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Lebanon: Musar, Heritage, Ixsir, Karam, Ksara, St. Thomas, Coteaux du Liban, Tourelles, Wardy, Nakad, Kefraya, Kouroum; Lebanese food...

On this page:
Wines of Lebanon at the London International Wine Fair: new winery "profiles" & updates with nearly 50 wine reviews, published July 2011. Featuring Musar, Karam, Ixsir, Ksara, St. Thomas, Coteaux du Liban, Tourelles and Wardy...

Winery snapshot: Heritage... latest vintages reviewed March 2008.

Autumn vineyards at Château Kefraya
Copyright Jim Budd
Wine touring in Lebanon November 2005: Beirut, Baalbek and Bekaa
"This fascinating trip was full of pleasant surprises in personally uncharted territory. Château Musar is still the star in certain ways but there are several wineries, large and small, that show great promise. Lebanon appears capable of offering something different, combining traditional French winemaking philosophy with a distinctive Middle Eastern accent; and sometimes high quality with reasonable prices..." Also includes Château Nakad, Château Ksara, Domaine des Tourelles, Clos Saint Thomas, Heritage, Château Kefraya, Cave Kouroum and Domaine Wardy...
Plus an excellent piece on Lebanese food by John Salvi MW.

 
Wines of Lebanon in London July 2011

 

Château Musar

I met Ronald Hochar, brother of probably more famous Serge (pic right: see feature on my 2005 trip to Lebanon below) again at this year's London wine trade show, where his fellow country(wo)men had a noticeable presence to back up a promotional drive hopefully giving a boost to their winemaking profile in Europe. Ronald and Serge's father established the world-famous Musar winery and vineyards in 1930, and nowadays their sons Ralph, Gaston and Marc are heading up the company on a day to day basis. There's more info below in those aforementioned legendary 2005 ramblings. 'Scores' are my new-fangled 1-2-3 rating system - see right hand column for explanation, if you must. Photo: Tasting with Serge Hochar in their cellars by Roz Cooper (spot the dodgy character in the red top, left, taking copious notes).
Musar Jeune white 2009 (Viognier, Vermentino, Chardonnay; 13% alc.) – a bit sulphury and stripped at first, lean crisp palate vs some intense yeast-lees notes. Not sure.
Musar Jeune rosé 2009 (Cinsault, 13% alc.) - quite nice and gentle style, starts off leaner then gets creamy vs crisp red fruits. 1
Hochar Pere et Fils red 2004 (Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Grenache; 14%) - smoky rustic and complex aromas, quite volatile but it works; soft and ripe vs some firm grip and power vs mature savoury fruit and leather tones; probably peaked, nice now anyway. 1
Chateau Musar rosé 2006 (Obaideh, Merwah, Cinsault: 9 months in French oak; 12%) - nutty oily nose and palate, dried red fruits and oxidising finish; interesting I s'pose! 1
Chateau Musar white 2004 (Obaideh, Merwah: 9 months in French oak; 12%) - nutty fino aromas, dry mineral mouth-feel with oxidising notes vs nice freshness underneath actually, long hazelnut finish; surprising. 1-2
Chateau Musar white 2003 (Obaideh, Merwah: 9 months in French oak; 12%) - strangely smells less oxidised with dry nutty palate, softer and more mature on the finish, fading perhaps. 1
Chateau Musar red 2004 (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, Carignan; 14%) - smoky liquorice nose, pretty intense with enticing ripe savoury maturing notes vs still firm and structured, tight long finish; a bit of class, needs a few more years in bottle to open up. 2
Chateau Musar red 2003 (Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, Carignan; 14%) - seems like it's more than a year older, lovely complex smoky berry and wild herb characters, silky vs firm palate, rustic yet stylish; warmer Med style with nice oomph vs maturing fruit. 2-3
Chateau Musar UK office: 020 8941 8311. ChâteauMusar.com.lb


IXSIR
This exciting new winery only launched their first wines last year, which are already looking pretty impressive. Export manager Nagi Saikali explained "IXSIR comes from Iksir, the original Arabic word for Elixir," the idea being matching the best grapes and areas to create the desired style of aspirational wines. Hence, they have vineyards in Batroun in the north, where the winery is found, Jezzine in the south and in the Bekaa valley too. "Currently looking for a UK distributor," it says in their brochure: more info @ http://www.ixsir.com.lb/. By the way, Caladoc is a crossing of Grenache and Malbec, which you also find in the south of France.
2009 Altitudes rosé (Syrah, Caladoc) - fragrant vs oily maturing nose, chunky dried fruits vs crisp finish, nice style. 1
2008 Altitudes red (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Tempranillo, Caladoc) - perfumed and minty with herbal cassis and black cherry, delicious fruit with attractive rounded tannins, spicy powerful and lively with dry vs 'sweet' fruit finish. 2
2008 Grande Réserve (mostly Syrah & Cabernet Sauvignon) - coconut oak touches vs rich vibrant dark spicy fruit with herby cassis tones too, concentrated and extracted vs quite fine tannins and light chocolate texture/flavour. Needs a couple of years to open up. 2-3


Karam Winery
Karam's vineyards are also in the Jezzine region in the southern end of Lebanon (maybe this is an up-and-coming area then, or just less risky perhaps given the Bekaa's proximity to the Syrian border and troubles there in the past?) planted up to 1300m altitude (over 4000 feet) on varying slopes and valleys, which "enables Karam to grow many different types of grapes." They do make quite a large and sprawling range although there are highlights, as you'll see below. They being the owner Karam brothers headed up by winemaker Habib and his younger half runs their own US import and distribution company covering the D.C, Virginia and Maryland area. The wines are also available in London and Paris (in Lebanese restaurants I'd guess?), although they're looking for an agent in the UK. More @ http://www.karamwinery.com/
2010 Noble sweet Muscat - nice orange peel and exotic / spicy notes, quite crisp mouth-feel vs a touch of sweetness (30g/l residual sugar) and quite luscious honeyed fruit. 2
2010 Cloud Nine white (Muscat, Semillon, Viognier) - attractive style showing aromatic grapey notes vs fatter oily side, crisp vs 'sweeter' finish. 1
2010 Arc-en-Ciel rosé - yeast-lees edges, quite intense and zingy with a creamier finish vs crunchy red fruit bite. 1
2009 Maison red (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Petit Verdot) - minty herby nose with black cherry underneath, has a bit of punch too vs soft berry fruit vs some grip. Tad dusty too?
2006 Syrah de Nicolas - smoky rustic notes with savoury edges, chunky tannins yet pretty concentrated as well, spicy / fiery finish and wilder style. 1
2006 Thouraya (Cabernet Sauvignon) - again nice maturing savoury style vs herby red pepper tones, big tannins vs lush soupy texture; a touch extracted but gutsy too. 1
2007 Corpus Christi (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc) - grainy oak dominates although this has fair substance, pretty serious and stonky palate with rich fruit, finishing tighter and spicy; needs a couple of years to open up. 1-2


