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Exciting wines from the Middle East
2013-04-03
By John H. Isacs

THE Middle East, due to climatic and religious reasons, is generally not regarded as a center for wine production. However, winemaking in the Middle East predates that of Italy, France and Spain, the big three in wine production today.

In our modern wine world we refer to Europe as the Old World and the Americas, Oceania and other more recent wine regions as the New World, so to be historically correct we should refer to the Near East and Middle East as the Ancient World of wine.

The most recent archeological and scientific findings strongly indicate that wine was first made in or around the Caucuses over 7,000 years ago. From somewhere inside a rough triangle bordered by the Black Sea, Caspian Sea and Sea of Galilee, the art of winemaking made its way south through the coastal regions of the modern-day Middle East to Egypt over six millennia ago.

While wine production along the Mediterranean Sea countries of Lebanon and Israel has certainly experienced many precarious times, today there are several reasons for optimism.

Lebanon

The folklore and history of Lebanon is liberally sprinkled with tales of wine. Many believe that as the biblical floods subsided Noah planted his first vineyard in what is modern-day eastern Lebanon. Jesus' first miracle of turning water into wine is believed by many historians to have happened in the southern Lebanese city of Cana.

The modern foundation of Lebanese winemaking started in the mid-19th century when Jesuit monks planted Cinsault vines from Algeria at what is now Chateau Ksara. In 1868 French engineers established Domain des Tourelles. Chateau Musar was founded in 1930 by Gaston Hochar.

Of all the Lebanese producers, I am most familiar with Chateau Musar as I had the privilege to dine with member of the Hochar family in a local steak house, Shanghai Slims. The wines were quite a revelation to me as they featured a distinctive combination of Old World elegance with an exuberance we commonly attribute to the New World.

Founded in 1930 by the Hochar family, Chateau Musar has been Lebanon's leading ambassador of quality wines to world markets. Their flagship red wine, Chateau Musar, is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Cinsault and offers a wonderfully balanced and refined drinking experience. Chateau Musar wines are readily available in wine shops and restaurants in Shanghai and are well worth trying.

In addition to Chateau Musar, there are a growing number of both large and small Lebanese producers that are making names for themselves in the wine world. These include Chateau Kefraya, Chateau Ksara, Chateau Belle-Vue and Massaya.

Israel

The wine industry of Israel is both very old and very young. Vineyards in Canaan and ancient Israel were tended by Phoenicians and other Mediterranean traders well over 5,000 years ago. But the modern wine industry of Israel has been beset by enormous obstacles and challenges and only relatively recently has begun to prosper in terms of quality and reputation.

The modern revival of Israeli winemaking began when Frenchman Baron Edmond de Rothchild, a prominent banker and the owner of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, first visited Palestine in 1887. He saw potential to make European-style wines and sent teams of French agronomists to survey the land and choose the most suitable terrior and varieties.

Not surprisingly, but erroneously, they choose the noble Bordeaux varieties which due to the hot Mediterranean climate never made wines of the anticipated quality. By the early 20th century many of the Bordeaux variety vineyards were uprooted and planted with other higher yield varieties. The results were generally not good but there were notable exceptions.

Today Israel has five wine regions and hundreds of wineries making wines of growing distinction. The regions are Galilee that includes the elevated Golan Heights, the Judean Hills that surround Jerusalem, Samson, the Negev Desert and the Sharon Plain along the Mediterranean coast south of Haifa.

The big three producers Carmel Winery, Barkan Wine Cellars and Golan Heights Winery account for approximately 80 percent of Israel's production. There are also a growing number of boutique wineries making some exciting wines.

The controversy about the best variety continues, with some winemakers in cooler climates having success with noble varieties and others achieving good results with lesser known or appreciated varieties.

But Israel still lacks an indigenous or adopted grape to call its own, such as Pinotage is to South Africa, the Malbec to Argentina, and Carmenere is increasingly becoming to Chile. Despite this, I see two potential candidates.

The long-maligned Carignan variety is now making some of Israel's most interesting red wines. This high-yield grape has long been used in the south of France and elsewhere to make inexpensive, insipid wines without character. But some Lebanese as well as French producers have started to reduce yield and make more interesting red wines from older Carignan vines. Carmel Winery's Appellation Old Vine Carignan is one example that's available in Shanghai.

The other candidate is Petit Sirah, which is also known as Durif in France. The best examples of Petit Sirah wines have traditionally come from New World producers in California and to a lesser extent Australia.

Dark and robust Israeli Petit Sirah wines from Carmel Winery, Margalit, Golan Heights Winery and others have started to win acclaim from wine writers as well as awards at international wine competitions.

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