Wines from the Lebanon (2)
Account and conclusions of a blind tasting conducted in Beirut on January 13th 2011
Each producer was asked to supply two wines, of their own choice, both in terms of the wine and the vintage. The wines are mostly listed in the order in which they were tasted. This was established (by somebody else, to ensure that I did not know which wines I was tasting) in chronological order in terms of vintages, starting with the oldest.
Within each vintage, the order was random. In the notes below I have only changed the order so as to group wines according to their vintages.
The tasting took place in the morning of January 13th at la Crave restaurant, which is perfectly lit by natural light and is to be found in the Achrafieh district of Beirut.
All the bottles were concealed by tinfoil.
The prices mentioned were given by the producers as being consumer prices per bottle in Lebanese shops. They are given in US dollars.
a). the red wines
Château Musar 2001 (price $26)
blend: cabernet sauvignon, cinsault, carignan (maybe some others)
The colour is much paler than almost all the other wines. It has also been burnished by time, showing this wine to be quite a bit older. The nose is as fine as it is complex, showing all the subtle nuances that can derive from long ageing, without being marked by wood aromas: hints of wax, mild spices, orange peel, hay and tobacco come to the surface. It is pretty rare to find such aromatic complexixity in any wine currently on the market (I am not talking about older, collector’s wines that cost ten times as much!). The feel on the palate is refined and smooth, made vibrant by the acidity wrapped inside. This is a beautiful and moving wine, quite as long as it is complex. It clearly stands apart from contemporary norms (I note than many enologists and experts do not seem to appreciate it, which, to me, illustrates a sad tendancy towards « political correction » in wine tastes). This wine takes me on a journey through time and space. (It must surely be Musar!)
Hochar Père et Fils 2004 (price $17)
blend: cabernet sauvignon, cinsault, carignan (maybe some others)
Another pale and burnished hue. The first bottle showed a hint of bad cork. The second showed some of those complex layers of aromas similar to those of the wine before and which are so hard to describe. It is just a bit less expansive. The palate is, again, smooth and well polished in texture, with fine fruit flavours that are close to jam. This fine wine is as accessible as it is generous and reminds me of the old style of Riojas. Clearly similar to the previous wine, with a notch less in terms of complexity. Very reasonably priced for this quality.
Château Khoury, Symphonie 2004 (price $15)
blend: cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, syrah
Quite intense and attractive aromas. Reminded me of plums. Fine substance, just as intense in the mouth as on the nose. A very good, modern style of wine with finely honed tannins despite its concentration. One could easily wait for a few more years before drinking it. Very reasonably priced too.
Château Bellevue, La Renaissance 2005 (price $24)
The nose seems intensely packed but does not really show its paces. On the palate, the wine appears dense and even a little massive, with a touch of acidity on the finish that hardens the feel of it (was it acidified?). Its a good wine, although a bit monolithic for my liking. This very « international » style has its followers though.
PS. I later tasted the 2006 vintage of this wine at the estate and found it much finer and better balanced.
Wardy, Private Selection 2005 (price $40)
blend: syrah, cabernet sauvignon
Oak and fine fruit of the cherry type blend in the nose. Well built, but with somewhat austere tannins that act as a strict framework for some generous fruit that also contains pleasant freshness. I am not entirely convinced by the balance and harmony of this wine, but it is very well made and full of character. Its price seems high compared to others in this series.
Wardy, Château les Cèdres 2006 (price $13)
blend: cabernet sauvignon, syrah, merlot
Very pleasant fruit on the nose, of the cabernet sauvignon type. Yet this wine kind of falls apart on the palate, becoming confused and a bit aggressive through some harsh tannins that make the finish dry out.
Château Saint Thomas 2006 (price $22)
blend: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah
A fine nose that shows plenty of volume. Tightly knit and even austere on the palate, with, again, tannins that dominate and dry out the fruit flavours. Feels as if the extraction was excessive.
note : 13/20
Ksara, Cuvée du Troisième Millénaire 2006 (price $24)
blend: cabernet franc, petit verdot, syrah
The nose shows fine and dense fruit aromas reminiscent mainly of cassis. An elegant wine that combines structure with a good degree of freshness and fruit flavours of the stone fruit type (plums and cherries). Good length too.
note : 15/20
Château Khoury, Symphonie 2006 (price $12)
The nose shows a touche of volatile acidity, without this being unpleasant in any way. The fruit aromas are warmish. This chewy fruit character comes to the fore on the palate, underscored by a nice fresh touch. Good structure for a wine of this price level.
Domaine des Tourelles, Marquis de Beys 2006 (price $22)
blend: Syrah et Cabernet Sauvignon (50/50)
Very attractive nose of red and black fruit. Juicy and delicious on the palate, with noticeable but well integrated tannins. Good length as well for this very good wine.