Domaine Wardy
Wardy is Arabic for rose, "symbol of passion and love," and was one of the wineries I checked out back on that very memorable trip in 2005: see profile in that article below. UK importer: Lebanese Fine Wines, London. http://www.domainewardy.com/
2010 Rosé du Printemps (Cinsault, Syrah) – appealing fresh floral style with zingy crisp mouth-feel and redcurrant fruit. 1
2009 Les Terroirs red (Cinsault, Syrah, Cabernet, Merlot) – lively berry fruit with floral minty touches, grippy palate vs lush young fruit vs smoky dark edges; attractive ripe vs dry finish. Good value at about £5. 1-2
2004 Château Les Cèdres red (Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot) – herby red pepper and cassis vs spicier lusher side comes through, still quite firm yet has good depth, power and length; needs 2 to 3 years still. 2-3
2005 Private Selection red (Cabernet, Syrah, Tempranillo) – still a little closed up and grainy vs maturing meaty edges, again has pretty big tannins and oomph vs rounder tastier finish; tightens up, subtle concentration underneath, perhaps a tad overworked though. 1-2


Domaine des Tourelles
See profile under “Lebanon tour 2005” below. UK importer: Lebanese Fine Wines, Staffs. http://www.domainedestourelles.com/
2010 Tourelles rosé (Syrah, Cabernet, Cinsault, Tempranillo) – attractive Provence vs Languedoc style rosé, gummy yet oily texture then creamier vs crisp finish. 1
2007 Tourelles red (Cabernet, Syrah) – soft maturing berry fruit with liquorice hints, a touch of tannin vs savoury flavours. 1
2007 Marquis des Beys red (Syrah, Cabernet) – fair amount of coconut oak but has nice lush vs spicy cassis characters, that oak is beginning to melt in layered with sweet liquorice, gets more subtle on the finish. 1-2
2005 Marquis des Beys – tighter and closed up, more herbal and austere with firm taut finish; not sure although it’s gently concentrated. 1
2004 Marquis des Beys – complex herbal vs savoury vs dark fruit profile, quite rich with meaty vs liquorice flavours, concentrated and intense too with much better integrated tannins. 2+
2007 Syrah du Liban Grande Cuvée – upfront coconut oak with meaty maturing undertones, pretty concentrated structured and powerful although balanced, oak vs spice vs dark fruit on its long finish; wow. 2-3


Coteaux du Liban
This new-ish winery lies pretty much smack in the middle of the mythical Bekaa Valley overlooking the city of Zahle and is owned by the Abou Khater family. Interesting to note that they have some Grenache planted, as there’s not that much in Lebanon. UK importer: Bekaa Wines, London. http://www.libancave.com/
2010 Désir rosé (Syrah, Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache) – quite rich Roussillon-esque rosé style with chunky fruit and a hint of tannin vs oily texture then crisp finish. 1
2007 Rouge Passion (Cabernet, Syrah, Carignan, Grenache) – nice easy ripe berry fruit with liquorice too, turns smokier and lusher with mature tasty finish vs a bit of grip and ‘sweet/savoury’ notes. 1
2006 Syrah – quite grippy still vs minty herby black cherry fruit, a bit extracted but it’s quite attractive with tobacco edges and dark fruit. 1
2007 Château (Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot) – maturing smoky savoury nose/palate, quite structured with a touch of grainy coconut oak, dry tannins vs subtle maturing fruit. 1-2


Château St. Thomas
I first met the owners, the Touma family (which is Arabic for Thomas I’m reliably informed), back in 2005 on that much-lauded dream trip to their fascinating country and wine-lands; and was delighted to try their mostly high-standard wines again in London this year. Read on further down this page for more words and notes on older vintages. Their 65 hectares (160 acres) of vineyards sit calmly on the eastern slopes of Mount Lebanon, and the Toumas released their first wines in 1998. And continuing my “interesting to note” theme, as you do, they’re also making some rather good Pinot Noir, which seems to have potential here. http://www.closstthomas.com/
2010 Les Gourmets blanc (Sauvignon, Chardy, Viognier) – nice citrus fruits with milky lees edges, crisp vs a bit of weight, lively and fresh vs rounded. Well-made attractive white. 1
2010 Chardonnay – light toasty lees-y notes with a touch of butter and oomph, again finishing with nice bite as well. 1
2010 Les Gourmets rosé (Syrah, Petit Verdot, Cinsault) – appealing crisp and lively yet elegant style with subtle rose petal and red fruits. 1
2008 Les Gourmets red (Cinsault, Cabernet, Syrah, Grenache) – enticing perfumed ripe berry notes with smoky edges, black/blue fruit cocktail gives a crunchy vs ‘sweet’ finish. 1+
2007 Les Emirs red (Cabernet, Syrah, Grenache) – hints of oak tinged with blackberry in that ‘modern’ style, dry vs ‘sweet’ tannins, a tad grainy but the wood adds texture too and this has more depth to it. 1+
2007 Château St. Thomas (Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot) – maturing dried raisin fruit, concentrated with choco/coconut texture, attractive firm vs ‘sweet’ profile with tight and quite long finish. 2
2006 Château St. Thomas (Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet) – maturing nose with cassis too, quite extracted although more concentrated as well, the oak’s melting in lending hints of chocolate vs solid tannins and power vs nice ‘sweet/savoury’ fruit. 2
2008 Pinot Noir – quite authentic perfumed ‘sweet/savoury’ Pinot character with ripe and oily vs herby berry texture/flavours, lively fairly long finish with a touch of grip too. Good stuff. 2
2005 Merlot – herbal berry notes vs smoky lush palate, quite vanilla-y toasty and extracted vs good depth and oomph; tannins are still rather firm, a bit overdone maybe. Looking at their wines and all the others I tasted, I mostly found the single varietals less successful and the blends were best. 1+?
2004 Château St. Thomas (Cabernet, Syrah, Merlot) – enticing developing nose with complex savoury tones vs cassis and red pepper backdrop, quite elegant vs powerful somehow with well-integrated oak, again still fairly solid vs concentrated ‘sweet/savoury’ fruit. 2+


