1000-metre mark. That makes it not only higher in altitude than the vineyards around Mendoza in Argentina (the city is at 747 m), but higher in latitude, too. Zahleh, the administrative capital of the Bekaa and Lebanon’s fourth largest city, lies at 33°50N, while Mendoza sits at 32°53S.
So … hot, sunny days and cool nights? You’re right. “Summer temperatures normally reach 35°C to 37°C in the daytime, dropping to 15°C to 20°C at night.” The speaker is James Palgé, winemaker for the Lebanon’s biggest wine producer, Ch Ksara. “Each summer we get a period of three or four days when the temperature approaches 40°C. There’s a breeze in the afternoons – and the cool nights provide condensation on the plants, which helps fight the dry conditions.”
Snow: the litmus test
I talked to him in November; there had been no rain since May. It’s this lack of precipitation, in fact, which worries him most about the Lebanon’s changing climate. “The biggest problem is the winters; we see much less snow than we used to.” When he arrived in 1994, Palgé remembered 90 cm of snow on the ground; traditionally the snow on Mount Lebanon didn’t fully melt until mid-July. Both are unthinkable now, and Ksara as a consequence has to irrigate its Merlot and Syrah, in order to extend the ripening season. Winters, though, are still very cold; indeed temperatures fell below -20°C in January 2014, killing those vines inadequately protected by snow cover. Continentality and diurnal differences are the reason why the Cabernet growing cycle in the Bekaa is in fact longer (115 days from flowering to ripening) than in Bordeaux.
De Boüard and the quest for altitude
Hubert de Boüard of Angélus has been consulting in the Lebanon since 1996, initially as part of the Massaya team (for Sami and Ramzi Ghosn, alongside fellow Bordelais Dominique Hébrard and the Brunier brothers of Vieux Télégraphe in Châteauneuf); and latterly with Ixsir, owned by Hady Khahalé along with retailer Etienne Debbané and Carlos Ghosn of Renault-Nissan. When I met him at Ixsir, he stressed the depth of wine culture in the Lebanon, dating back to Phoenician times, and says there is a kinship between that richness and what he is looking for in the wines. Ixsir draws its fruit from a number of higher altitude locations up to 1800 m (a site the company claims is the highest in the northern hemisphere). None of them lie on the Bekaa valley floor. In addition to Batroun on the western side of Mount Lebanon, it draws fruit from four sites on Mount Lebanon (Ainata, Deir el Ahmar, Niha and Kab Elias), and from as well as Jezzine in the south of the country. According to de Boüard, you can escape the ‘linear opulence’ of the valley floor in these locations, and find more freshness.
Most Lebanese producers are exploring the possibility of higher altitude vineyards – but they also point to challenges in a country where infrastructural problems and overall water shortages mean that irrigation isn’t always possible. The valley floor soils (based on old lake deposits and alluvial fans over limestone) retain moisture better than hill slopes in the Bekaa, just as they do in Napa or in the Barossa. “On the high hills of the Bekaa, there’s more drought stress, the tannins don’t ripen, the acid is too high and the balances are too sharp,” says James Palgé, and at least two other winemakers (Diana Salameh of Wardy and Fabrice Guiberteau of Kefraya) echoed some of these points. He also points out that slope vineyards on the west, Mediterranean-facing side of Mount Lebanon don’t get the cool nights of the Bekaa.
There’s no doubt that most sites in the Lebanon pose growing challenges connected with heat and drought, and my impression (based on the wines I tasted when in Lebanon as well as a range of Ch Musar wines tasted in France following my return) is that the sweetness of fruit which seems to have marked red wines here since ancient times is more intense than ever in Lebanese reds today. That sweetness and that opulence, though, is what many drinkers love about them – when it is combined, at any rate, with some of the exotic, incense-like spice which fruit grown here displays, and above all with the splendid tannic profiles with which wines here are naturally endowed.
Tannins are key. The Lebanon’s French wine culture means that red-wine makers tend to look more to (natural) skin tannin than prominent acidity (which would be obtainable in the Bekaa only by early harvesting or adjustment) as a factor of balance. Even so, I was startled by the generosity of some of the reported tannin figures obtainable here (IPTs of 125 or above, without exaggerated extraction regimes), and wondered why this does not seem to be possible in southern hemisphere reds based in similar climate types. Whatever the truth, these tannins – sumptuous and resonant when sensitively handled – are the salvation of Lebanon’s great reds, and are surely one of the reasons for another of their unique traits: an uncanny ability to age more lengthily and more profitably than youthful profiles would suggest, and to take considerable scrutiny at every stage.
