Château Ksara in Manchester

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 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 *****

In summary

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.

Wines from Lebanon and thereabouts

At last – another event that reminds me of what wine is all about, and why I like writing about it.  A group of wine nuts from Manchester and thereabouts once again descended on the Aladdin BYO restaurant in Withington,  to eat well, and share wines from Lebanon and thereabouts.  The original brief was to bring bottles from the Eastern Mediterranean or the North Coast of Africa.  We finished up with no bottles from Africa, and stretched the concept of Eastern Mediterranean from Greece to Georgia (mercifully not as far as the one in the USA), but it didn’t seem to matter.  Somehow it felt as though we kept within the spirit of the theme.

As usual, Aladdin delivered, and we paid only £20 per person all in, including tip and corkage.  Well actually they did not charge for corkage as we had our own glasses and opened our own wine.  I learned on leaving that they were going to expand to take over the Indian restaurant next door completely – they already have the first floor and will move in on the ground floor too.  Excellent news.  They do a great job, and deserve every success.

Scanning through my star ratings below, I must admit that some do seem very generous. But they are a measure of my enjoyment on the night, and I never pretend to be objective. To recreate the enjoyment, I suggest that you and a group of friends grab a bunch of similarly interesting wines and take them to your local Middle-Eastern restaurant. Perhaps with the exception of the Jars of Cana, if you buy one of the lesser known wines and try it in “the cold light of day” you might not be so impressed.

Domaine des Tourelles, Pierre Louis Brun depuis 1868, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Chardonnay, Viognier and Muscat d’Alexandria – 2011, 13.0%
Peachy. Medium low acid.  Dry. Slightly astringent. Good to drink now ****

Chateau Khoury, Rève Blanc, Dhour Zahleé, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer and Riesling – 2008, 13.0%
Intensely floral and petrol. Medium acid. Off dry. Good to drink now, but no hurry ****

Massaya, Silver Selection, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay – 2004, 13.5%
Flat and Oxidised. Faulty bottle or too old. But a bottle of this vintage was great last year, so if you see one don’t automatically write it off. I have one more, so let’s hope! Still drinkable **

Chateau Musar, White, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Obaideh and Merwah – 2001, 12.5%
Intense. Slightly oxidised. Slightly astringent. Big, and full of flavour. Beautiful. A tasting note of few words because I was struggling to describe it, rather than because it had little to offer. A great wine, and probably the wine of the night. Good to drink now, but no hurry *****

Pirosmani, Medium dry red, Telavi Marani (producer), Kakheti (region), Georgia – Saperavi – 2005, 12.5%
Vaguely raisiny. Medium acid. Medium dry. Medium low tannin. This really was not my cup of tea, but then I rarely like wines that are medium dry or medium sweet. Drink now **

Jawary, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon and Carignan – 2005, 13.0%
This is the wine behind the label featured in the image for this post. What a fantastic label – nicely expressing the exotic and, I suspect, the flamboyance of the cultural remains of French rule. At Aladdin I found it to be a good all-round wine. Medium acid. Off dry. Medium tannin. Finishing dry due to the tannin. The following evening, it seemed to have transformed into a Pinotage for better and worse – burnt rubber and meat, with a touch of (in the nicest possible way) vomit. ****

Jars of Cana, Clos de Cana, Vallée Lamartine, Lebanon – Petit Cabernet, Pinot Noir, Mouvèdre – 2002, 13.0%
Intense red fruit. Fresh and aromatic. Medium acid. Medium low acid. Another sadly brief note, but a very good and interesting wine with a score that fairly reflects the quality. It was not noted at the time, but I am sure there was some spice in the mix too. Manchester locals can pick up a bottle at the Cheshire Smokehouse. Apparently Petit Cabernet is an synomym for Cabernet Sauvignon.  Good to drink now *****

Chateau Musar, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Cinsault – 2000, 13.5%
Intense soft red fruit. Spicy and volatile. Medium acid. As nose. Medium tannin. Excellent length. Could drink now, but was surprisingly primary compared to the 1999s I have opened and enjoyed over the last couple of years, so I would definitely keep at least another few years *****

Naturally sweet wine, Karelas (producer), Mavrodaphne (grape) of Patras (region), Greece, NV, 15.0%, 37.5cl
Intense. Raisiny. Medium acid. Sweet. As nose. Low tannin. Bitter. Excellent length. Drink now. You can get this, and other Mavrodaphne of Patras wines, for around a tenner a bottle. I am certainly going to be trying more *****

Chateau Musar, Hochar, Bekaa Valley, Lebanon – Cinsault, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache – 2005, 13.5%
Just when we thought it was all over, we discovered a forgotten wine. For the avoidance of doubt, this is the Hochar “baby Musar” – not the first wine of the Chateau. Intense. VA. Red fruit. Medium acid. A tad thin maybe. Good to drink now, but no hurry ****

More Massaya

Just after my last post on the wines of Massaya I learned that a local wine merchant, Reserve, was to hold a tasting of Massaya wines with Ramzi Ghosn. On the night Ramzi turned out to be Sami, but everything else went according to plan.  Here are some brief notes by way of a postscript to my earlier article.