Château Ksara
Ksara claims to be Lebanon’s oldest winery and, well, I’ll refer back to a comment I made in 2005 (see their profile in that feature down the page): “… and a bit of a disappointment I'm afraid…” Looking at the wines tasted in London five years down the line, I can’t say I’ve changed my mind with several of their reds lacking charm or showing clunky winemaking (I haven’t included them all). UK importer: Hallgarten Druitt.
2010 Sunset rosé (Syrah, Cabernet Franc) – crunchy red fruits and rose petal, crisp vs creamier finish, nice fresh zingy style. 1
2008 Le Prieuré red (Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah) – soft mature ‘sweet/savoury’ style with a bit of grip vs attractive fruit and tannins. 1
2007 Le Souverain (Cabernet Sauvignon, Arinarnoa = a Petit Verdot/Merlot cross) – like the 06 and other reds, this again shows lots of grainy vanilla oak yet has hints of depth and ‘sweet’ fruit, better though with rounder less aggressive tannins. 1+


Heritage - Bekaa Valley
Tried and tested March 2008

I was fortunate enough to visit Heritage and other Lebanese wineries in 2005 (well, I did pay for my own flight at least): see below to read a brief profile of Heritage and notes on a few previous vintages, as well as my full report on that tantalizing trip. Owner and winemaker Dr. Dargham Elias Touma (not a medical doctor but PhD in food and beverage science) is the latest in the family line, since its creation in 1888, to run the Heritage vineyards, winery and distillery. Talking about "combining tradition and technology" in the same sentence has become a bit of a cliché in wine-speak. However, their wines do seem to express an appealing mix of 'modern' and 'traditional' in style, with plenty of rich fruit (ripe grapes shouldn't be too difficult in the Bekaa Valley with its hot dry summers balanced by high altitude vineyards) while the reds retain some kind of old-fashioned charm and complexity. It's also a bit unusual, and a pleasure, to be able to taste and find on sale mature vintages of an estate's top red wines, as you'll see here:
2007 Blanc de Blancs (Sauvignon Blanc Chardonnay Ugni Blanc 13%) - attractive combo of zesty and aromatic, lightly exotic peachy fruit and oily aniseed notes; quite full yet very crisp with a tangy finish. 85
2005 Le Fleuron (40% Cinsault 10% Mourvèdre 10% Carignan 10% Tempranillo 10% Syrah 10% Cabernet Sauvignon 10% Grenache 13.5%) - colourful cocktail of grape varieties gives this nice ripe prune v peppery black cherry/olive fruit with tobacco and savoury maturing edges; fair weight with 'sweet' liquorice fruit v lightly dry bite and rustic finish. 85-87
2000 Grand Vin Bourgeois (40% Syrah 30% Cabernet Sauvignon 30% Mourvèdre) - smoky cassis and black cherry with pepper and resin/raisin liquorice notes; enticing rich dark fruit palate v savoury maturing fruit v quite firm yet sweet-textured tannins, good balance of power (14% alcohol) and still fresh acidity; lingering tasty savoury v sweet flavours v bitter twist makes it a nice match for 'boudin noir aux oignons' (black pudding with onion). 89+
2000 Heritage Chateau (Syrah Cabernet Sauvignon 14.5%) - complex smoky v herbal black cherry and cassis, developing meaty notes with liquorice edges; concentrated and lush showing tasty ripe raisin and tangy plum fruit v savoury leather, firm bite and power yet well-balanced with lovely depth and length. 92+


Lebanon November 2005: Beirut, Baalbek and Bekaa; or wine, food and history...


This fascinating trip was full of pleasant surprises in personally uncharted territory. Château Musar is still the star but there are several wineries, large and small, that show great promise. Lebanon appears capable of offering something different, combining traditional French winemaking philosophy with a distinctive Middle Eastern accent, and sometimes high quality with reasonable prices. However, for the moment the country will certainly remain a niche producer with only 1300 hectares (ha), 3210 acres of wine grapes, plus lots of table grapes, a staple fruit crop. The majority of vineyards and cellars are located in the Bekaa Valley bordering Syria, which unfurls onto a stunning mountain backdrop with dramatic microclimate: high altitude (plantings either side of 1000 metres = 3000+ feet), marked difference between sunny days and fresh nights etc.
(Thanks to Jim Budd for the photos above and below (copyright Jim Budd): Jim's web/blog: http://www.investdrinks.org/ and jimsloire.blogspot; more of his pics can be seen on http://www.flickr.com/photos/74791601@N00/).


Most estates are focusing on blends of classic varieties (Bordeaux and Mediterranean), but a couple of indigenous white grapes also make unusual wines. Everybody had something worth drinking, even if occasionally the arack hit the spot best. This is the 'national beverage' made from distilled grape spirit infused with aniseed: you mix it with water as an aperitif or digestive, or neat if you have a death wish. Wineries are family owned businesses with daughters as well as sons taking charge. Lebanon, on the whole, is much more Western than you might imagine. We were told there are 10 million Lebanese living abroad against four million population, so export is taken very seriously despite the small quantities available, mainly supplying numerous restaurants around the world.


Aside from wine, we had a welcome although brief opportunity to play the tourist in this very attractive and diverse country. Despite a troubled history, from ancient to recent times (a topic too big and complex to risk taking on here), public treasures have been beautifully preserved. Baalbek must count as the most awesome Roman (among other occupants) ruins I've ever seen; I doubt there's anything like it left in Italy or Greece or anywhere. Pity about the Hisbolah or Hezbollah (now claiming to be a mainstream party) T-shirts on sale outside bearing machine gun and provocative slogan, which I didn't ask to be translated. Tempting to buy one and wear it through security back at Heathrow airport...


In contrast, Beirut is a busy packed and sprawling city, on the one hand conspicuously wealthy (Mercedes dealers must do well) and modern yet in parts rundown. Admittedly there's still a great deal of rebuilding to be done and bullet holes to be filled in... Then compare this to the poverty (although no worse than other countries) in the 'countryside': inverted commas needed as some of the so-called rural towns such as Chtaura have a population of 300,000 people. Delicious food too: healthy and copious, as long as you like unending mezze hors d'oeuvres (I do) before plenty of lamb and yummy sweet pastries. More on the local cuisine after the winery blurbs below by John Salvi MW. And last but by no means least, the Lebanese really are so hospitable, as we soon discovered trying to stick to a heavy itinerary. It was difficult to say "we've got to go now" without upsetting our hosts! Along with a selection of wines tasted at each property, I've included a few tit-bits of info and choice quotes rather than lengthy histories or technical blah: click on links to visit their websites.



