My vinous journey to the Middle East was inspired by some of my recent non-wine-related reading this year. I like to take periodic breaks from the monotony of wine study–I find that it helps to keep the brain fresh. This was my first book that I had finished that was not wine-related for a couple of years, From the Holy Mountain: A Journey Among the Christians of the Middle East, which appealed to my anthropology and history background. It wasn’t the fastest read, but was a very interesting diversion that is surprisingly contemporary and foreboding, despite the 1997 publishing date. In it, author William Dalrymple travels among the declining and disappearing Christian populations of Turkey, Lebanon, Syria, Palestinian Israel, Egypt, an area that also corresponds with the rise of grape domestication for wine production. Therefore, I thought to honor this occasion with a bottle of wine rom one of these ancient world wine regions. Before I completely move on from the book, I’d like to say that I really enjoyed it and this is a subject matter which few are aware of, at least in the U.S. Here is my take-away quote from the read from pages 447-48:
“When I began this journey I had expected that Islamic fundamentalism would prove to be the Christians’ main enemy in every country I visited. But it had turned out to be more complicated than that.
In south-east Turkey the Syrian Christians were caught in the crossfire of a civil war, a distinct ethnic group trodden underfoot in the scrimmage between two rival nationalisms, one Kurdish, the other Turkish. Here is was their ethnicity as much as their religion which counted against the Christians: the were not Kurds and not Turks, therefore they did not fit in. In Lebanon, the Maronites had reaped a bitter harvest of their own sowing: their failure to compromise with the country’s Muslim majority had led to a destructive civil war that ended in a mass emigration of Christians and a proportional diminution in Maronite power. The dilemma of the Palestinian Christians was quite different again. Their problem was that, like their Muslim compatriots, they were Arabs in a Jewish state, and as such suffered as second-class citizens in their own country, regarded with a mixture of suspicion and contempt by their Israeli masters. However, unlike most of the Muslims, they were educated professionals and found it relatively easy to emigrate, which they did en masse. Very few were now left. Only in Egypt was the Christian population unambiguously threatened by a straightforward resurgence of Islamic fundamentalism.”
Dalrymple also goes on to state that while the situation is much different than he had expected, it was also much more desperate than expected. The extinction of a people is a reality in many parts of the world, but this is in such a significant historical area that it bears sharing with others. It also goes to show that you can always learn new perspectives, even about subjects with which you are well-versed.
Availability of Middle Eastern wines in the U.S., much less the Midwest, is extremely limited, and I was only really able to find Lebanese wines, which is where I have had previous experience with the wines of Serge Hochar’s Chateau Musar. This time, I was able to try wines from the country’s largest producer, Chateau Ksara, based in the Bekaa Valley.
Major Wine-producing Regions:
Bekaa Valley: the most well-known and productive zone in the country. It is more inland and runs northeast to southwest, sandwiched between the Anti-Lebanon and Lebanon Mountain ranges. A generally warm climate that is ameliorated by its high altitude, which causes dramatic diurnal temperature swings. This area is also very geologically diverse, with this part of the world being a very active fault area. Interestingly, a significant Roman temple to the wine god Bacchus is located at Baalbek in the northern part of the Bekaa.
Batroun: the second-most productive area that borders the Mediterranean. This is home to many newer, quality producers. This region is the more northerly of the wine-producing areas.
Jezzine: southerly region in the hotly-contested area near the Israeli border. It is very mountainous and difficult to work, so the plantings there are quite limited.
Another point worth noting is that many Lebanese wineries are located away from the vineyards, in some cases a considerable distance from them.
Grape Varieties of Lebanon:
For being such an ancient producer of wine, Lebanon does not appear to have much of an industry of indigenous grape varieties. White varieties Obaideh and Merwah are locally rumored to be the antecedents to Chardonnay and Sémillon, respectively, but Robinson et. al’s Wine Grapes indicates that the are most likely just different clones of the grape varieties and do not present a historical example of these varieties. Nevertheless, French varieties reign supreme. Here is the breakdown of vineyard area according to the national Union Viticole du Liban:
Cabernet Sauvignon represents the largest wine vineyard area, covering about one quarter of the planteone varietid vineyards.
Cinsault (aka Cinsaut) is a prominent and well-established variety in the country and is quite a large component of Chateau Musar’s rouge bottling. Native to Southern France, this variety takes well to the sunny climes of Lebanon. Characterized by light color and high acids, the wines produced from this red grape lend longevity and freshness to the wines.
Carignan is another Southern French transplant, is also numerically significant. This grape variety lends structure, color, and juiciness to the wines.
Other plantings of Bordeaux and Rhone varieties, as well as Tempranillo, are the other important red varieties of this conversely ancient and fledgling wine industry.
White varieties have a more varied history in Lebanon. A long history of arak production (a clear, anise-flavored distillate akin to ouzo or Sambuca) favored high-yield, high-acid brandy-type grapes like Colombard and Ugni Blanc (aka Trebbiano Toscano). Fragrant varieties such as Viognier and Muscat are relatively recent transplants, joining up with Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, and Clairette. The two most well-known Lebanese varieties are Obaideh and Merwah:
Obaideh is locally rumored to be the ancient predecessor of Chardonnay, but is most likely just a local cultivar of the variety. Obaideh has a long history in arak production, and was one of the early varieties used in white table wine production.
Merwah is also supposed to be an ancient Sémillon ancestor, but was most likely introduced in more recent history and also played an early role in the transition between arak and table wine production.
Chateau Ksara “Reserve du Couvent” 2010
Blended from 40% Syrah, and 30% each Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon, this wine comes from Lebanon’s oldest commercial winery that is also the largest producer in the country. The winery was founded by Jesuit priests in 1857 , and was coincidentally located atop a 2km network of Roman caves carved out of the limestone. Grapes for the winery are farmed from six different vineyards in the Bekaa, representing a considerable diversity of wine styles. This ruby-colored wine displayed medium minus concentration with a little bit of rim variation bordering on garnet. The fruit character was in the dried and stewed camp, with red plum, raspberry, cranberry, and rhubarb dominating. Dried purple flowers, inorganic and organic earthiness, and warm spices rounded out the flavor profile. Overall, the wine was medium-bodied, with firm, drying tannins, moderate alcohol, medium acidity, and medium-plus finish. I enjoyed the wine quite a bit, and found it to really exhibit the so-called “ancient world” style that is relatively common amongst wines of the Eastern Mediterranean. I found it to be pleasantly earthy and fragrant, without the overt plushness or strong yeast profile more associated with New World styles.