Tim Atkin and Lebanese Wines

Last Sunday the 2012 EAT! Festival Wine Fair opened its doors in a new venue, the grand surroundings of the Assembly Rooms, Newcastle. As usual the region’s local wine retailers turned out in force to show off their bottles – I’ll cover that in a separate post – but this time round there was a special treat in store for those lucky enough to have got tickets for it – a Lebanese Master (of Wine) class by Tim Atkin MW, a familiar face to Saturday morning TV viewers (see my brief resume of Tim here).

Tim was already in the main hall when the doors were opened at 12:30, sitting at a table showing off his other passion, photography (see TimAtkinPhotography.com for a glimpse of his portfolio). As a prolific tweeter he was often seen on his ‘phone but was happy to chat to anyone passing by (including fellow NEWT Elaine Orrick who got a hug on account of having been on a wine trip with Tim before).
The Masterclass began at 2pm and had 3 round tables set out with the 6 wines we were to be tasting, with about 40 people sitting expectantly. Tim began with a short but detailed history lesson of Lebanon covering the political, geographic and primarily viticultural background of a country that has an area half the size of Wales and a population just under that of Scotland. On eastern edge of the Mediterranean the rapidly rising inland plateau that is the Bekaa Valley (home to most of Lebanon’s wine industry) averages 900-1200m giving up to a large temperature variation between cool nights and hot days, excellent conditions for grapes.

Although the winemaking history of the area stretches back past the Levant and into ancient Phoenicia it was the French who left their indelible mark on the country, first with Jesuit monks who came via Algeria and set up the first winery, Château Ksara, in 1857, and then after World War I, when France was given mandate over Lebanon. Thousands of thirsty French soldiers and bureaucrats moved in and started a golden age for wineries in the country which lasted long after they left, until the start of the bloody civil war in 1975 which decimated the industry so that by the end only 5 remained; Château Ksara (1857), Domaine des Tourelles (1868), Château Nakad (1923), Château Musar (1930) and Château Kefraya (1946). However, since then the industry has expanded again to nearly 40, including Massaya (1998), Château Ka (2005), Château St. Thomas (1990) and IXSIR (2009).
The National Union Vinicole du Liban organisation, whose membership includes the majority of these wineries, set up Wines of Lebanon as a promotional campaign to popularise Lebanese Wines in the UK and it was under this group’s banner that Tim led us through the first wine.

Château Ksara 2011 Blanc de l’Observatoire. As well as being the oldest winery in Lebanon Ksara is also the largest, with 420ha of vines (although their website only claims 340ha) and about 38% of the country’s 7.2 million bottles (briefly overtaken by Château Kefraya after the war).
This pleasant white is an unoaked blend of Clairette, Muscat of Alexandria and Sauvignon Blanc and had a little matchstick aspect on the nose. It was herbal dry with nice balance and light to medium bodied – a good starter wine, but the only white of the session (in the main hall two more were on show and were both arguably superior).

Domaine des Tourelles 2011 Rosé. Tourelles is based in the village of Chtaura in the Bekaa Valley and produces 150,000 bottles a year. Wines of Lebanon marketing quotes the Financial Times in calling them  “the most seductive winery” in Lebanon  – but if they’re referring to Mark O’Flaherty’s excellent “Sideways in Lebanon” piece then it’s actually “the most seductively ramshackle and atmospheric winery in the country”!
Their rosé is a Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Tempranillo blend made in the Saignée style, where juice is bled off early from red wine must, concentrating the red and providing lightly coloured juice as a by-product for Rosé fermentation. It had a delicate nose with light berry fruit and good balance in a sweet fruit style (not candied though) with a clean, dry finish – not too complex but very drinkable.

Château Ksara 2010 Réserve Du Couvent. Back to Ksara again, whose wine cellar is an expanded Roman tunnel complex stretching for almost two kilometres with ideal wine storage temperatures.
Their oaked red is a Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cabernet Franc blend which gave a spicy mineral nose and a touch of gun smoke. The wine was lightly vegetal and a touch green, acceptable but not particularly thought-provoking, so we quickly moved onto the next red, which should have been Château Ka 2008 Source de Rouge but that failed to appear so a last minute stand-in was provided by Paddy Eyres from Bin21 in the form of….

Château Musar 2003. Musar is the Marmite of the wine world, loathed by some for its volatile acidity and tendency for farmyard qualities – loved by others for similar reasons. I am unashamedly in the “love it” camp as anyone who has read my blog will know!
The 2003 is a Cinsault, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon blend and had a delicious nose of burnt spice and a suggestion of fortified strength. It was a delight to drink, smooth and rich with chocolate undertones – a very popular wine in the room and for me on par with the ’02 and approaching the ’99 in terms of quality.

At this point in the proceedings Tim went off on a tangent talking about interesting wines or, in the case of Pinot Grigio, uninteresting ones. He made no bones about his dislike of the glut of dull, predominantly Italian, ones and described his design for the perfect Grigio glass, with a hole at the bottom! Moving onto the next wine he noted the variety, Pinot Noir, and said it is meant to be close to the smell of male pheromones, then recounted an amusing story about a well known friend of his (who isn’t Australian, nor a Wizard) who used to dab aged Burgundy behind his ears before a date (this later led me to one of his old articles entitled And all because the lady loves…). I digress….

Château St. Thomas 2008 Pinot Noir. Founded by Saïd Touma (Arabic for Thomas) and now run by his son Joe-Assaad Touma, who is also the winemaker, this seems to be a respected boutique winery and the first in Lebanon to make Pinot Noir.
The nose was typically of the grape, musky perfume (matching the pheromone story!) with a little tobacco on the taste. An enjoyable, young wine, with firm tannins in need of a little mellowing a touch.

IXSIR 2009 Grande Reserve. The final wine of the tasting was from a winery I’d never heard of before, but IXSIR, based further North in Batroun, is a rising star and unusual in embracing modern and environmental technology, as described in this (Lebanon) Daily Star article.
The darkly coloured red is a Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon blend with 40% new oak (French of course) and had a full nose of rich fruit and perfume. It was a very approachable wine, tannins a touch raw edged but still young and likely to improve further.

There was a well deserved round of applause for Tim at the end, he’d done a good job at introducing a lot of people in the room to Lebanese wines and was pretty much what I’d expected after all the tweets and articles read and Saturday Kitchen appearances seen.
I stood in line for the required Kodak moment as the room emptied and then moved back into the main hall, Tim staying a little longer before catching his train back to London at the end of the afternoon. I don’t know if he had a chance to try many of the wines on offer there but hope he had a good time in Newcastle – I know I certainly did.


PS. The best wine for me was the last minute stand-in kindly supplied from Bin21, the 2003 Musar. For more Lebanese wine information read Michael Karam’s “Your Wine Style” site.

Lebanese wines available locally;

  • Château Musar at Waitrose, Richard Granger, Michael Jobling, Majestic, Bin21 and Corkscrew Wines (Carlisle).
  • Massaya at Richard Granger.
  • Château Ksara Clos St. Alphonse at Marks & Spencer.
  • Château Ka at Waitrose
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