Château Musar
Tasting new wines and sublime museum vintages in their cellars in Ghazir (behind and above Beirut
) with Serge Hochar, his son and winemaker was a great pleasure; and confirmed Musar is in no danger of losing pole position for the time being. We discovered two ancient native white varieties: Obeideh (sounds like a character from Star Wars), old ungrafted bush vines planted at 4000 feet on the Syrian border yielding 15-20 hectolitres (hl) per ha (around one ton per acre); and +100 year old Merwah, probably related to Semillon.
Tasting 2005 unfinished samples, I found the Merwah more interesting and elegant. Serge commented: "I don't want to make this wine attractive on purpose, so you can taste the truth," meaning the variety's history, vineyard environment etc. This quip followed a lovely rich and aromatic 2005 Viognier, the first crop from two year old vines, which they're growing "to prove why I don't like it, but young people do!"
2004 Cuvée Musar blanc (Obeideh) - very hazelnut, oily and oxidising with mineral palate. 85-87
2004 Hochar blanc (Merwah) - juicier fruit with fatter texture then fresh fine finish, nice mineral v nutty. 87
1999 Château Musar blanc (blend of above 2 grapes, 9 months in oak) - much better than the 98, this was toasty and waxy with rich sherry & hazelnut aromas, lovely depth of lightly oxidised fruit with a touch of chocolate sweetness, concentration v fresher bite on the finish; very good, Meursault-esque. 90+
1993 blanc - complex mushroom character on top of nutty oxidised fruit, toasty honeyed palate with chocy texture, still has fresh acidity too. Somebody compared it to an old white Graves such as Carbonnieux or Haut-Brion, which it once beat in a tasting! 92+
A tank sample of 2005 rosé 'bled off' from Cinsault grapes showed raspberry and strawberry bubble gum, very aromatic yet smoky too; a touch of grip and bite v weight of fruit, delicious. Syrah is a new variety for Musar under research, and a 2005 sample from three year old vines had herbal red pepper then savoury notes, chocolate palate and green finish. More work needed there. The 05 Cabernet Sauvignon was much better with aromatic cassis fruit, good depth v firm yet rounded texture. We then tried three parts of the about to be blended 2004 Ch. Musar red. Cinsault: rustic with juicy berries and bit of grip, nice style. Carignan (mostly 45 year old): more perfumed and concentrated, delicious ripe fruit balanced by bite and grip. Cab Sauvignon, which Serge called "the least interesting wine for me to taste, which is why I put in mostly Carignan": cassis, raisin and light red pepper; very grippy yet sweet fruited.
2001 Hochar rouge - maturing sweet/savoury nose with earthy morello cherries, quite rich and structured, bit oxidised on the finish. 85
2003 Cuvée Musar rouge (mostly Cinsault) - sweet tobacco fruit, quite soft and easy with a little bite on the finish; attractive quaffer. 85+
2002 Château Musar - already charming in fact, cherry fruit with rustic edges, subtle firm tannins and fresh stylish length. 89-91
Serge explained their ageing philosophy: one year in vat, approx one year in barrel, back into vat then blended and bottled; if possible 4 years in bottle before release. He agreed the 02 is delicious now but "thinks it's dangerous to change policy and release it." We wondered whether his brother Ronald, the accountant, would prefer to persuade him otherwise, given the infinite amount of maturing bottles in their multi-floored cellars...
2000 - sexy smoky v sweet nose, complex maturing aromas; lovely palate displaying softness ripeness spice and maturity, light grip and elegant length. 92-94
1991 - obviously more developed with rustic wild herbs and liquorice, sweet oily texture then freshness and light bite on the finish, fine length. 94
1981 - very lightly musty but still has seductive cheesy Gran Reserva Rioja style complexity ("controlled" volatile acidity or VA), oily texture and silky tannins; wouldn't think it's 14% alc. Fruit is a little dried, perhaps because it's lightly corked. Nevertheless, nice example of that Musar style, kind of old Bordeaux/Burgundy cross with Med edges. "The Cabernet (81 was a great CS year) does come out more with age," we're told. 92
1980 - different, still has that intricate VA character yet a bit more rustic and liquorice ("perhaps Cinsault and Carignan come through more, CS not as successful that year"), superb nose actually; chunkier fruit, rustic edged richer and smokier, still shows nice backbone and length. 93-95
1977 - a tad musty/mushroomy, cheesy v sweet; lots of liquorice fruit yet quite firm on the finish, perhaps a little dried out? Not when you drink it, just a bit mind you. Flavours linger for a long time too. 94
1972 (with noticeable ullage) - more old claret like, again displays that characteristic VA with sweet raisins, dried cassis and mint; incredible richness and lively fruit followed by light tannins, still drinking very well; pure, complete and balanced. 97-99
1974 (never released) - slightly musty but has plenty of soft fruit, drinkability v complexity; toughens up a little but still very nice. 90+
1964 - gorgeous mature fruit with smoky cheesy intricacy, spice v liquorice; subtle lingering coating on the mouth, silky and long. 97-98
The night before, as guests at a rocking wedding reception in Mounir's restaurant up in the hills, we greatly enjoyed the 1995 Ch. Musar - very drinkable classic style (92-94) - and their 2000 Hochar red, not far off in quality and style and also nicely quaffable, with a scrumptious prolonged dinner.
Consumed on Christmas day 2006:
1979 Musar – brown/rust mature colour, complex sweet herbs v meaty balsamic aromas; quite rustic v liquorice intensity, smooth tannins and finish; very nice but passed its best probably. 88-90

Château Nakad
Shame about the name, but his wines certainly weren't. Salim's cellar used to be his grandfather's house, which was converted into the winery in 1923. Nowadays, 70% of his production (wine and arack) is exported to France; presumably there are a lot of Lebanese restaurants there. His sons are also recent graduates from Bordeaux, so he hopes to "combine their new skills with my experience to improve quality." We tried the following in his (freezing) cellar:
1998 Prestige (Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon & Merlot, 8 months in oak) - enticing unusual nose, peppery herbal black cherry and olive; quite firm rustic tannins yet has chunky fruit concentration, closes up as it's too cold. 87
2002 (from barrel) - shows a fair bit of coconut spice oak, but there's nice ripe loganberry & black cherry underneath, again firm mouthfeel yet sweet-textured and weighty, well judged extraction v fresh acidity keeping it tight. 90+
We also tasted his 2005, which had just been pressed off and displayed plenty of attractive fruit on a solid acid/tannin framework and nice length. Along with a little philosophy: "This is my blood of love: if you make wine, you have no hate in your heart; if you have, you won't be a good winemaker." My concluding remark states: we like Salim.