Bargylus 2006 (price $19).
NB. This wine comes from Syria, but is produced by the same team as Marsyas.
Warm and attractive nose. Plenty of good fruit on the palate, resulting in a very drinkable and harmonious wine. Good length. Very well made.
Côteaux du Liban, Château 2007 (price $10)
blend: syrah, cabernet sauvignon, merlot
Pleasantly fruit nose, close to strawberries. Warmish. Clean and well made. Good quality level at this price.
Ksara Château 2007 (price $11)
blend: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot
Similar style to the previous wine but less good on account of tannins that dry out the fruit on the finish.
note : 13/20
Château de Botrys, Château des Anges 2007 (price $20)
Very juicy, with good structure to back up this attractive fruit. The tannins are drawn out and the whole feel is quite powerful. This has not yet achieved full harmony in its balance as it still seems rather big and massive. Promising though.
Domaine de Baal 2007 (price $25)
blend: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, syrah
A complex range of aromas on the nose, with leather, spice and meat coming through. Thus it appears quite a bit older than the previous wine, even if it is from the same vintage. I liked the delicate way these aromas showed. The fruit sensation on the palate is delicious, initially almost sweet, then drawn in to a tighter feel by firmish tannins. This has very interesting character.
Massaya, Silver Selection 2007 (price $10)
blend: cinsault, grenache, cabernet sauvignon blanc, mourvèdre
The colour is on the light side. Good substance on the palate, well balanced between warmth and freshness, with decent structure. Good at this price point.
Clos St. Thomas, Les Emirs 2007 (price $12)
blend: cabernet sauvignon, syrah, grenache
The nose seems earthy and dusty. Fairly full body on the palate, with rather rustic tannins. Fairly simple and not entirely clean.
Domaine des Tourelles, Syrah du Liban 2007 (price $38)
The nose is fine and pure, showing excellent, non-intrusive use of oak ageing, along with some very refined fruit aromas that made me think of certain Italian wines. On the palate the refinement of the fruit (of the bitter cherry type) adds to this « italianate » accent. The tannins are silky and long, and the balance excellent. A beautifully made wine, modern and refined. Worth its high price.
Côteaux de Botrys, cuvée de l’Ange 2008 (price $14)
Good fruit on this attractive and delicious wine. Fresh and well built.
Adyar, Expression Monastique 2008 (price $10)
blend: 40% Mourvedre, 30% Syrah, 30% Grenache
Warmly expressive on the nose, with gentle hints of moka. The palate is juicy and finely textured. Feels pleasantly airy. Well made and reasonably priced.
Adyar, Monastère de Mar Moussa 2008 (price $18)
blend: 40% Syrah, 30% Cabernet-Sauvignon, 30% Mourvedre.
The second wine tasted from this cooperative linking 8 maronite monasteries who produce individual wines in different parts of the country. This wine shows more spicy aromas and flavours than the previous one. This warmer, « southern » feel suits it well enough as the substance is of good quality, even if the whole is not quite in balance yet. Give it a year or two.
Massaya, Gold Reserve 2008 (price $23)
blend: cabernet sauvignon, mourvèdre, syrah
The nose needs airing (reduction). Quite intense and dense on the palate. Good, youthful tannins, still a bit boisterous. Will need some more ageing but this shows promise.
Ixsir, Grande Réserve 2008 (price $17)
Quite fine, many fruit-based aromas, with a reasonable hint of oak. Quite fleshy on the palate with tannins that hover between the velvety and the rough. Good substance that needs refining a bit, it comes with energy and length.
Château Marsyas 2008 (price $22)
Strange nose (nail varnish) that needs airing for a bit to clear up. On the palate the feel is warm and pleasant, with a suave texture. The tannins are well integrated into some powerful fruit flavours. A pity about the nose!
Conclusions on the red wines
This series showed a very good average quality level. Clearly Lebanese red wines can (and indeed should) be measured against the production of any country with a similar, mediterranean type climate. I would say that one of the weak points of the ensemble is that, with the obvious exception of Musar, a lot of the wines are very similar in style. This surely has something to do with the fact that many wines use the same grape varieties in their blends: cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot, in that order, seem to form a national standard, although there are of course variations. Another factor is the relative similarity of the climate all over this quite small country, excepting the variable altitude factor, and about 90% of Lebanon’s wine grapes are produced in the Bekaa valley anyway. One could add that the sub-soil almost everywhere is calcareous limestone, with top soils varying a bit according the proportions of clay, sand and broken stone contained. If one adds into the equation the fact that most producers have now fully integrated the modern wine-making doxa and equipment, then it stands to reason that the only variables are small details in farming and wine-making techniques, such as harvest dates, sorting or not of the grapes, soaking times and ageing techniques. I agree that the devil is in the detail, but the scope for differentiating one Lebanese wine from another is still not enormous at each price point.
