A course in how best to wash down Christmas

23 Dec

Tour of several Lebanese wineries helps narrow tough choices
By Dalila Mahdawi
Tuesday, December 23, 2008

BEIRUT: With the holiday season in full swing, many Lebanese are eagerly anticipating the one day in the year where guilt-free overindulgence is the norm. Meals of turkey, crisp roast potatoes, lavish cakes and free-flowing wine will soon be working their magic on the waistlines of those celebrating Christmas on Thursday.

But while the ingredients for a Christmas lunch or dinner are dictated by long-standing traditions, choosing which wines to accompany the feast can be more daunting. At supermarkets, bottles of Australian, Chilean, French, Italian and Lebanese wines gaze up at shoppers, silently begging to be taken home. But how to choose?

Perhaps recognizing that a few members of the public could benefit from a crash-course in wine-tasting, hiking group Lebanese Adventures recently took off their walking boots long enough to organize a tour of Lebanon’s wine producers, mostly found among the lush green fields of the Bekaa Valley. It turned out quite a number were in need of help, as more than 50 people crammed into buses and set off in search of advice from Lebanon’s wine gurus.

Thankfully, Lebanon is small and an almost comprehensive tour of its vineyards can be squeezed into an afternoon, with stops at Ksara and Kefraya, by far the country’s most famous producer, as well as Clos St. Thomas and Cave Kouroum. Sadly Chateau Musar, which has produced some stellar wine, was left off the itinerary.

The first stop was Chateau Ksara, which came into being in 1857 when Jesuits began cultivating Lebanon’s first non-sweet red wine on a 25-hectare plot. Quite by coincidence, guides Carol and Caroline tell us, one of the fathers stumbled upon 2 kilometers of winding Roman tunnels, perfect for ageing wine. Today they are still used to store the oak casks from which wine emerges after  months (and sometimes longer) of slumber. From the dark cob-webbed caves, the unmissable scent of aniseed, from which arak is made, fill your nostrils.

After an informative video about the Ksara vineyards, albeit with hilariously convoluted narration from a poncy-sounding Englishman, the group was led to the wine tasting room. We were given three samples, a 2003 Blanc de Blancs (white), 2003 Sunset Rose, and a 2002 Prieure Ksara (red). The Blanc de Blancs, Carol informed us, “can be served as an aperitif or with fish or shellfish,” and is quite a treat, slipping down the throat as smoothly as silk. So too the rose, which Carol said went “well with Mediterranean and Oriental food,” as well as salads and cold meats.

The Prieure was not quite so outstanding as its predecessors, although that might have been more due to the fact that several members of the group had eagerly chugged numerous glasses of the earlier stuff down rather than “sipping and spitting” as real wine-tasters were supposed to. Then again, it had seemed a shame to waste all that good wine.

In the Ksara shop, the saleswoman advised the 2002 Reserve du Couvent, described in a brochure as a “deliciously complex wine that resonates with the subtle combination of wood and vanilla tones,” or the Chateau 2001 (with “fruity notes of raspberry, blackcurrant and vanilla”) to accompany meat or game dishes.

 

A short drive through the Bekaa and the group was welcomed at Kefraya, which has built up an international reputation for excellent wines since its 1951 inception. The group, thirsty for more wine, was quickly led away from the Chateau’s attractive grounds to the wine-tasting room.

“You should always hold your glass from the bottom otherwise you’ll heat the wine up with your hands,” our guide cheerfully explained as several members of the group rushed to make the adjustment.

The eight or so wines sampled were for the most part excellent, especially the Chateau Kefraya 2002 red blended from Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvedre, Carignan, Grenache and Syrah vines. According to a Kefraya booklet, the wine is “a beautifully conceived and expressive vintage endowed with melted tannins” that render it “supple and well constructed,” a description that may have been lost on the ears of the gathered amateur drinkers, but not on their taste buds. It is said to go nicely with meats, as is another red, Les Breteches.

Riding on a wave of wine-induced cheeriness, the group was whisked away from Kefraya before they could smash any more glasses, and taken to the quaint Clos St. Thomas vineyard. A small family business established in 1990 by Said Touma and his family, Clos St. Thomas has been gaining a reputation for making some of Lebanon’s best-loved wines.

Natalie Touma, who runs the marketing and export side of the vineyard, recommended Miel Du Clos, a red dessert wine. “A lot of people here serve it around Christmas to their guests – it’s better to chill it a bit and drink it like a shot,” she said. Many of the group’s members agreed Miel Du Clos was delicious, managing to be sweet but not sickly, full of flavor but not overwhelming.

For meal time, Chateau St. Thomas 2004 or 2005 red wines were good choices, Touma said. The wines, both of which boast two European medals, are blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot grapes, and are aged in oak casks for 18 months before being bottled. They are said to go well with turkey and red meats.

Last but not least, the group arrived at Cave Kouroum, which claims to be the most “advanced in the Middle East in terms of facilities, equipment, and technology.” After an interesting tour of the ageing and packaging facilities, a now very tipsy group swaggered around the wine-tasting hall.

Agricultural engineer Hassan Rahal said Petit Noir 2003 red was a good pre-Christmas meal drink as it “was easy to drink and has a good body.” For  beef and other red meat dishes, 7 Cepages was a better choice, he said. Left in oak barrels for 18 months, the wine had a deep ruby color and a “spicy nose.”

Rahal also recommended Miss Cat 2002 dessert wine for its “nice aromas of Muscat” and fresh finish.

Slightly frazzled, the group made its way back to Beirut better informed about wine etiquette and Lebanon’s vintners. For many, the trip had helped to narrow down the choices of Christmas wines – if they could remember the next day.

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