I had such a ball in Beirut that for the first time in my life I missed a return flight. And then I missed another. The city transformed me into the sort of happy-go-lucky human being who, with devil may care attitude, lays back and waves flights bye bye while pondering the joys of Lebanese rosé.
The backdrop for this spontaneous outburst was the Saint-George Yacht Club & Marina, which is spread out beneath the gutted remains of the Saint-George Hotel. Frequented by Elizabeth Taylor, Richard Burton and Brigitte Bardot during Beirut’s golden age, the hotel was one of the glitzy spots that earned the city it’s reputation as the “Riviera of the Middle East.” This reputation came tumbling down during the 1975-1990 Lebanese Civil War, along with everything else, including the hotel, which was brutally shelled and later became the site of Prime Minister Rafic Hariri’s assassination in 2005. It now bears a vast ‘STOP SOLIDERE’ banner, in reaction to the government-backed development and construction giant that has blocked the hotel’s renovation ever since.
Having served as a battleground for the past 60 years, and still the object of ongoing political machinations, it is perhaps a miracle that the Saint-George Yacht Club & Marina still operates daily in such glamorous fashion. While the hotel offers an eery glimpse back into Beirut’s troubled history, the pool club is the perfect place for a spot of rosé. This kind of contrast can be found throughout the city, because although Beirut still bears the scars of its warn-torn past and remains at threat from militia groups and conflict in neighbouring Syria, its tourism and wine trades are once again flourishing.
On my first night in Beirut I visited CRU Wine Bar on Makdessi Street (party central), and had an enlightening discussion with owners Wael Bou Jaoude and Karen Matta, and manager Ali Nassrallah. Their optimism about the Lebanese wine market was palpable; new wineries are opening, wine tourism is on the up, quality is improving in leaps and bounds, and producers are profiting from a burgeoning export market. The UK is the country’s most important market, accounting for 32% of exports, followed by France (17%) and the USA (17%).
Lebanese producers are exploring new terroirs in Batroun, Kfifane, Bhamdoun, Richmaya, Majdel Maouche and Jezzine, as well as the Eastern Bekaa Valley, and the CRU team hopes to see more wines coming from these promising areas. However many of the best Lebanese wines still come from high altitude sites in the Western Bekaa Valley, as the country’s hot, dry Mediterranean climate makes it a struggle to keep wines below a punchy 14 or 15% abv otherwise.
For the same reason (combined with the influence of French winemaking), the majority of the country’s wines are blends, allowing producers to retain freshness by selecting components of varying degrees of ripeness. The CRU team feels that blending is one of Lebanon’s fortes – the producers and natives aren’t slaves to single varietal wines as many UK consumers are. Instead they revel in the possibilities offered by the huge variety of grapes grown here, both international and indigenous. Karen hopes to see producers making more of the latter, commenting “I think the most exciting new development is the success of Obeidy, which is an indigenous grape to Lebanon. Over time we hope there will be a trend to create more wines that are unique to our country.”
The CRU team’s fierce pride in their country’s wines is humbling, and this attitude was shared by almost everybody I met in Beirut, where Lebanese wines unfailingly appear on every restaurant, bar and hotel list in town. “There is a patriotism of the population; people choose local wine over foreign wine to support producers in difficult times”, says Karen. It all made London’s English wine offering look pretty lacklustre by comparison.
Ali honourably offered to drive me bang smack through the red zone and into the vineyards that weekend. I reluctantly declined, but what a hero! I hope I’ll be able to take him up on the invite one day, but until I get there, here are some notes for the top bottles I tasted in Beirut:
Château Kefraya ‘Myst’ Rosé 2013
What a surprise! This fantastically glam looking blend of Cinsault and Syrah is absolutely on par with Provence rosé, and I do not say that lightly. With lifted red berry notes, floral nuances and a creamy touch to the finish, it is full of elegance and charm. We’re all told that rosé should be drunk within a year of its release but this 2013 vintage was perfect; the only pairings you need are sun and sea.
Château Ksara ‘Sunset’ Rosé 2015
This colourful blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah is vibrant watermelon pink, but please don’t let that put you off! Be brave and embrace its fruit concentration, which totally lives up to its vivid colour – ripe strawberry and red cherry aromas abound, and combined with juicy acidity and a pleasing grip on the palate, this makes for a rosé with body and spirit. A lip smacking match for calamari.
Château Ksara Blanc de Blancs 2014
Soft, inviting and pretty, with a light touch of oak, this is a truly lovely blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon. You might expect a combination like this to taste a little muddled, but all the parts sit happily together and it has a pleasing citrus fruit freshness that made it the ideal accompaniment to a Lebanese feast at Café Em Nazih.
Château Ksara Cuveé du Pape Chardonnay 2013
This 100% Chardonnay from Château Ksara has a fresh marine quality to the nose, over ripe citrus and pineapple aromas. Subtle creamy notes and richness from barrel fermentation and lees stirring are balanced by citrussy acidity. I drank this with Lebanese vine leaves and hummus; it was the bomb.
Clos St Thomas Les Emirs 2011
Proof that you shouldn’t judge a wine by the label (which in all honesty is pretty hideous in this case), this is a ripe, juicy blend of Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan. A riot of rich red fruit aromas and flavours, with vanilla softness from a few months in French oak barrels.
Château Belle-Vue La Renaissance 2008
Foisted on me by the highly persuasive and enchanting waiters at Café Enab, this was the best Bordeaux blend I tasted in Beirut. Made with 60% Merlot and 40% Cabernet Sauvignon, it has an amazing richness and focus that stood up to Lebanese Frekeh – a mixture of raw, spiced, pounded meat that is, slightly alarmingly, moulded by hand and served with distinct finger imprints.
For more info on Lebanese wine check out the Union Viticole du Liban website: http://www.lebanonwines.com/