Château Ksara
One of the largest châteaux and a bit of a disappointment I'm afraid. In 2007, they'll be celebrating 150 years of non-stop production, two thirds of which ends up in Europe. They own 300 ha (740 acres) planted with 'classic' varieties, mostly in west Bekaa with 25 ha around the property itself. Their French winemaker, James Palgé, has been working there since 1994. We were given an informative potted history of wine in Lebanon, at least in more recent times! The domination by the Ottoman Empire ended in 1860 when Britain, France, Prussia, Russia and Italy (spot the western imperial strategic interest) shaped an 'independent' state around Mount Lebanon.
The Jesuits reintroduced winemaking into the country with French varieties arriving from Algeria in the 1870s, such as Grenache and Carignan. The discovery of vast natural caves in 1898 led to Ksara enlarging the cellars, which provide an entertaining subterranean stroll (2 km) and the chance to spot some old vintages e.g. 1918. As late as 1973, the Jesuits sold the winery and vineyards to the current owners. They introduced more varieties such as Merlot, Petit Verdot and Sauvignon Blanc in the early 1990s. The harvest usually spans from mid August to mid October.
Domestic wine consumption is low at about 4 million bottles a year - Arack makes up 5-6 litres per capita - one third of which is imported, the majority from France not surprisingly. From 1990 (the end of the so-called 'civil war') to 2005 (when the Syrian army finally pulled out, by the way), wine grape plantings increased threefold and consumption doubled. Lebanon now has a trade agreement with the EU, as their wine laws were already strict enough. They're going to establish an institute of vines and wines to implement appellation areas and labelling (don't do it!); there are currently six recognised regions which could be divided into subzones if desired. Wisely, irrigation isn't banned in Lebanon but only used on a very controlled basis.
2002 Cuvée Troisième Millénaire (Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot & Syrah; 1 year 70% new oak) - light spice and black cherry with background oak, attractive spicy fruit and texture, firm yet elegant finish; nice enough, a bit soulless perhaps. 85
2001 Cuvée Troisième Millénaire (Cabernet Franc & Petit Verdot) - smokier more interesting nose, elegant depth with chocolate texture and light grip v mature fruit, finishes a little short. 87
The above blend varies according to vintage availability based on CF and PV; the Château label is always Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot:
2002 Château Ksara - nice cassis and cedar aromas, very firm grip dominates the perhaps fading fruit with savoury finish. Not released yet! 83
2001 - richer cassis, lightly leafy; better balance and style, still grippy but fuller too. 85-87
2000 - pungent berry and mint, enticing aromas; rather firm and tart tannins, not convinced the fruit's there. 80
1999 - more interesting rustic berry and herbs, again a bit extracted and dry yet riper and longer than above. 83
1996 - turning smoky and liquorice, lovely nose; savoury fruit, more generous v those tannins; old style but it works. 87
1995 (Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan & Syrah) - coffee beans and cheesy complexity, richer sexier palate showing softness and sweetness v light grip; drinking now. 90
1935 Vin d'Or (Macabeu & Grenache Blanc, 17%) - sexy pecan nut, raisin and Bakewell tart; richly oxidised raisin fruit, caramelised nuts v lively finish and length, still shows freshness and balance at 70 years old. 95


Domaine des Tourelles
Founded in 1868 by François-Eugène
Brun from Marseille, Tourelles is now owned by the Issa family and a cousin of the wife of Brun's descendant, Pierre Louis. They buy in all their grapes to produce less than 3000 cases of wine, arack of course and a few strange liqueurs. I counted the grand sum of 18 barrels, a refreshing change! Nice people, we tasted the wines in their front room with some tasty nibbles. Their top red shows promise:
2003 Marquis de Beys (50-50 Cabernet Sauvignon & Syrah, 1 year+ in French barriques) - a little closed to start, lightly cedary with peppery black cherry and cassis combo; chunky palate with ripe tannins, tobacco notes and subtle vanilla oak coating; just bottled so needs a few months to express itself better. US$15 87+
2004 rosé (13%) - plenty of oily redcurrant, strawberry and rose petal; quite rich and full then tangy finish. $4 85
1976 Carteg
ène (Black Muscat) - Madeira like old gassy nose, cooked raisins and walnuts on the palate, a tad burnt on the finish; quite interesting even if on the way out.
Oranjaline - served from a chocolate cup! Bit like Cointreau but much drier and with a real kick (don't believe the 40% on the label).


Clos Saint Thomas
The Said Toumas have been making arack since 1952; in 1990 they bought suitable land and started planting vineyards (now 50 ha, 124 acres), built the cellars and visitor reception in 1997 and released their first vintage in 98. Another charming family business, where the daughters are making their mark - Nathalie is marketing director - under the watchful eye of Mr. Said Touma senior, who was very keen on getting our opinions on his wines. The cellar was dug out of rock: in winter a trickle of spring water runs down the rock, naturally keeping humidity high and temperatures low; in summer they spray water onto the walls instead. Outside stands a cute little private chapel, ornate yet refined and peaceful.
Nowadays, rather than being impressed by 150 oak barrels, my alarm bells ring hoping they're not being over used. Unfortunately their 2004 Chardonnay was too toasty and bitter; however, a sample of the 2005 cask-fermented Chardy showed lovely citrus fruit with background fat and yeast-lees. Don't leave it much longer in those barrels, please! The 2004 rosé was very ripe and weighty with a touch of bitterness (too much skin contact probably); in contrast, the 2005 (Grenache, Cinsault, Cab Sauv, Syrah & Petit Verdot) has delicious fruit and fresh bite, much better. Similar story with Les Gourmets rouge: 2002 was ripe and soft but too old, the 2003 (Grenache, Cinsault, Cab Sauv & Syrah) from vat was much fruitier and spicier. I also enjoyed a 2005 blend of Syrah and Grenache. Good to see they're anticipating changes in taste. We moved on to their older premium reds:
2001 Les Emirs (Cabernet Sauvignon & Grenache) - quite complex ripe berry and cassis nose, nice depth of fruit in the mouth v balanced grip of tannins; some sweet oak coming through but not over done. $7.50 85-87
Château Saint Thomas (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot & Syrah - $13.50)

2002
- silky spicy fruit, a bit heavy on the chocolate oak but has nice texture, length and weight. We'll see. 87-89
2001 - more obvious cassis and mint aromas (more CS than Syrah in this), firm structure with reasonable length and old Bordeaux style; a little cardboardy on the finish?
2000 - attractive plum pie notes with gamey development (50% Merlot in this), softer tannins and good elegant length. 89-90
1999 - attractive smoky liquorice and herbal blackcurrant, touch of VA complexity too; quite rich v elegant, 14% weight with enough fruit, hint of oak and firm tannins yet softer than the others. 88-90


