Cedars, Mountains and Vines – wines of Lebanon

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Despite never having been to Lebanon, like everyone else this week, Lebanon has been on my mind with scenes of the dreadful explosion in Beirut, and a tasting of some Lebanese wine seemed called for.

Ixsir is one of the newer estates in Lebanon, founded in 2008 by Etienne Debbane, Carlos Ghosn, Gabriel Rivero and Hady Kahale, with their wines launched on the Lebanese market in 2010. I first tasted their red wine at a Lebanese masterclass held by Tim Atkin at Prowein in 2015. The 2011 (35% Cabernet Sauvignon 35% Syrah 10% Merlot) had a big plummy fruit with firm tannins and evident new oak.

Lebanon’s Mediterranean coastline runs for 225 kilometres. The fertile coastal plain rises steeply up to mountains running the length of the country, where the famed cedars of Lebanon grow. In 1697, Henry Maundrell climbed up into the mountains, he described where

The noble (cedar] trees grow amongst the snow near the highest part of Lebanon; and are remarkable as well as for their own age and largeness, as for those frequent allusions made to them in the word of God. Here are some of them very old, and of prodigious bulk; and others younger of a smaller size. 

The highest mountains rise up to 3088m in northern Lebanon, sloping down to lower altitudes in the middle before rising again to 2695m in the south The Beqaa valley lies at the northern part of the Great Rift Valley which then runs between the Galilee and Golan mountains (mentioned in the last post on Israeli rosé), through the Dead Sea (the lowest point on earth) and down into Africa.

While the actual cellars are based in the north of Lebanon, the vineyards are spread around the country. Different altitudes and soils are used with different varieties to gain complexity. The lowest vineyards Batroun at 400m in the north lie on clay, sand, limestone planted with Syrah, Mourvedre, Petit Verdot. Ainata, at 1800m (limestone and clay) are planted with Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Caladoc (Grenache x Malbec). Bechouat is at 1100m (red iron clay, gravel and lime) planted with Arinarnoa (Tannat x Cabernet Sauvignon), Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Tempranillo. Niha at 1200m (marl and rich limestone) is planted with Viognier and Syrah. Halwa at 1400m in the Bekaa valley (clay and limestone) is planted with Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Carignan, Cinsault, Chardonnay, Sauvignon, Muscat and Merlot. Jezzine at 950m (chalk, clay, and limestone) is planted with Syrah. As mentioned in previous posts, high altitudes give greater ripeness and thicker skins as well as benefiting from greater freshness and acidity.

High altitude Ixsir vineyards

There are three wine ranges:

  • El Ixsir (red and white wines)
  • Ixsir Grande Reserve (red, white and rosé)
  • Altitudes Ixsir (red, white and rosé)

I had four wines to taste: two white and two red from the El Ixsir range.

El Ixsir 2018 white 70% Viognier 30% Chardonnay on clay and limestone in vineyards at 1200 and 950m. Aged for 12 months in French oak, ⅓ new, ⅓ one fill, ⅓ older. Floral perfumed aromas, delicate but definitely floral. Very careful use of oak – minimal toasting but giving a white nut tannic flip on the finish and some extra dry weight to the structure. Little obvious fruit, slightly closed? Very delicate, gentle lemon acidity, white flowers, fresh almonds, elegant. Opening out in the glass and a spectacular match with fresh sardines baked in white wine and fennel… we just needed a table overlooking the Mediterranean!

El Ixsir 2019 white en primeur Viognier Chardonnay Very perfumed and floral Viognier notes much more evident. Silky rich texture with more evident oak character on the palate and still not yet fully integrated. Again restrained style fruit with long citrus acidity.

Both whites showed high altitude cool climate restraint with the fresh creamy acidity often found on limestone. In a blind tasting, the delicate aromatics made me think of Chardonnay Musqué – an aromatic mutation of Chardonnay. Interestingly there seems to be a link between the Lebanese variety Obaideh and and another Chardonnay mutation Chardonnay Rosé.

El Ixsir 2014 red 14% abv 55% Syrah 35% Cabernet Sauvignon 10% Merlot on iron clay and limestone on three vineyard plots at 1800m, 1375m and 1180m aged in French oak (50% new) for 24 months. On the nose, ripe black fruit aromas followed through with tight black cassis fruit and firm tannins. In fact the cassis and blackberry fruit is so intense it feels almost jam=like, except that it is dry and restrained on the finish with notes of black minerality and garrigue. Tannins are fine grained and slightly powdery texture, mouth coating on the finish. Medium + length for acidity, although the fruit stops a little short of the acidity. Ready to drink now but will continue to mature and age for a while. I tried this with a vegetable tomato gratin which did not fight with the wine’s richness and with a freshness which echoed the elegant acidity.

