Back in the 80s Chateau Musar and its winemaker Gaston Hochar caused quite a stir in the UK. “I didn’t know Lebanon made wine”, was the usual reply. It couldn’t have been further from the truth for Lebanon’s ancient people were bottling and shipping wine as early as 3000 BC.
Chateau Ksara has now joined Chateau Musar on UK wine shelves. Ksara’s tradition stretches back to 1857 when Jesuit brothers inherited a 25 hectare plot between Tanail and Zahle in the Bekaa Valley and linked their science and agricultural skills to plant foreign, mostly French, grape varieties on Lebanese soil. Chateau Ksara bought the winery from the Jesuits in 1973.
Lebanon is a small, mountainous country in the eastern Mediterranean, bordering Syria to the north and Israel to the south. The Bekaa Valley plateau lies at about 1100 metres above sea level and with its backdrop of snow-capped mountains enjoys a continental climate (cold, wet winters and hot, dry summers); a combination that suits the French varieties down to the ground.
Chateau Ksara’s vineyards are located in the central and western Bekaa Valley and produce white wines (including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Gewurztraminer) and reds from varieties that include Cinsault, Carignan, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot. “Our whites are delicate and aromatic whilst our reds are rich, fleshy and tannic”, notes Ksara’s Chairman Zafer Chaoui.
To complete the French Connection, Ksara’s winemaker is a Bordeaux man. “I was at Chateau Prieure-Lichine in Margaux and to be honest, I didn’t expect to be amazed by the winemaking opportunities in Lebanon. I’m now very proud to be a Frenchman making wine in Lebanon”, notes James Palge. He’s in a good place for Bordeaux varieties are major players at Ksara.
Chateau Ksara, the flagship red wine, follows the Bordeaux line. The 2014, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon (60%), Merlot (30%) and Petit Verdot (10%) from the clay-limestone Khirbet Qanafar vineyard at about 900 metres, was fermented in stainless steel before being aged for 18 months in 50% new oak and 50% first year oak. My notes included red and black fruit aromas with crisp, cherry and plum spice flavours, positive tannins, lovely mouthfeel, with a lingering toasty bramble finish. The older vintages of 2001 and 2008 confirmed that these wines age really well.
Chateau Ksara’s Cuvee du Pape Chardonnay 2014 hails from guyot-trained vines planted in the clay and limestone soils at about 1400 metres. The wine was fermented in new oak barrels with battonage (lees stirring) and aged for 8 months in new and one year old French oak barrels.
“Intriguing and exotic”, I wrote as an opening line. “Honey and vanilla overtones to ripe, yet fresh peach, melon and apple flavours with a pleasing finish”, I concluded. Like many of my fellow tasters, thinking of the hot summers of the Bekaa Valley, I expected softer acidity. We also tasted the 1996 vintage which again revealed a refreshing edge to the mellow fruit and honeyed overtones.
If you want to treat your friends to a quality wine that’s ‘intriguing and different’, Lebanon’s a great place to start.