I did not like the Blanc and Rosé wines at all.  We tried the 2009s.  The white was not oxidised like the 2005 reported on earlier, but lacking in acidity and fruit.  I also found it slightly astringent.  The Rosé tasted spirity, and both were a pretty hefty 13.5%.  In marked contrast to how Musar present their whites, even Sami seemed to be quite keen to pass over these wines quickly and move onto the proper stuff.  Some people at the tasting liked the Rosé, but I give both these wines a pretty miserable *

Then we moved onto the Classic Red 2007 – my house red, which I wrote about at length in my last post on Massaya.  On Thursday I was missing the chocolate and coffee notes I often get, but otherwise it was the wine I know and love, so ***

If someone had told me that the Silver Selection 2005 was a Claret I think I would have believed them, even though the blend was dominated by Grenache.  It was a good solid wine with decent dark fruit, acidity and tannin.  Excellent length, with a spicy finish.  Not unpleasant to drink now, and a bit more accessible than the 2004 it seems, but I would ideally keep this one several years.  More than a tad of Brett, but it added to the wine rather than detracted ***

We then tried 3 Gold Reserve vintages: 2005, 2001 and 2000.  The 2005 was another good solid dark fruit wine, that ideally needs more time ****.  I could easily imagine that in 4 years time it would evolve into something like the 2001, which was lovely, and ripe for drinking in my opinion.  The 2001 had started to develop mature notes, and the tannins were smoothing out to create what was quite a classy wine.  Again perhaps a tad Bretty, but pleasantly so. For the 2001 I’d give *****.  I did not like the 2000, but others in the room did not see anything wrong with it.  I thought it was starting to fall apart.  The aromatics were dominated by Brett, there was little fruit, and alcohol and tannin dominated the palate **

These wines were only available on special order from Reserve, but for the record here are the prices: £12.50 for the Blanc, Rosé and Classic Red; £17.00 for the Silver Selection; and around £30.00 for the Gold Reserve vintages.  Average market prices for these wines are in my opinion on the high side, and these prices are definitely top end of the market.  But at the rock bottom levels of  Hailsham Cellars I think you get value for money.  It seems that Athur Rackham, where I bought my Classic Red for £7.50, has gone out of business 🙁

Wines of Massaya, Lebanon

The one I have most experience of is their Classic Red,  a lot of experience in fact. For the last couple of years the 2005 and 2007 have been my house red. It’s a Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah blend – 60% Cinsault and 20% each of the other two – and usually retails for around £10.00.  (I got mine for a case price of £7.50 from Arthur Rackham, but their website is now down so I am not sure they are still trading.) Looking back over my tasting notes for the past couple of years I cannot see any consistent variation with vintage or age, so I will present a composite tasting note of both vintages, drunk some 3 or 4 years after the vintage year. It can be a tad rubbery and sulphurous, a tendency possibly exacerbated by its screwcap closure, so I usually give it a good shot of oxygen by inverting the open bottle over a carafe, letting the wine freely glug and splash around. Don’t worry about the sediment; there is none. Then if convenient I leave the wine for a couple of hours or so in the carafe before drinking, and that deals with the problem.  In appearance I’d describe it as medium intense mid-red. Holding the glass to my nose, the first impression is a hit of aromatic red fruit, which along with the corresponding impact on the palate, is very attractive. And looking beyond that,  there is a lot more interest: spice and, more intriguingly, chocolate and coffee notes, again on both the nose and palate. All with good intensity and length. Add to that appropriate acidity and astringency, and you have a mouth-watering food wine that is decent/excellent value at £10.00/£7.50.  On the right day this gets four stars, but usually ***

Silver Selection is the next step up in the Massaya range. I have tried a couple of vintages of this red, but only one bottle of each: in 2008 I tasted the 2004, and in 2009 the 1999. They represent a definite improvement in quality, and the 1999 was a beautiful mature wine with fine-grained tannins. The 2004 was hard and quite astringent, but had a delicate floral nose and I’m sure a few more years would have knocked off the hard edges. The Silver Selection blend is Grenache 40%, Cinsault 30%, Cabernet Sauvignon 15%, Mourvedre 15%. Expect to pay around £14.00. 10 years after the vintage is probably about right for drinking, but I’d give both vintages ****

The Gold Reserve is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvedre. This, like the Silver Selection, was under cork. I tried the 2004 vintage in 2009, and it was far too young. It could well turn into something beautiful, and it had all the hallmarks of a good wine – intensity of fruit etc, etc – but I cannot honestly say I enjoyed it that much. As you might know, Cabernet Sauvignon is not my favourite variety, so that might have had something to do with it.  £20.00 to £30.00 for this one. For potential: ***

The only other wines produced by Massaya are white and rosé versions of the Classic range. I tried the 2005 white in 2009, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Obeideh. Prices are similar to the Classic Red. It could have been intended as a stylistic thing, but this was oxidised, and I did not like it. *