If I had just two wishes for the near future of Lebanese wines, one would be to see a wider range of grape varieties introduced and used. The other would be to see a reasonably precise zoning of the provenance of grapes, and mention of these zones used on labels, with some form of control in place. I understand that there is a very modern laboratory in the country capable of checking these things. It seems to be underemployed at the moment! Now I am not suggesting that all wines, from the Lebanon or elsewhere, should come from narrowly defined regions. That would be silly! Just that what you see should be what you get, in other words a good degree of truth on labels. At the moment the situation seems to be one of « artistic » licence.
To return briefly to the topic of varietal diversity, I did see, during the 4 days I spent in the vineyard and visiting estates, some encouraging signs that this is on the increase: a touch of petit verdot or cabernet franc here, a dab of sangiovese, tempranillo or malbec there. It is not fortuitous that Musar, a wine whose difference from the herd seems to divide opinions (mine is very clearly expressed in the tasting notes of this article), includes some very different grape variaties in its blends, in particular cinsault and carignan. These are long-established in the country and adapted to its climate. I was surprised to see so little grenache used in such a hot and dry climate, for instance. Musar, once again, uses some, as does Clos St. Thomas. Mouvèdre is possibly an interesting variety as well, particularly in the hilly coastal region between Batroun and Kfifane, north of Beirut. Here, where a few interesting smaller produecers are currently emerging, I notise that Adyar and Botrys are using mourvèdre in some of their blends. One can also find it in the Bekaa, with Massaya and a few others.
b). the white wines
Château Musar 2004 (price $26)
blend: merwah, obadieh
Yet another very singular wine. The nose reminded me of wax, honey, green and white vegetables and slightly over-ripe apples. Unique and very beautiful! The palate holds as many surprises. I dedected flavours similar to preserved fruit and ginger. Yet this wine is just the opposite of one whose flavours overpower you. It is vibrant and subtle, constantly evolving so that one returns to the glass, time and time again, with curiosity and pleasure. This is the fruit of a game of hide-and-seek with oxidation that has been raised to the level of a fine art. Such a wine is undoubtedly an acquired taste, but, for someone raised on Fino Sherry, the apprenticeship is under the belt!
bottles of Musar white spanning 35 years
Domaine de Baal 2008 (price $18)
blend: chardonnay, sauvignon blanc
A nose that combines pleasant aromas of white and yellow fruit. Seems almost sweet on the front palate, then tightens up with a fresher feel. The chardonnay plus the oak ageing provide spicy flavours and a slightly warm finish. A good wine with some subtlety.
Château Khoury, Rêve blanc (price $7)
blend: riesling, gewurztraminer, chardonnay,
This most original blend has produced a very pleasant wine that is light and delicate. The nose has both freshness and aromas of ripe fruit. Elegant and well balanced on the palate, this would make an attractive aperitif summer drink, and is very reasonably priced.
Clos St. Thomas, Les Gourmets blanc (price $7)
blend: sauvignon blanc, chardonnay
The nose is reminiscent of boiled fruit drop sweets. Some delicacy on the palate but not much complexity. Pleasant enough.
Ixsir, Attitudes 2009 (price $9)
Curiously « sweaty » nose and flavours that appears to be quite chemical on the palate. This seems to have some problems.
Ixsir Grande Réserve 2009 (price $13)
The nose smalls musty (possibly over-sulphured). Quite ordinary and lacking in definition.
Côteaux de Botrys, Prince blanc 2009 (price $12)
Nose of tropical fruit. A bit odd on the palate as it contains some gas and some rather chemical fruit flavours.
Côteaux du Liban, Blanc du Clos 2010 (price $8)
blend: chardonnay, viognier
Nothing special here. Over-warm and flat.
Kefraya, blanc de blanc 2010 (price $9)
Boiled sweets on the nose. Very ordinary.
Wardy, Sauvignon blanc 2010 (price $8)
This holds up better as it has nice freshness, as well as a slight bitterness to the finish.
Ksara, Chardonnay 2009 (price $12)
Good flavours and a pleasantly rounded texture, although the oak is a bit obvious. Pleasant enough but a bit weighty and lacking in precision. Very « new world » standard » chardonnay in style.
Bargylus blanc 2009 (price $31)
Comes from Syria but produced by the team at Marsyas.
Moderately expressive on the nose, this has refined substance and texture, but is not very complex. An agreable wine but not worth its price.
Marsyas blanc 2009 (price $15)
Good clean flavours. Well made. A pleasant wine, although one would like more complexity.
Conclusions on the white wines
all photographs by David Cobbold