El Ixsir 2019 red en primeur. Lovely menthol black fruit nose. Ripe, rich supple. Much more new world – opulent black fruit, black currants, cassis, with fine silky tannins. Juicy with long fresh acidity. Another 18 months in barrel will tighten up the tannic structure. Quite a powerful fruity wine with lovely freshness.

Deir el Ahmar

#iloverocknrosé will be hosting an Instagram live tasting of Lebanese rosé on Sunday 16th August – see rocknrose.wine.

Israeli Rosé Evolution

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Eighteen years ago, in May 2002, at a dinner in London, I met Israeli winemaker Eli Ben Zaken from Domaine du Castel, and I was impressed by his wines, grown on the Judaean Hills. Looking back at my tasting notes at that vertical tasting of vintages throughout the 1990s, it was possible to see how his wines had evolved.

I did not know much about Israeli wine until January 2015, when I was able to spend ten days touring round Israeli vineyards. With an image in many foreign markets for only producing sweet religious wines, it came as a shock to taste fresh whites and serious dry red wines and to learn about the enormous advances in the quality of wine being produced. The four main vineyards – Carmel, Barkan, Golan Heights and Teperberg – control 70% of the local market and wine exports, and there are about fifty commercial wineries.

Rosés were not so visible on my 2015 visit. I learnt that in the 1970s and 1980s, Grenache rosé was a big brand, a deep-coloured, semi-dry, verging on semi-sweet, wine. By the 1990s, with the start of the boutique winery boom, tastes began to change and wine making improved. Victor Schoenfeld, a UC Davis graduate, arrived at the Golan Heights Winery in 1991 and helped pioneer a wine making revolution in Israel. However, it was not until around 2007 that rosé started, in a small way, to be taken seriously, even if only as a simple light, fresh, summer wine.

By 2017 when I was researching my book Rosé: Understanding the pink wine revolution, a growing number of rosés were appearing. The majority were increasingly lighter in colour and structure compared to the heavier, sometimes off-dry traditional style. A wide range of varieties is used, including Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache, Malbec, Marselan, Merlot, Mourvèdre, Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Syrah, Viognier and Zinfandel. As production increases, some winemakers are looking at more complex styles, with a few ageing in oak. The styles are extremely diverse, as each producer makes rosé in his own style, searching for the best rosé to suit terroir and varieties and an Israeli rosé style is still evolving.

An Israeli rosé even made it to my selection for premium rosés for Decanter On-Line May 2019.

HaNadiv Rosé 2018, Bar Maor, Made with 100% Marselan (a Cabernet Sauvignon x Grenache cross), the wine has attractive ripe raspberry red fruit which develops into rich red fruits with tropical notes as it opens out in the glass. A creamy structure with a chalky mineral backbone and a hint of tannin on the finish. Long fresh acidity and well-balanced structure.

Although there are no regional appellations in Israel, and wine can be blended from around the country, there are three regions which stand out as being successful at producing high quality wines, with their focus on higher elevations (from 500 to 1,200 metres)

  1. Judaean Hills
  2. Golan Heights
  3. The Upper Galilee

For every elevation increase of 100 meters, temperature decreases by 0.6°C with a corresponding increase of one percent Ultraviolet radiation. This leads to thicker skins and greater concentration of flavour. Higher altitude vineyards usually have a larger diurnal temperature variation (a large difference in day/night temperature). During the day the grape accrues carbohydrates via photosynthesis in the leaves, then at night during respiration the vine borrows back from the berry some of these stores. The lower the night-time temperature, the less the vine needs to borrow during respiration – resulting in more intensity in the grapes. [See also post on Rioja Rosados with Altitude]

The following are just a small representative of the Israeli rosés available, tasted in July 2020, showing some of the diversity and the encouraging evolution of more serious rosés.

The Judaean Hills

This region is the home to The Judaean Hills Quartet of four wineries: Tzora Winery with Israel’s first Master of Wine, Eran Pick as winemaker, Domaine du Castel, Sphera (which specialises in white wines) and Flam Winery. The Judean Hills wine region lies between the Mediterranean Sea and Jerusalem. The central coastal plain south east of Tel Aviv, 40-50km away, leads to the rolling hills of the Judean Foothills. After the town of Beit Shemesh, the elevations rise sharply and continue to rise until Jerusalem.

I continued my friendship with Eli, even if only at fleeting moments at various wine fairs and chatting on Facebook. My son, a mere toddler when they first met, has even spent time at the vineyard in the Judaean Hills.

