Arrived in to Beirut airport late where we were met by head of security and within five minutes had our bags and visas and being driven by Sami into town. Beirut is a city that doesn’t sleep so we dumped our bags at our hotel and had a beer in a near by roof top bar with fabulous views of the city and mediterranean.
Sami picked us up from out hotel in Beirut and we went to Chouf Cedar Nature reserve, sadly the reserve was closed but we still were able to see these magnificent trees stretch as far as the eye could see. We drove on down to the Bekka valley, situated between Mount Lebanon and Anti Lebanon mountain past numerous vineyards and on to Massaya. Now Sami and Ramzi Ghosn run Massaya between them, the estate is on land their father purchased in the 1970’s and Sami came back to the Lebanon in 1992 (at the time he was a practicing architect in LA) to reclaim the estate from squatters and start the production of Arak. Ramzi at the time was running a restaurant business in France where he started to distribute the Arak.
Massaya, The Winery at Tanail
Massaya vineyards are an oasis of calm, beautifully maintained and complimented by an organic vegetable garden, herb garden and free range chickens pecking about. There is a large restaurant on the estate which can seat up to 200 in the summer and 60 inside the fireside restaurant in the winter. Ramzi is the winemaker and he practices natural wine making according to the Lunar calendar. They also have a small distillery for Arak which is triple distilled after the third distillation
organic green anise collected from Hineh village is added. The Arak is then stored in traditional clay amphore in their beautiful oriental cellar.
Arak storage vessels
After a tour of the vineyards, cellars and gardens we settled down to a mezze lunch in the gardens outside their house. Ramzi’s second passion is food and he cooked a delicious five course lunch. We started with hummus and flat bread, fresh broad beans and salads from the garden accompanied by Massaya Rose 2010, made from cinsault and complimented the food and sunshine perfectly. Followed by a pumpkin, caramalized onion and bulgar wheat rosti and a risotto with herbs from the garden, oriental truffles and squid with the Massaya Classic Blanc 2009. On to the reds; Classic Red 2008, cherry fruit with plenty of spice on the finish, Silver selection 2005 and 2007 which was the star of the show, a really elegant glass of wine representing great value for money, this complimented the Frikeh (smoked green wheat) served with grilled spatchcocked quail which had been rubbed with summa (local spice). Finally we had Massaya Gold Reserve 2007 which is the finest wine of the Massaya range and a real treat. After a very relaxed afternoon we headed back up towards the mountains to stay at Hotel Terrebrune, Faraya this hotel is just below the best ski resort in the middle east and while the resort was quiet you could imagine it would be buzzing in the winter months. Mezze for dinner this time accompanied by Arak; which was surprisingly easy to drink.
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JN's Lebanese Wines
Sami Ghosn, Massaya Winery
Leisurely start to the day, Ramzi drove us to their other vineyards in Hadath on the way the very efficient and friendly Lebanese army stopped us at one of their numerous checkpoints to search our bags and check our passports. We made a brief stop to a hut on the roadside to buy some of the exceptional flat breads that we had been feasting on since our arrival.
Planted in the vineyards in Hadath are Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre, all the vines are quite young circa six years old. It is a superb vineyard site as to one side you have the mountains and on the other side the Mediterranean. There is always a cooling breeze running through the vineyard keeping every thing very healthy.
Off to Baalbeck to visit the roman temple which is incredibly well preserved despite the fact it has suffered from war, theft and earthquakes. We are looked after by a most informative young man who is the third generation of guides in his family. Baalbeck is north of the Bekka valley and on the border of Syria so a very different feel to this town than elsewhere, still very friendly and hospitable but due to the borders being closed between Syria and Le
banon the town was at least 40% down on tourism and trade. Back though the checkpoint, suspiciously quiet; it must be lunchtime where we hook up with Sami who bombs down the mountain side past Musar’s winery to the coast for another meal; this time a mezze of seafood for a late lunch in a lovely restaurant on the water where the sun sets and we head back into Beirut. A few hours later we meet Sami and have a few scoops at his friends bakery/café and a few tasty morsels of Lebanese cuisine before heading back to our hotel in the early hours of the morning. As I said Beirut is a city that never sleeps.
Sadly our final day in Lebanon and today we are just being tourists. As driving in the Lebanon requires a great deal skill we have opted for a driver. First stop; Jeita caves not far from Beirut these are a must if you are even in Lebanon. There are two caves, the first cave is not for the faint hearted and if you suffer from vertigo you may want to give it a miss, you walk through crystallised limestone in the shape of curtains, columns etc, it goes on and on and you reach quite a height within the cave. The second cave is accessed by a small boat and equally as spectacular, you can not go all the way through the cave as the narrow boat does not fit through all the rock formations.
Then we headed to Byblos a beautiful port town not far from Beirut (37km) where we wandered through the souk (market) and walled streets of the ancient port town. Wine has been shipped from this port town for 5000 years. We had superb lunch in Casa Pepe where photo's of the rich and famous adorn the walls from there visits in the 1960’s. The seafood was delicious and as the restaurant is situated on the harbour you get a super view.
We got dropped back at the Cathedral in Beirut and we also went to the mosque and wandered back to our hotel to for a quick break before hitting the town. Joe Pena's for tex mex and on to the Music Hall for a seriously funny evening’s entertainment. As we get up the next morning the heavens open and after three fascinating days in Lebanon it is time to go home.