Heritage
Owned by the intelligent, easy-going and dynamic Dr. Dargham Elias Touma (nephew of above and Salim Nakad's son-in-law!): his friends call him Dr. D for short. The attractive historic winery was a destroyed school, which he bought and rebuilt from 1996. Most of the grapes are purchased from growers with 10% of supply coming from their own vineyards, which he prefers. Wine production totals 500K bottles, about 10% of which is high-end sold to wine enthusiasts and exported. The Heritage range makes up 40% including a Nouveau launched on 1st November, Fleuron is his volume label for the home market and the rest is cooking wine. Dr. D commented on the nation's thirst for arack: "most Lebanese drink wine when it's raining." He decided not to follow everybody else and do traditional labels, which are indeed "really out there." The breakfast tasting (read on...) consisted of these wines, accompanied by various dips etc. and amazing fresh warm flat bread flavoured with thyme, sesame and olive oil...
2005 Heritage Nouveau (Cinsault, Tempranillo, Cabernet Sauvignon & Syrah) - pleasant cherry fruit quaffer, soft and light as it should be.
2001 Plaisir du Vin (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cinsault & Mourv
èdre
) - smoky with dried fruit sweetness, light grip and fairly elegant finish. $6 83-85
1999 Grand Vin Bourgeois (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Mourvèdre
& Merlot) - attractive 'sweet' v spicy v savoury aromas and flavours, firm yet rounded, fresh elegant length. 87-90
1988 Château 'Temple du Soleil' (mostly Cinsault, the first vintage) - lovely cheesy leathery nose, sweet mature dried fruits, still a little grip keeping it alive, smooth and elegant. 90+
Apéritif a base de Vin et Noix (green walnuts steeped in 2002 vintage fortified sweet wine at 20%) - enticing aged Madeira/Sherry aromas, fresh bite v sweet cooked fruit coating; deliciously different. 90
Latest Heritage vintages above this article
.


Château Kefraya
This grandly colonial estate sells 100,000 cases a year in 40 countries, so is obviously a big fish in Lebanese wine terms. They also produce arack because, as managing director Michel de Bustros (and writer/historian in his spare time) pointed out, "we can't not make arack rather than we want to." It became increasingly apparent on this trip that arack is an excellent cash cow, which enables investment in vineyards and winemaking, and a handy outlet for deselected wine thus aiding a focus on quality. The wine industry is Christian dominated with one Muslim producer, but "this means nothing in terms of who works for us or the consumer."
Kefraya has 300 ha (740 acres) at 850-1100 metres (2600-3350 feet) altitude on an alluvial plain, with good diversity of soils from clay to chalk to very stony. So from 10 to 15 years ago they planted Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier (increasing), Bourboulenc, Clairette, Ugni Blanc (decreasing) and now Muscat; and red varieties Cab Sauv, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Cinsault, Carignan and Tempranillo (the latter three years ago), while testing several 'new' ones. All varieties are kept separate by plot/terroir and during vinification, then blended.
They make 75% red wines, 5% rosé and just three whites. Technical director Diala Younes is in charge of all this: she trained in Bordeaux and Lebanon as an agricultural engineer and winemaker. She said the only disease problem they encounter is occasionally oidium (a type of mildew), so a little sulphur (standard practice) is the single chemical they use in the vineyards. Looking to the future, many growers are now replanting or grafting over table grapes, and increasing vine density to compensate where the soil's very fertile.
2004 Blanc de Blancs (Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc & Chardonnay) - lively tropical aromatic honey aromas with a touch of underlying toast, quite good fruit with very fresh finish. 85+
2003 Casta Diva (Viognier, Chardonnay & Sauvignon) - promising milk and honey richness on the nose, then nice fat fruit with roasted hazelnut; finish is a bit toasty. 85+
2004 rosé (Cinsault) - attractive vibrant fruit v mineral bite, more elegant style than some of the others we tried. 84+
Château Kefraya (variations of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah):

2002
- quite cedary nose with raisiny cassis fruit underneath, very grippy tannins and coconut spice; the texture's a bit aggressive considering the amount of new oak.
2000 - mature cassis fruit with light cedar oak, more savoury and leather; tight firm palate but better done and more elegant. 87+
2001 - lighter and leafier, quite subtle oak; again pretty austere finish but it might soften...
Comte de M (Cabernet Sauvignon & Syrah) $28:
2001 - quite rich 'sweet' v savoury with a tad of chocolate oak; fairly toasty yet meaty and structured, nicer texture v firmness than above and better able to absorb the oak. 89-91
2000 - maturing cassis and rustic red pepper notes; good concentration v grip, chewy with long finish, nice fruit and light cedar oak. Promising. 92+


Cave Kouroum
My favourite winery in the sense that it's the grooviest thing I've ever seen made from concrete. A triumph of brutalist architecture with grey Warsaw chic, I kept feeling I was on the set of Guns of Navarone or a minimalist Bond movie. Apparently it will withstand up to 7 on the earthquake scale. But enough of the silly humour...
Kouroum is Arabic for vineyard: the company was established in 1998 by former grape growers and these cellars constructed in 2001. The owner Bassim Rahal, whole family and everybody else who works there, it seemed, were there to greet us; the kind of reception we'd got used to from the ultra friendly Lebanese. They make 5 million bottles pitching at "the affordable mid market" with only 30% of sales in Lebanon. They do a fussy selection of grapes in the vineyard and vinify by plot if it fills a vat. Blends are preferred over varietal wines. We tasted quite a few from tank, barrel and bottle:
2005 rosé (Cinsault, Carignan & Grenache) - delicate colour, lively elegant and crisp with zesty length; good stuff. A vat of 2005 Cinsault, Carignan, Grenache & Syrah (part of their 7 Cépages blend with three more to be added obviously) displayed lively black cherry/olive fruit, aromatic with nice grip.
A 2004 Carignan-Syrah, after 10 months in cask, had a promising fruity liquorice nose and good depth in the mouth, despite rather firm tannins. Their 2004 Blanc Perlé (Sauvignon Blanc, Grenache Blanc, Clairette, Ugni Blanc and Muscat) showed aromatic nutty oil notes with crisp mineral palate v light fatness (85).
Onto 2003: Petit Noir had nice 'sweet' fruit and spice with good grip v oily fruit (85), whereas the 7 Cépages was a bit heavy on the vanilla oak although had nice texture and depth. I wasn't particularly enamoured with a sample of 2003 Syrah that had endured 18 months in oak: bags of chocolate, chunky tannins, difficult to see the fruit. Similar story with the 03 Syrah-Cabernet Sauvignon.
Finally two 2002s: the 7 Cépages showed resinous ripeness, grip and weight v mature fruit (85+). And the 2002 Miss Cat, made from Muscat grapes left to dry out on the vine then slowly fermented to 16% when it naturally stops, offered elegant sweetness with subtle oxidative development yet freshness too.