What, though, if the climate keeps on changing, as it surely will? It’s hard to see the Lebanon’s existing set of red grape varieties (none of them indigenous) continuing to cope with still warmer and dryer conditions without genetic manipulation; the fruit can hardly get any sweeter. I’m not convinced that ever higher altitudes are the answer, since then you then risk losing the deliciously gratifying fleshiness which the Bekaa valley floor can bring. The only solution will be the laborious and uncertain one of switching to new crosses (Ch Ksara is making increasing use of Marselan — Cabernet Sauvignon x Grenache — and Arinarnoa, which is Tannat x Cabernet Sauvignon) or to later ripening varieties from Southern Europe or Asia. That, of course, is a problem many other wine regions are confronting…
Tasting red wines from Lebanon
Iksir, Grande Réserve Limited Edition 2013
This darkly coloured, high-grown ‘grand vin’ (a Syrah-Cabernet blend) has red plum and cherry fruits in round-contoured style. It’s rich, mouthfilling and seamless, with lighter tannins than its ‘valley’ peers; the fruit qualities are bright, supported by vivid though soft acidity and relatively dry in style, though the spice, date and chocolate finish is still distinctively Lebanese. 90
Ch Kefraya 2007
The exact blend for Kefraya’s ‘grand vin’ varies from year to year, but in 2007 it was 51% Cabernet with 41% Syrah, the balanced shared equally by Mourvèdre and Carignan. The wine shows meaty, minty, mushroomy scents of maturity. The flavours are surprisingly fresh with tempered sweetness; the longer the wine is in the mouth, though, the more you come to appreciate its rich, fleshy tannins, its chocolate and its spice. (Great Bekaa reds always seem to keep something hidden away for the patient drinker to discover as he or she sips …) 92
Ch Ksara 2010
Ksara’s ‘grand vin’ is a Cabernet, Merlot and Petit Verdot blend grown on the west side of the Bekaa. The 2010 was the penultimate wine in a small vertical in which the 1999 and 2002 also showed very well (as well as a gentle, feathery 1960 with lunch). Aromatically, the 2010 has a thick, almost burly wall of spicy scent and incense richness over sweet elderberry fruits; on the palate it combines explosive energy with soft richness in a notably unforbidding way (a trait the Bekaa shares with the Napa). It’s so spicy that even the tannins seem spice-drenched. Pure, reverberative, serene. 92
Ch St Thomas 2001
The Ch St Thomas ‘grand vin’ is a parcel selection based on Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. This 2001, tasted alongside the 2010 and 2002 vintages, perfectly illustrated the Bekaa’s ability to produce fine wine for ageing, as well throwing a spotlight on the high quality Merlot which winemaker Joe Touma fashions: a scent of belly fur and truffled black fruit, with a refined, elegant, graceful, spicy palate, supple in texture but still present, resonant and full of life. 94
Ch St Thomas, Le Merlot A 2005
Touma occasionally makes a pure Merlot when vintage conditions permit (2009 and 2013 are the subsequent vintages), from fruit grown at Kab Elias above the valley floor. This wine, still darkly coloured, is like the ripest Pomerol you could imagine: its scent of white mushrooms and simmering plums has much of the classic appeal of right-bank Merlot, while the lush, creamy flavours and ample, broadly textural tannins are consonant with that ideal, too. What is different is the fundamental sweetness of the Lebanese fruit (baked plums and chocolate) and the incense-and-anis finish. Generous sipping. 93
Domaine des Tourelles, Marquis des Beys, Grande Cuvée Pierre L. Brun 2012
Forthright winemaking non-interventionist Faouzi Issa at the old-established Domaine des Tourelles makes this impressively concentrated Syrah-Cabernet blend from his best parcels of old bush vines. It’s dark in colour, with plum, prune and chocolate scents. On the palate, it’s as sweet and generous as the scents suggested, decked out like a cedar, with some cigar leaf to offset the rich, almost brandied fruits. Above all it’s the wide skirt of ample, lush, well-rounded tannins which provides balance, building a freshness of its own inside all that cavernous sweet darkness. 94
Domaine des Tourelles, Cinsault Vieilles Vignes 2014
A pure Cinsault based on 50-year-old vines. Sweet scents of anis and dry cherry, while the palate has some density as well as ample regional character: peppery and spicy, rich and vaulted. 89
Domaine Wardy, Ch les Cèdres 2009
This Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot blend is very dark at present, just hinting at root spice and truffle in its scents, with concentrated, searching, almost thrusting fruits, incense resonance and splendid tannic textures. If you find the opulence of sweet fruit a little too much in some ambitious Lebanese reds, it’s worth noting that the precise, carefully shaped Wardy style delivers grandeur in slightly drier guise. 94
Domaine Wardy, Cinsault 2013
This was the wine which came closest to proving Lebanese authority Michael Karam’s thesis that Cinsault truly merits solo treatment here. An enticing aromatic sweetness without either jamminess or excess heat; pomegranate flavours with real finesse, shaped by tannins with a firmness I’ve never before encountered in this large-berried variety. Balanced and authoritative. 91
Ch Musar 2004
The 2004 Musar (a blend of Cabernet with Cinsault and Carignan) is deep red but now limpid rather than opaque, with raspberry, pomegranate and date-paste scents. On the tongue, it’s soft, voluptuous and sweetly graceful, with a gentleness of fruit articulation and a lightness of touch which marks it out from its peers. The shapely, high-toned acids are as prominent as the tannins in this wine, though those tannins still have some true Bekaa ‘cut’ to them; there are chocolate, plum, mushroom and undergrowth flavours in this seductive, moreish wine. I also had a chance to taste the 2009, but the 2004 seemed much the better of the pair. 92
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