On the afternoon before a Château Ksara wine-trade dinner at Comptoir Libanais, I was invited by Rachel Davey to drop by at the same venue to taste some Ksara wine. There I had the pleasure of meeting George Sara, co-owner and board member of Ksara, and Michael Karam, the author of Wines of Lebanon, and enthusiastic champion of Lebanese wine. George (leftmost in the image) very clearly, yet with a soft touch, communicated his pride in what Ksara had to offer, while Michael enthusiastically contributed with a broad range of views, opinions and insights into Lebanon and its wines, from the very general, to the specific wines we had in front of us.
Château Ksara is the oldest and largest winery in Lebanon. It dates back to 1857, when Jesuit monks inherited some land and started to farm it. In the 1860s the monks made their first dry red wines there; prior to that it was only sweet wine for sacramental purposes. Under the Jesuits, the business grew to the point where it was producing the vast majority of Lebanese wine, and in 1973 Ksara was sold to a consortium of Lebanese investors lead by Jean-Pierre Sara. The winery lies in the Bekaa Valley, which is more of a mountain plateau than what most of us would think of as a valley, and the grapes for most wines (with one exception, mentioned below) also come from the Bekaa Valley region.
I describe the wines below in groupings suggested by George after the tasting, disregarding the order in which they were actually tasted which followed the usual progression of white wines, through rosé, to red. The prices are rough UK retail prices gleaned from Wine-Searcher, but I was unaware of the prices when tasting and making notes.
Lebanese heritage wines
These are all made from varieties that have been in Lebanon for a long time. Not all of them are native to the country but, if not native, they have most definitely been adopted by the country, and can produce wines that are distinctively Lebanese.
Blanc de l’Observatoire, 2018, 13.0%, £12
Obeidy 30%, Muscat 30%, Clairette 30%, Sauvignon 10%.
Fresh. Citrus and apple. High acidity. Dry. Aromatic. Drink now ****
Merwah, 2018, 12.5%, £15
There is no other varietal Merwah wine in commercial production, and 2018 is only its second vintage, and the first one to be imported into the UK. The 60-year-old low-yield vines are grown on the slopes above Douma in north Lebanon (not the Bekaa Valley) at an altitude of over 1,500m. The grapes are hand-harvested, and the wine is made with low intervention techniques.
Complex nose. Citrus, violets, biscuity. Medium-high acidity. Dry. Drink now *****
According to Michael, DNA analysis has shown that the Obeidy variety used in the Blanc de l’Observatoire is not, as thought by some, the same as Chardonnay, or any other grape. However, tests on Merwah to confirm or deny its identity with Semillon are still ongoing. For what it is worth, I recognised a fleeting aroma on the Merwah that I find quite distinctive and have before found only on Semillon wines. I can best describe it as Nez du Vin – the smell you get when you open the box of a Nez du Vin kit. What more proof does one need?
Edit 06/11/19: On the jancisrobinson.com forum José Vouillamoz has just confirmed that he has DNA-profiled samples of Merwah, as well as Obaideh (AKA Obeidy), and that neither is identical to any other known variety. However, studies are ongoing, and nothing is officially published yet.
One more comment on the Merwah, which occurred to me only after the tasting: why is it bottled in clear glass? There seems to be an increasing awareness of lightstrike faults and, even if the wine has been kept in the dark, the clear glass bottle will be sounding alarm bells for some consumers. Is the wine’s colour really such a strong selling point, as it is supposed to be for rosé wines?
Gris de Gris, 2018, £13
Carignan and Grenache Gris.
Pale salmon. Strawberry. And something else a bit more punchy – spice or rubber? Medium acidity. Drink now ***
I wasn’t too keen on the Gris de Gris, and rosé is not my favourite style anyway, but George persuaded me to try some with a mouthful of Fattoush. I must admit it seemed to improve the wine for whatever reason. As with all the wines, I find it difficult to arrive at definitive conclusions after only a brief taste.
Le Prieuré, 2017, 13.5%, £12
Cinsault and Carignan, with some Grenache and Mourvedre. Fermented in concrete tanks that were installed at the time the monks ran the winery.
Medium pale violet. Soft berry fruit reminiscent of Beaujolais. Medium acidity. Low but detectable astringency. Drink now *****
Michael enthused about Le Prieuré being the taste of the Bekaa valley. So if you’ve ever wondered about typicity for Bekka Valley wines, you could do worse than try some of this.
Lebanon meets Bordeaux
In these wines we have a nod towards Bordeaux, but the wines are not intended to be imitations, and include non-Bordeaux grape varieties.
Blanc de Blancs, 2018, 13.0%, £13
Sauvignon 55%, Semillon 25%, Chardonnay 20%.
Refreshing. Medium-high acidity. Reminded me very much of white Bordeaux.
Drink now *****
Reserve du Couvent, 2016, 13.5%, £13.00
Syrah 40%, Cabernet Franc 30%, Cabernet Sauvignon 30%. Oak-aged for 12 months.
Medium purple. Seemed to have some of the same quality of fruit as Le Prieuré, but with spice, and a bigger tannin kick on the palate. Medium-high acidity. Drink now *****
Reserve du Couvent is Ksara’s flagship wine, and a bestseller in Lebanon. I thought it was good now, but was told it should keep 5-10 years
French-style from Lebanon
These wines are intended to be true to their French originals of White Burgundy and Claret.
Chardonnay, Cuvée du Pape, 2017, £20
Aged in oak barrels.
Medium pale gold. Medium acid. Oak. I could easily believe this was a white Burgundy. Drink now *****
Château, 2016, 13.5%, £21
Veilles vignes. 60% Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 10% Petit Verdot. 12 months ageing in oak, old and new in equal parts.
Medium pale purple. Dark berry fruit. Pencil box. Medium acidity. High tannin. Good fruit and spice. Needs more time. Was told would keep 10-20 years *****
While I have tasted quite a wide range of Lebanese wine in the past, for some reason the only Ksara wine I had tried prior to this tasting was the Reserve du Couvent, so I was pleased to get to know Ksara better. Overall it was a good and varied set of wines, and all were showing well. I see I gave most of them very good star ratings and wonder, as I often do, if I was not over-generous. However, they fairly represented my subjective opinion at the time, so I will not go back to adjust the ratings.
And generally the wines were very reasonably priced too in my opinion. However, while the Chardonnay Cuvée du Pape and Château wines may have been fairly priced, I am not sure what they offered that could not be bought from Bordeaux or Burgundy for similar money or less. George commented that Ksara’s cheaper wines tended to sell best to export markets, which I think will continue to be the case, while the more prestigious French variety wines were more favoured in Lebanon.
I really must try to revisit some of these wines to gain a better appreciation, but from my exposure to them so far I think the Merwah was the most interesting and attractive white, while the Reserve du Couvent was my favourite red, for being a good all-round solid performer.
Update 28/08/20: Since writing this post, I have been drinking more Ksara wine, and Le Prieuré has become established as one of my firm favourites – a nice soft touch with gentle red red fruit, but also a little bitterness and astringency, which provides structure, and makes it more serious wine that works well with food. I have been using a shop with a good range of Ksara and other Lebanese wines: All About Wine.