Wine, Sweet and Abundant: Unexpected Encounters With Lebanese Wines
Learning about and experiencing the world of wine is a journey not a destination. With over 10,000 wine grape varieties revealing different flavors from each growing region and the variations in climate that affect each vintage, the variety of wine to experience is endless. Generally, wine drinkers focus on the most popular regions, but it is a worthy pursuit to explore lesser-known options in search of hidden gems.
A friend suggested that I should consider wines from Lebanon. I could not imagine that this war-torn region of the world could produce and export anything palatable, but being the open-minded guy that I am (my friends who are reading this are ROTFLTAO), I began a pursuit to learn about Lebanese wine.
Lebanon is one of the oldest winemaking regions of the world, and the Phoenicians, who were the ancient inhabitants of the area, carried their wine throughout the Mediterranean. Quality wines are not generally produced in such subtropical climates, but the unique inland plateau of the Bekaa Valley is Lebanon’s most fertile farming region and home to several world-renowned wine producers. Their modern approach is influenced by winemakers educated in France with plantings of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cinsaut, carignan and grenache. One might think that everyone in the world is trying to create the finest cabernet or merlot, but the Lebanese winemakers are more focused on blends that contain a dominant amount of cinsault, a grape from the Rhone Valley of France that thrives in a warmer, more arid climate.
In 2011, Lebanon was estimated as being the 45th largest producer of wine representing only 0.05 percent of the world’s wine production. About half is consumed in that country, so there’s not much left for export.
Talking about wine that is not available for purchase might be scholarly, but I’m only interested in drinking. Since the Merrimack Valley has such a healthy Lebanese population, I figured this should be a great place to find wine from the old country.
I began my exploration at Andover Classic Wines, where Andrea Difiore directed me to the one and only selection they had in stock: Chateau Musar’s 2011 Hochar Père et Fils Red. “Is this any good?” I asked. “Fantastic,” she replied. This wine is a blend of 50 percent cinsault, 30 percent grenache, 10 percent cabernet sauvignon and 10 percent carignan. It imparts earthy flavors of tea, cloves, coffee and tobacco, along with fruity blackberry and cherry notes. Andrea was right. It was a great selection that I will find room for in my cellar.
Most wine professionals would agree that Chateau Musar is the premier wine exported from Lebanon. Its unique qualities were not known worldwide until the ravages of civil war influenced second-generation owner and winemaker Serge Hochar to introduce his products to the U.K.’s Bristol Wine Fair in 1979.
The unrest in Beirut had decimated Lebanon’s domestic market for fine wines, so Serge turned to international exporting. It took another 20 years before he was able to break into the U.S. market, so don’t feel too bad if you haven’t yet discovered this gem. Our first opportunity arrived in Y2K, and at that point I was buying my wine at the supermarket and questioning why some $15 bottles didn’t taste any better than $10 bottles. Today, you will find Chateau Musar on some of the most prestigious wine lists, including the one at The French Laundry in the Napa Valley, where a bottle of the 1988 vintage will cost you $895. If you can settle for the 2000 vintage, it will only cost you $195.
Chuck Palazzolo at Lucia’s Bodega in Windham, N.H., had another fabulous Lebanese selection from the winemakers at Ixsir, also located in the Bekaa Valley. The 2011 EL Ixsir Red is their premier offering. This wine is aged for 24 months in French oak and contains a blend of syrah (55 percent), cabernet sauvignon (35 percent) and merlot (10 percent).
Ixsir’s vineyards are located at high elevations (5,900 feet) in limestone soil. These growing conditions contribute to the mineral rich flavors and the velvety smooth tannins.
My search continued with Sam Messina at the Wine Connextion in North Andover. I tasted a lineup of Massaya wines, also produced in the Bekaa Valley. The outstanding selection from this winery was the rosé, made from a blend of 40 percent cinsault, 30 percent syrah and 30 percent cabernet sauvignon. It was very aromatic, with hints of strawberries. This wine strikes me as perfect for the summer, and the price is very reasonable.
Being open-minded about your wine selections is crucial if you want to expand your palate. It’s easy to fall into a rut once you find something you like. Remember, fine wines are created all over the globe. I even found seven selections of wine from Mexico on The French Laundry’s wine list. I wonder if we can get them past Trump’s wall. Salute!
Andover Classic Wines
2011 Hochar Père et Fils Red l $32
Ixsir l 2011 EL l $80
North Andover, Mass.
Massaya l 2016 Rosé l $16