Just as every ambitious chef needs a signature dish, so every new wine region needs a unique style. Australia came to prominence in the 80s with their own take on Syrah, Shiraz, California has Zinfandel, Argentina has Malbec and South Africa, God help them, have Pinotage (Andre Van Rensberg at Vergelegen was once quoted as saying ‘Don’t steal, rape, or murder – or make Pinotage.’) Take a lesser-known grape variety (Syrah in the 80s was only really planted in the Northern Rhone and Australia), grow it somewhere where it ripens better and voila!, your country has something that the marketing people can understand.
Lebanon is trying to establish itself in the global wine market. Most wine-enthusiasts will have heard of Chateau Musar and they may also know Ksara, Kefraya and Massaya. Musar aside, most of Lebanon’s best wines taste French, hardly surprising as they are made from French varieties by Francophone winemakers who were trained in France. Some of them are very good indeed but I would not have guessed them as Lebanese.
Yet you can buy wines that taste distinctly Lebanese. They are heady, a little wild, with a cinnamon sweetness to them. They are exotic; one can almost picture the Phoenician merchant from the Asterix comics, Ekonomikrisis, pouring a cup from an amphora. The wines that have this magic are Musar itself and their second wine Hochar Pere et Fils, one of the cheaper wines from Kefraya and, more gloriously oriental of all, Heritage. The Heritage in particular I could imagine drinking all day whilst feasting on mezze. And what do they all have in common? They contain a large dose of Cinsault.
Cinsault is a component of Chateauneuf du Pape and is a traditional grape of the Languedoc. Though not as maligned as Carignan, it is being pulled up in France, edged out my Mouvedre and Syrah. It is usually used in fruity light reds and roses. Lebanon’s wine industry was developed when it was a protectorate of France. The French planted the grapes familiar to them from North Africa, Carignan and Cinsault. Almost 40% of Lebanon’s vineyards are Cinsault. Perhaps it is the altitude in the Bekaa valley, perhaps it is the climate, but Cinsault develops perfumes and fruit here like nowhere else.
I admire the Lebanese for their excellent wines but I can’t help thinking that they might be missing a trick with Cinsault. It makes a uniquely Lebanese wine. But, just as in France, it is being pulled out in favour of more fashionable varieties. It usually only goes into the cheapest reds. It’s all very well producing Bordeaux-style reds or ambitious extracted blockbusters but then they are trying to compete with the rest of the world. With old-vine Cinsault, they are doing something that no other country can do. Cinsault does not work as a varietal; it really needs to be blended but this need not be a problem, Shiraz Cabernet and GSM (Grenache, Shiraz, Mouvedre) in Australia and Meritage in California (Bordeaux varieties) are now well-established styles. I hope that CCC (Cinsault, Carignan, Cabernet) can become Lebanon’s calling card. It’s got a certain ring to it. I can almost picture the Waitrose own-brand version.
Lebanese wines containing Cinsault:
Chateau Musar, widely available for about £15-£20 depending on the vintage. They also do cheaper wines Hochar Pere et Fils and Musar Jeune which have some of that wild sweetness. The whites are even more idiosyncratic being made from indigenous grape varieties and taste like dry Barsac. The City Beverage Company in Shoreditch, London have many vintages and invite Gaston Hochar over once a year for an unmissable tutored tasting.
Heritage: Le Fleuron – delicious budget red which sells for about $4 in Beirut. Heritage Plaisir du Vin – a more serious, structured red.
And a couple that don’t:
Karam Winery – the only winery in the south of the country. My favourite was the varietal Syrah de Nicolas.
Find out more about Lebanese wines Wines from Lebanon.