Meeting for lunch on a cold wet December day in Paris

Eli’s estate, Domaine du Castel, is located in the Jerusalem Hills. He already had a rosé made from a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, from plots not used for red wine. The grapes were harvested early to retain acidity, minimum skin contact and fermented in tank at a low temperature, but already in 2016 Eli mentioned he was thinking about an oaked rosé.

“The idea of barrelled rosé was intriguing me. In November 2018 I visited Château d’Esclans [in Provence] and I was very lucky to meet again, and unfortunately for the last time, my friend Patrick Léon. It was a very long and comprehensive visit that included lunch at the château with Sasha Lichine. Patrick was very frank and volunteered a lot of information and we tasted all the wines including Garrus. So this is my inspiration…”

Eli made the 2018 from a blend of Syrah, Carignan and Mourvèdre (although for the 2019 is considering replacing Carignan with Grenache), from good vineyards.

The Razi’el vineyards

There is still some question over the optimum time and maturity for the harvest. The wine is fermented in demi-muids barrels at a low controlled temperature, blended and then aged in barrels for 6 months. Only 1,700 bottles were made for the 2018 vintage, with more planned for 2019.,

This month I was able to taste the first vintage of the oaked rosé, Razi’el, and the latest vintage Rosé du Castel. Eli asked me to be honest in my comments. So, as with many rosés sent to me for tasting, I chilled them in the fridge, and took them out half an hour before tasting. Both wines seemed lacking in fruit and charm. Disappointed, I put them to one side and then tasted a second time a few days later at a warmer room temperature but still cool. Having been opened a few days, the effect was similar to the aeration gained from decanting and they tasted excellent. What an enormous difference!

This is an important lesson. Serious rosé should not be served as a chilled light refreshing swimming pool rosé, but treated with the respect normally given to red wines.

Notes below are from the second tasting.

Rosé du Castel 2019 60% Merlot, 20% Malbec, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon. Ripe creamy acidity, red berry fruit, good redcurrant acidity supplemented by a long mineral core. Overall, impression is of lots of ripe strawberry and cherry fruit, almost voluptuous ripeness, with the firm mineral and slight tannin finish restraining and giving backbone. Serious weight.

Razi’el 2019 50% Syrah, 25% Mourvèdre, 25% Carignan. Creamy, white peach, intense white fruit, raw hazelnuts. New oak is still very much there, giving very firm structure and a slight tannic finish. The ripe fruit gives weight countered by very fresh acidity stretching back on the palate and exploding with a discrete burst of juicy raspberries. Still very young – this rosé will certainly continue to involve and improve over the next 2 to 3 years. A serious gastronomic rosé worthy of its inspiration.

The Golan Heights

This is the coldest region in Israel. The vineyards on this volcanic plateau rise from 400m to 1200m and there is enough snow for skiing in the winter.

Golan Heights Winery Victor Schoenfeld is the head winemaker here.

Mount Hermon 2019 Syrah, Tempranillo, Tinto Cao, Pinot Noir and Sangiovese. 12.5% abv. Salmon pink. Soft creamy ripe raspberry and strawberry fruit with long, red currant acidity and mineral core and dry finish. Pleasant easy drinking

Yarden 2019 Tinto Cão. Salmon pink Creamy fruit with sour red berry acidity with hints of bitter almonds. Long acidity and phenolic finish. As the wine warmed up it opened out to reveal delicious fruit structure and was delicious with food.

To find out more about the Yarden Tinto Cão, it will be presented on #iloverocknrosé instagram live on Sunday 9 August 17.30 CET on my Instagram account elizabeth.gabaymw. For more details see the website rocknrose.wine

Yarden Brut 2013 66% Chardonnay and 34% Pinot Noir grown in the cool northern part of the region. Ageing sur lees for five years. Pale onion skin colour with fine bubbles. Evident rosé character with red fruit and cherry character, long mineral fresh acid structure with hints of richness and autolysis.

Upper Galilee

Galil Mountain Winery in the Upper Galilee, from vineyards between 420 to 800m makes the following two rosés.

Galil Mountain Rosé 2019 57% Sangiovese, 33% Syrah 10% Grenache. 13.5% abv. Dark coral pink. Red fruit and roses. Very pretty, floral, ripe cherries and red fruit balanced by a vibrant sour red currant. A small percentage of saignée has created a rosé which would appeal to red wine drinkers and has enough body and structure to go with food.

Yiron 2019 67% Grenache 30% Syrah 3% Viognier. Shell pink, creamy broad mouthed southern French style. Creamy white peach fruit with Syrah giving a black fruit inner core for structure. Hints of saffron spice, fresh red currant acidity. Very good, classic. Great for summer drinking.

 

With so much going on with development of new styles of Israeli rosés, I think maybe it is time to return and do a rosé tour.