IMBIBE: Sips From the Land of Cedars

By on April 25, 2017

The wines of Lebanon offer something for every palate and pocketbook.

JACKSON HOLE, WY – Middle Eastern wines are often outstanding, and run a fraction of the price of their more esteemed European cousins.

Bottles of wine from top-notch Middle East producers like Ksara, Chateau Kefraya, Chateau Musar and Massaya typically sell at restaurants in the $30 to $40 range. And keep in mind, that’s the marked-up, retail per-bottle restaurant pricing. They’re even cheaper if you can track them down or order them at your favorite wine store. Once you taste these wines, you’ll know you’ve found a bargain.

Most of the best Middle East wineries have French roots of one type or another. Such is the case of Chateau Musar: Gaston Hochar planted Musar’s first vineyards, in Lebanon, after returning from a visit to Bordeaux. Chateau Musar Rouge is a cabernet/carignan/cinsault blend from vineyards in the Bekaa Valley that takes seven years to make. It’s truly a world-class red wine.

It might surprise readers to learn (it did me) that Lebanon’s Chateau Ksara Estate winery was founded in 1857 by Jesuit monks. The Estate became privatized in 1973 following the Vatican’s urging to sell off monasteries’ and missions’ commercial assets around the world. The early 90s saw the planting of French “noble grapes”—cabernet sauvignon, syrah, semillon, chardonnay, merlot and sauvignon blanc. Today, in addition to Arak and Eau de Vie, Ksara produces exceptional still wines such as their Cuvée du Troisième Millénaire and Ksara Le Prieuré, as well as more affordable everyday wines like luscious Blanc de L’Observatoire—the Middle East’s first observatory was established at Ksara, where the monks recorded rainfall and seismic activity—and Le Souverain, which is an unusual grape blend of arinarnoa, marselan and cabernet franc.

I recently enjoyed the Massaya Blanc—a gorgeous white wine made of obeidi, clairette, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay from the Massaya winery in Lebanon. But I also really like Massaya’s Le Colombier. It’s a terrific red wine for everyday sipping, with appealing pepper and spice notes—a wine to be drunk young and without fanfare. Unlike Ksara, Massaya is a relatively new winery that dates back only to the mid 90s. The wines are very much French-influenced, thanks to a partnership with Bordeaux’s Maison Hébrard and Vignobles Brunier in Châteauneuf-du-Pape, maker of the notable Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe. Massaya Terrasses de Baalbeck is a very Châteauneuf-like blend of grenache noir, mourvèdre and syrah grown in chalky clay. In a blind tasting, I’ll bet you’d peg it as a French Rhone wine.

Chateau Kefraya is the second largest Lebanese winery, located in the Bekaa Valley (the Middle East’s Sonoma or Napa). Although the current Kefraya vines were planted in 1951 and 1979, grapevines in Lebanon were already growing more than 4,000 years ago, when the Phoenicians were fermenting grape juice in the Bekaa Valley. My favorite Kefraya offering is its rosé—an elegant and delicate blend of cinsault and tempranillo, the perfect wine for springtime sipping. PJH

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