Domaine Wardy
A slick family owned business headed up by Salim Wardy, which began making arack back in 1893 and is now the leading producer of varietal wines. The Private Selection range is a new duo from the north Bekaa valley, made from vines planted at 1700 m yielding just 20 hl/ha. The company owns 50 ha and sources from a further 50 ha under contract. They now make 500K bottles per year, two-thirds exported to the UK, Sweden, France, Japan, Ireland and the US. Salim explained that they're running a campaign, where 1000 Leb£ (US$0.66 or 36p Sterling) is donated per bottle sold to preserving the cedar forests. He also added: "in certain areas of Bekaa, we pay growers 25% above the market price to encourage them to stay and replant."
2003 Sauvignon Blanc - grassy v yeasty v fatter ripe grapefruit, quite weighty yet very crisp mineral edges too. 85+
2003 Private Selection Muscat-Viognier - piercing nectarine nose and palate then rather charred finish, although there's fresher fruit underneath. Interesting but don't see the point of the Muscat.
2003 Merlot - intriguing Carmenère nose of ripe plum and herbal red pepper, raisin v gamey edges; reasonable depth of currant fruit but finishing a little tart.
2003 Syrah - slightly reductive pong (sulphide), the palate shows some sweetness to start although a bit stalky on the finish; the Syrah aromas come out more with air.
2002 Château Les Cédres (Syrah-Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot) - much better palate with fruit / oak 'sweetness', good depth v firm tannins then nice length. That oak should integrate in a couple of years. 87-89
2003 Private Selection red (Syrah-Cabernet Sauvignon) - has the same reductive nose with floral berry fruit underneath, big grippy mouthfeel and coco oak, more concentrated and richer; perhaps a bit too extracted, time will tell...


Text all rights Richard M James


EATING IN LEBANON by John Salvi MW

This article is on John's website countsalvi.com (he is one too...) and was also published in the Circle of Wine Writers Update magazine. Many thanks for permission to reproduce it here. John and his wife Petronella also edit/write the publication 'Bordeaux – New York.' Pictures taken by and copyright Jim Budd.
Our trip to Lebanon was, gastronomically speaking, an extremely flatulent, exciting and avoirdupois-gaining experience. An abundance of chick peas saw to the first, a host of hitherto unknown dishes took care of the second and an abundance of delicious breads dealt with the third. Overall we had 7 meals, although it seemed to be a great deal more. Those who lingered for the extra two days had eleven. Plenty of time was consecrated to these repasts, as no ridiculous requests had been forwarded to our hosts for light lunches – an abominable habit sadly adopted by the Institute of Masters of Wine on its Wine Study trips such as ours.
Our arrival was momentous and cannot be left unsung. Rarely I feel is one plunged quite so deeply and rapidly into the heart of a new culture. We had exactly fifteen minutes to wash and brush up at our hotel before being trundled off in our bus on a long, twisting and mysterious drive, through the dark, to heaven alone knew where. It turned out to be the Hotel Mounir. Here we were catapulted straight into a full-scale Lebanese wedding for 300 guests. The dancing was amazing, the decibels right off the scale and the food an unending stream of unknown delights. We were encouraged to join in as though we were absolutely part of the family. It was an evening of great warmth and emotion, and the food, which was served throughout the entire evening, was a more exotic version of what we were to eat at every meal during the days that followed. It gave us an immediate, if rather overwhelming, introduction to the immense variety of Lebanese cuisine.
Of course we must not forget the breakfasts, three of them for the regular tour and five for the stoppers-over. In the Bekaa Valley hotel these were relatively spartan, but at the Radisson Hotel in Beirut they were copious buffets covering the full spectrum of breakfast foods and rather more – a savoury chick pea and broad bean stew by the name of Foul Moudamas Balila delicious drizzled with the unfiltered olive oil from the north of Lebanon. Also Halaweh, a very sweet and delicious paste made from sesame and sugar. The finest, and indeed a memorable breakfast, was that enjoyed, in the sunshine, on the roof garden of Heritage Winery. Fruity red Nouveau accompanied many of the usual Mezze dishes – hummus, Baba Ghannouj, white cheeses, raw vegetables, fruits and a truly delicious, warm, fresh bread - menouschi - copiously covered with sesame seeds. This was a feast in its own right.
Most of us were new to Middle Eastern and Lebanese cuisine and eager to discover all that we could about its extent and its delights in the short time allotted to us. Fortunately all our hosts were only too eager to assist us, to explain all their dishes to us and to help us to spell and to pronounce them. As Virgil said, “I will not waste your time by enumerating the impressive variety of dishes that appeared on the table as Mezze”, but of course that is exactly what I am going to do. Between them they provided a bewildering array of small dishes of contrasting colours flavours, textures and aromas. I have done my best to list what came to our table during our visit, but there are surely many omissions. There was not always enough time to get all the explanations from our hosts, so busy were they making sure that all was well with us. No meal was served without three of the national dishes mentioned below. Firstly the famous TABOULEH (bulgur wheat, parsley, mint, green onions, olive oil, lemon juice, sliced tomatoes, salt and pepper). Secondly the “incontournable” FATTOUSH (minced garlic, salt, pepper, Lebanese mint, lemon juice, olive oil, chopped Romaine lettuce, diced cucumber, and the absolutely essential crisply toasted flat bread). Thirdly Kibbe – ground, almost emulsified, meat, malaxed with bulgur wheat, onion, salt, black pepper and spices and often served with a yoghurt sauce. Here we go!

Toum: garlic paste

Taratour: sesame paste sauce

Mohamara: chilli sauce

Tahini: sesame butter

Menouschi Zaatar: A seasoning, often sprinkled on bread, of thyme and sumac

Pistachio nuts

Pumpkin seeds

Olives

Hummus (Hommus bil Tahini): chick peas with olive oil, garlic, tahini, paprika and parsley