Averil's Trip To The Lebanon (Part one)
Our Lebanese Wines
Now we are coming into the season for winter fires, robust wines and game which work perfectly with pinot and syrah/shiraz. Even better if the wines have a few years’ bottle age and whose bright youthful fruit flavours have been replaced by subtle more mellow flavours and sometimes the farmyard aromas of Pinot Noir is a great match for this earthy style of food.
I would recommend something like Burgundian Pinot Noir such as Santenay 2006 Les Charmes from Domaine Vincent Girardin or an Italian Dolcetto from a good producer like Pira Luigi for Pheasant, grouse and duck
Big wines need time, especially when they’re being partnered with a classic European-style daube or stew, for this I would suggest a new world Syrah; Boekenhoutskloof Syrah 2006 made by Marc Kent renowned for his fabulous Syrah’s or one of Viv Tompson’s Great Western reds from Victoria; the Bin 0 Shiraz is always a show stopper and fantastic value for money.
Alternatively, a Syrah from the Rhône, Saint Joseph, Côte Rôtie or Cornas would work with the more robust meats like venison or game pies .If you feel like pushing the boat out René Rostaing’s Côte Rôties are delightful and he is undoubtedly one of the finest winemakers from Côte Rotie.
I would recommend decanting these wines to give the wine a chance to breathe and really show all the characteristics of the wine.
It never ceases to amaze me how many people fill their wine glass to the top. This is not a rant just an observation that is a shame not to be able to swirl the wine in the glass and enjoy the aromas of the wine as the smell is 90% of the taste.
The first sense you use when assessing a wine is sight, the colour of the liquid in the glass can give you an indication of age and condition of the wine. If the wine is a Caberent Sauvignon it will be dark and opaque and if it is a Pinot Noir or Gamay for example it will be lighter in colour. If it is an older vintage it will have different shades from rim to core. Red wines lose colour with age while white wines gain colour with age.
Some wine makers do not fine or filter their wines so you may experience a few tartrate crystals floating in the bottle as you pour, while these may look off putting they will not do you or the wine any harm.
Checking the colour
Then you should fill the glass no more that two thirds full and swirl the liquid gently in the glass and take a good sniff. This gets the olfactory cells going and sends messages to the brain, if you taste a lot you will have an idea of what the wine is. If not you can still ascertain plenty from the aroma, is it an appealing aroma, do you want to go on and taste? Hopefully it will smell pleasing, of fruit, and possibly even minerals and spice and maybe even grapes! You should feel enticed to taste.
If it smells of wet cardboard or musty there is a chance it may be corked. If it smells like your Granny’s sherry that has been left open for weeks it may be oxidised. While this is rare if it does happen you should be able to bring it back to your reputable wine merchant.
A few lucky members of the JN taste team are just back from a whirl wind trip in Burgundy. It was a great chance to catch up with suppliers all be it briefly as they were just commencing the harvest.
Burgundy is one of the most picturesque parts of France, small villages with numerous tiny vineyards. Interestingly the classifications in Burgundy are geographical i.e. vineyard driven rather than producer driven as is the case in Bordeaux. If I could use one word to sum up this trip; it would be “terroir.”, there is no direct translation for this word but it is basically the soil, you could also add in the aspect of the vineyard weather, grapes and winemaking all of which contribute to the character of the wine. The Benedictine and Cistercian monks were convinced by terroir and they marked out vineyard sites in Burgundy in the 12th century. Some of these sites are among the most famous wine producing areas in the world.
The main grape varieties in Burgundy are Chardonnay and Pinot Noir, Gamay is the grape for Beaujolais and Aligote makes a light white wine for early drinking. The Pinot Noir and Chardonnay are particularly well suited to the limestone and clay soils in the Cote d’Or area. The granite soils of Beaujolais are where you see the Gamay grape thrive.
We tasted fabulous Chardonnays at Château de Beauregard from their Macon Vergisson to their top Pouilly Fuisse’s which can age for 20 years plus. Patrick Javillier’s Meursaults are gaining acclaim in the States, France and the U.K. His Meursault Les Tillets shows great minerality. We also tasted the Cuvee de Forgets which is from the Volnay side of Meursault and has clay based soils giving the wines more body and texture than mineral limestone soils of the Tillets vineyard.
The reds did not disappoint stunning Pinot Noir’s from Volnay and Pommard made by the up and coming Nicolas Rossignols He owns just over 11 acres, he has taken on his father 29 acres of vineyards and he now makes wine from his Grandfather’s vineyards, all his wines are biodynamic and he is judicious with the amount of new oak he uses. He is becoming one of the bigger individual quality producers in Burgundy His Volnay’s are elegant, fresh and feminine with beautifully integrated tannins, while his Pommard’s are more tannic and robust in style, big and masculine but still fabulous. We also had the pleasure of meeting Guillame Tardy who has taken over from his father Jean. Guillame produces stunning reds from 1er Cru sites; his Vosne Romanee is bursting with fruit and has silky textured tannins. His Nuits Saint Georges 1er Cru Les Boudots is made from 70 year old vines they have a mineral character and a touch of spice All Guillame’s wines are of sublime quality
If you have never had a Burgundy that has impressed you I suggest you try one of these winemakers wines, 2005 reds will go on for a good few years so if you have the patience treat yourself and forget about it for a number of years. 2006 was a very ripe vintage producing quite robust wine the 2007’s are drinking surprisingly early and are a great introduction to Burgundy for those of you who want instant gratification. The 2008 was a good vintage and some of the producers rate it more highly than 2009 for longevity. The 2009’s will be very easy to drink the press are raving about the vintage; we will be offering a select few producers wines en primeur.