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Grape ambitions

Winemaking in the Middle East enjoys a long history, but the time is now ripe for Israel and Lebanon to enter the world stage, writes Alexis Lai

 

Verdant swathes of ripening cabernet sauvignon unfold against undulating mountains while the chirping of birds rings out in the pristine silence. This idyllic viticultural scene is not in Bordeaux or Napa Valley, but in Bekaa Valley, the agricultural heartland of Lebanon.

While wines from the Middle East are unknown to the average wine drinker, winemaking in the region dates back to biblical times, before waves of Islamic rule stamped out the trade. But over the past two decades, winemaking, mostly notably in Lebanon and Israel, has been undergoing a renaissance that has the potential to put the countries on the international wine map.

Scholars believe that winemaking in what constitutes modern-day Lebanon began in 7,000BC, according to the Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL), Lebanon's association of wine producers. Under Phoenician rule, which began in 3,000BC, traders exported wines to neighbouring countries along the Mediterranean Sea.

While the trade petered out during the Ottoman empire, in 1857, Jesuit missionaries laid the foundation of Lebanon's modern wine industry by importing vines and viticultural techniques from French-governed Algeria. But after Lebanon emerged from a 15-year civil war in 1990, only five wineries remained standing.

"The current modern industry that can stand alongside other wine-producing countries is only 24 years old," says Michael Karam, a prominent wine critic based in Beirut who has authored several books on Lebanese wines.

The roots of Israel's modern wine industry similarly date back to the 19th century, when Baron Edmond de Rothschild, the owner of Bordeaux's Château Lafite-Rothschild, revived winemaking by importing French grape varieties and techniques. But until the 1980s, Israeli wineries had a poor reputation for focusing on quantity over quality, according to David Rhodes, a leading wine writer based in Tel Aviv.

This began to change in 1983 following the establishment of the Golan Heights Winery, the first large-scale producer focused on quality. The opening of Margalit Winery in 1989 sparked what Rhodes calls a "boutique revolution" - a boom of small wineries dedicated to producing quality wines. The majority of Israel's 300-odd wineries today are actually boutique operations. While experts agree that Lebanon and Israel are the only Middle Eastern countries that produce wines at an international standard, their profiles on the international wine map still remain works in progress.

Given their small size, they cannot compete in terms of volume. Lebanon has only 2,000 hectares under vines, producing what Karam estimates as a maximum of 9 million bottles per year. Israel produces 35 million bottles annually from 5,000 hectares of vineyards, according to the 2012 edition of The Wine Route of Israel.

In the face of Old World stalwarts and New World darlings, it is difficult for emerging wine regions that rely solely on international grape varieties to stand out. But they may have an opportunity to distinguish themselves by promoting wines made from an indigenous grape that expresses the region's unique terroir.

"To be successfully internationally, an indigenous grape needs to have a flavour profile that's similar to other noble grape varieties," says Debra Meiburg, a master of wine, based in Hong Kong. "It also needs to be pronounceable and something the whole region wants to put their weight behind."

Karam describes this as "one of the most important challenges" faced by the Lebanese wine industry. "We need a signature grape that defines us ... Lebanese wine with cabernet sauvignon is just throwing another bottle of red wine onto a huge global pile."

Lebanon is home to two indigenous white grapes: the merwah and obeideh. Karam is a firm believer in the Obeideh's potential, noting that within the past year, producers have increasingly used the grape in their entry-level wines.

Although Lebanon lacks an indigenous red grape, the cinsault, imported by the Jesuits, may be a worthy adoptee. "If it's any red that can represent who we are, it's the cinsault," Karam says. "It's proven and our terroir gives a good expression to it." Perhaps it is not a coincidence that Château Musar, Lebanon's only winery that has achieved critical acclaim internationally, blends the cinsault in its red grand vin.

While Israel cannot claim any indigenous varieties, it can try to distinguish itself by focusing on wines using less common grapes, such as carignan, roussanne and marselan, Rhodes says.

Given Israel's long dry summers, wines tend to be ripe, fruity, spicy and concentrated, according to Rhodes. In addition to the less common grapes Rhodes mentioned, winemakers also favour classics such as cabernet sauvignon, syrah, merlot, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.

Lebanese winemakers are similarly influenced by Old and New World traditions and rely heavily on international grape varieties, particularly reds such as cabernet sauvignon, syrah and merlot. "The grapes used give them a Bordeaux/Rhône identity ... we tend to over extract them and dress them in very expensive new oak, which gives them that New World profile," Karam says. He describes Lebanese wines as having a "distinct Oriental spiciness" with relatively high alcohol courtesy of the country's hot climate.

While Lebanon and Israel seek to define themselves on the world wine stage, they have the advantage of quality, which is matched by reasonable prices. Israel is "most definitely a region to watch for quality", Meiburg says, seeing its modern fruit-forward wines as suitable for the American palate. Golan Heights Winery has racked up international plaudits in recent years, including Wine Enthusiast's "New World Winery of the Year" in 2012. The rapid development of Israel's wine scene over the past 20 years is no accident. "Israeli winemakers are highly technical and very well-trained," Meiburg says. "They pay careful attention to laboratory testing of things like acidity, sweetness and tannins."

As Rhodes points out, this is exemplified by the fact that boutique pioneer Margalit was founded by a University of California, U.C. Davis chemistry professor who authored a winemaking textbook widely read by Israeli winemakers. Surprisingly, Israel does not have a wine industry association equivalent to Lebanon's UVL. While there are only 40 or so wineries in Lebanon, "they understand that for wine sales to improve overall, the consumer has to start thinking about Lebanon as a wine-producing country before trying to identify individual producers", Karam says.

He predicts growth in wine-producing areas. Aside from the Bekaa Valley, where the bulk of wineries are located, eight are already located in a burgeoning region in the northern city of Batroun.

The industry is still in an experimental stage. "I think there's more room for Lebanese winemakers to settle on what wines they really want to make ... and what grapes reflect our terroir the best," Karam says. "We're not there yet … [but] we could really position ourselves as a boutique producing country."

 

EXPERT CHOICES

MICHAEL KARAM
Lebanese recommendations:
Château Musar 2005
Château Kefraya Comte de M 2010
Château Ksara Reserve du Couvent 2011
Massaya Gold Reserve 2009
Domaine Wardy Clos Blanc 2012
Domaine des Tourelles Rouge 2010
Château Ka Source Blanche 2012
Château Marsyas Blanc 2012
Coteaux de Botrys Château Syrah 2009
Château St Thomas Pinot Noir 2009
Ixsir Altitudes White 2012

DAVID RHODES
Israeli recommendations:
Margalit Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2010
Castel Gran Vin 2009
Yatir Forest 2009
Jonathan Tishbi Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon
2010
Tulip Syrah Reserve 2010
Flam Noble 2009
Seahorse James Chenin Blanc 2012
Odem Mountain Cabernet Franc Reserve 2010
Recanati Merlot Reserve 2010

 

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DiasporaDave
a very well written and researched article by Alexis Lai and I'm proud to have had my thoughts included...for any other questions about Israeli wines feel free to contact me at israeliwineguy@gmail.com or by phone 972-52-552-3969 (052-552-3969 in Israel) or on Facebook on One More Bottle

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