Tuesday, February 20, 2018

The fruits of war: two wineries of Lebanon

Naji Boutros
Naji Boutros went to Stanford and got a masters in artificial technology. He was a vice president at Merrill Lynch in London. Then in 1996 he made a visit home to Lebanon, to see his grandfather's old vineyard and hotel. It was in ruins, as was most of Bhamdoun, the village around it.

"The village was a Christian village, and it was massacred in the war, in 1983," Boutros said. "It was known as the Mountain War." The damage barely attracted any notice outside the region, but it had a profound effect on Boutros.

Boutros was one of two winery owners I interviewed at a Lebanese wine tasting in November. The tasting was chaotic, but there were some good wines, and I was able to spend a few minutes with the owners of the wineries whose wines I liked best.

Despite political turmoil, the wine industry is thriving in Lebanon, relatively speaking: more than 40 wineries make about 800,000 cases a year combined. The largest Lebanese winery, Chateau Ksara, is responsible for about a third of that. Twenty years ago, Lebanon had just five wineries. Lebanon's largest wine export market is, sadly, Lebanese restaurants in France, followed by retail sales in the UK. Lebanon would like Americans to learn about its wines beyond the delights of Chateau Musar. The wines may mostly be made from international varieties, but Lebanese wines are generally made with a European sensibility.

One huge advantage of buying these Lebanese wines is that they are already improved by bottle age. The difficulties in bringing them to market mean that 2009 is a current vintage for both wineries I'm writing about today.

Despite the destruction in Bhamdoun, Boutros kept thinking of the centuries old terraces on his grandfather's property, called Belle-Vue. He wanted to move back. "There's been a huge reconciliation in Lebanon," he says. His wife Jill, who he met as an undergrad at Notre Dame, was sympathetic.

So in 2000 they moved with their kids back to Lebanon and replanted.

The terraces are in a great spot viticulturally, near the ocean but at about 1300 meters of elevation, so they get warm days and cool nights.

The planting had challenges unique to Lebanon: they had to get an army squad to defuse four cluster bombs in the vineyards. But he did get the planting done, and by 2003 he had his first crop. His first vintage won a medal in a London wine competition and today the 2000-case winery is one of Lebanon's best.

Boutros' wines are not cheap, but unlike many wineries from less-known wine countries, he has a solid plan for getting them into the U.S., as he and his wife started an import firm in Minnesota, where she is from.

Chateau Belle-Vue "La Renaissance" 2009 is a beautifully balanced Bordeaux blend, 50-50 Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, with lovely mouthfeel and precise tannins. Buy it here.

Chateau Belle-Vue "Le Chateau" 2008 is a blend of Cabernet Franc and Syrah with a little fresh herb on the nose and nice fruit. Buy it here.

Jean-Paul El Khoury
Jean-Paul El Khoury is the enologist and son of the owner of Chateau Khoury, whose vineyards are 1300 meters high up in a different mountain range (Lebanon's mountainous terrain makes great terroir but complicates its civil wars.) Khoury's vineyards were planted in 1995 and '96 but they weren't able to harvest a commercial crop until 2004.

"When we started in 2006, I already had two years in barrel," Khoury said. "Then we had the war with Israel so we had to stop sales. And we already had a new vintage."

When Khoury resumed selling the wines, they had been aging for several years longer than intended.

"We realized people were enjoying the wines better, so we decided to keep doing it," Khoury said. "But the sales are picking up. The vintages will catch up quickly."

That should be a call to action to pick up a bottle of Chateau Khoury "Perseides" 2009, a blend of 50% Syrah with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It's very nicely balanced, with nice cherry fruit and good mouthfeel. It's in an excellent spot in its evolution right now. Buy it here.

Even better, see if you can grab a bottle of Chateau Khoury "Symphonia" 2007 before they're all gone. A blend of Cabernet Franc, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, it features nicely integrated tannins, fine mouthfeel, with some tastes of maturity and yet still nice cherry fruit. Nice balance. Buy it here.

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