Babba Ghanouj: roasted aubergine puree with olive oil

Foul Moudammas: fava beans in olive oil

Batinjan Moutabbal: aubergine in sesame sauce

Warak Inab: Stuffed Vine Leaves

Msakaet al Bathenjan: aubergine casserole

Batata bil Kizbara: potatoes with coriander

Fattet Bathenjan: aubergine with yoghurt

Fattet Hummus: chick peas with yoghurt

Falafel: a form of three-cornered broad bean patty, fried

Chamandar: beetroot in olive oil

Hindbeh: cold spiced and herbed cabbage

Batata bil Toum: potatoes with garlic

Batrakh: smoked fish roe with garlic

Moujaddara: cold lentils

Harra: fish with sesame oil, onion and red pepper

Kafta: (shish kebab), meat balls with parsley & onion

Manakich: baked bread with thyme & sesame

Labne: dried yoghourt paste

Fatayer: spinach pies

MEAT

Kibbe (Kebbeh, Kibbi, Kibi): raw ground meat. Pink

Kibbi Nayyeh: raw meat, viande crue

Kibbi Krass (Kibbeh Rass): fried kibbe balls

Kibbi Krass Mishwi: ground, lean meat kibbe balls

Kibbi bil Sanieh: baked kibbe balls

Kibbi bil Laban: kibbe balls in yoghurt

Kibbi Arnabiyeh: kibbe balls with sesame paste

Moussaka

Kasabe: cooked Cubed lamb’s liver

Kharuf Mihshi: roasted lamb

Kafta bil Saniyeh: baked Kafta (baked minced meat)

Kafta Mikli: fried fingers of kebab

Kafta Mishwi: grilled kafta

Labanomou: meat cooked in yoghurt

Shishbarak: meat pasties in yoghurt sauce

Dawood Basha: meat balls with onion

Lahm Mishwi: grilled, skewered cubes of meat

Chicken and rice

Djaj Mishwi: grilled chicken

Shish Taouk: barbecued, boned chicken

FISH

Fish Kibbe

Kibbit Samak: minced fish with bulgur, parsley and lemon

Fried Squid rings (Calamari)

Siyadiyyit al Samak: fried fish with rice

Lebanese fish and rice

Samke Harra: grilled fish with sesame paste and pepper

WHITE CHEESES

Halloum: cream cheese

Mouschalali: strings of semi-dried white cheese

Akkawi: white, semi-dried cheese

Entrée dishes

Rkakat bi Jibne: cheese cigars

Falafel: a form of three-cornered broad bean patty, fried

Sambousik bi Jibne: cheese pasties

Sambousik bi Lahme: meat pasties

Fatayer bil Sabanikh: spinach pies

Sfiha Baalbeckiyeh: a sort of meat Pizza eaten outside the magnificent ruins in Baalbeck

Manakeesch bi Zaatar: thyme pasties

DESSERTS

Yoghurt with honey

Mohalabieh: milk, sugar and starch (amidon)

Tarator: sesame milk (Tahineh), citrus juice

Loukoum: Turkish Delight, often with pistachio nuts and/or rose-water syrup

Osmaliah: curdled milk with honey and a cake of crisped pasta

Kater: rose-water syrup

Baklawa: Lebanese sweets

Coffee: western or Lebanese, sweetened or unsweetened, with or without cardamom

Arak: The national aniseed spirit in every shape, form and flavour.


All these dishes appeared at least once if not many times and some of the staples came with every meal. In addition to the above, and among the more unusual dishes for us, were cubes of raw liver and raw tail fat from freshly killed lambs, as well as raw kid-meat and goat-meat kibbe. The range of white cheeses, fresh, soft, dried, mixed with herbs and spices or crumbled with oil, was remarkable, as was the range of dishes made with chick peas and with aubergines. Most of these are included in the list of Mezze above.
Lebanese food is healthy and “sain”. Butter is almost never used and olive oil, fresh, fruity and unfiltered, is used extensively. Parsley, mint, coriander, aniseed, sesame and fragrant Lebanese thyme were among the herbs and spices most frequently used. Every meal included a large selection of raw vegetables piled high on attractive platters – enormous, deliciously flavoured tomatoes, carrots, onions, salad greens, green and red peppers (both sweet and searingly hot), as well as cucumbers. There was also, without fail, several platters of fresh fruits at the end of each repast: – bananas, green oranges, mandarins, persimmons, apples, pears, custard apples, loquats, satsumas, melons, fresh and half dried dates. These were served at the same time as a variety of desserts, which always included Loukoum, various pastries and other exotic sweetmeats.
After the Mezze came a main course, or often two. One could imagine that our hosts had liaised with each other so varied and unrepetitive were the dishes presented to us. Fresh fried trout straight from the waters above which we sat to eat them, herb encrusted frogs legs, kibbe pockets. These last were fascinating, being raw lamb or goat or kid meat, pounded with herbs and spices, made into pockets and filled with fat to keep the meat moist whilst being cooked. When served and opened the fat had to be scraped out before eating the meat. One of our longer dinners had a powerful and pungent dish of little pasta balls and chick peas with a rich meat sauce (beef this time) ladled over them. Known as Moghrabiyeh, it was a dish ideal for ravenous agricultural labourers returning from the fields, rather than for over-sated and sedentary wine-tasters at the end of a long, energy-sapping day. There were also highly flavoured lamb stews and chicken stews with Bulgur wheat as well as a variety of Kebabs of various meats, savoury and spicy little sausages, grilled sausage meat patties and grilled lamb, goat, kid and chicken pieces.
One Winery offered us a choice of more or less Western dishes in their excellent winery restaurant and produced, for Petronella and myself, a perfectly cooked, rare steak and a fine piece of sea-bass cooked on a hot rock. I was stupid enough to eat some raw, unknown mushrooms up in the stand of Lebanon cedars and suffered acute stomach ache that night. This was cured with aniseed tea dosed with orange blossom water – a cure that I shall take as often as I can in the future!
Nine of us, out of the original twelve, stayed in Lebanon for two extra days. Being on the coast, in Beirut, and having had very little of it, we went resolutely for fish. The recipe in these restaurants is simple and excellent. The fishes are colourfully laid out on chilled slabs, packed with ice. One discusses and chooses a selection of them. These are then picked out, weighed and one is charged accordingly, by weight. One then tells the restaurant exactly how one would like each fish to be cooked – grilled, fried, baked, in sauce, etc. Fish is expensive and it is better to choose local fish, which is absolutely spanking fresh and flavoursome, rather than imported fish. Most of the shellfish, lobsters, prawns and shrimps for example, are imported from Kuweit or Turkey. The Blue crabs are local and simply marvellous as are the red mullet, sea-bass, sand and rock grouper and some mysterious fishes known as “mouse” and “Sultan Brahim”. These are all fished offshore and should not be missed. There are no native oysters or mussels. There are an abundance of fish restaurants along the coast, ranging from delightful, rustic, simple terraces on the beach, to elegant, fine, crystal and white linen tablecloth palaces, with glass fronts facing the sea. Both of these are enjoyable and exhilarating experiences.
If you think that all of the above was squeezed into three days for some, or a maximum of five for others, then you will not be surprised that some of our group had firm intentions of dieting upon their return home. It would be interesting to know how many fulfilled their good intentions and how many, like me, were immediately led astray by an “entrecote aux sarments” and a bottle of 1966 Château Palmer." Lucky you John!