Cedars and vines
Wine of the week: Joanne Gibson talks to a man in love with the grapes of his homeland about local substitutes for Lebanese wine
It's a surprising fact that Lebanon, a predominantly Muslim country, has a strong wine culture dating to ancient times. The Phoenicians traded a wine called Bybline all over the Mediterranean; Jesus turned water into wine at Cana in Gallilee, south of Tyre in modern-day Lebanon; and the Romans built their Temple of Bacchus in the eastern Bekaa Valley around 150AD.
Although winemaking died out under Ottoman rule (between 1517 and 1857), Jesuit missionaries started making wine for public consumption rather than religious use in the mid-19th century - and things really took off under French rule between 1920 and 1943.
Alas, there were only five wineries left when the Lebanese war ended in 1990, namely Château Musar, Château Kefraya, Château Ksara, Domaine des Tourelles and Nakad Winery. Today there are 36, including a number of boutique producers.
Cinsault is the most planted grape, traditionally blended with carignan to make the spicy rosés so perfect for hot summers and kibbeh starters. In recent years, shiraz and the Bordeaux varieties have been added to the mix to make powerful reds - total production amounting to about seven million litres a year.
These wines are not widely available in SA, according to Cape-based Lebanese wine fundi Géza Steingaszner, who prides himself on finding perfect matches for the authentic Lebanese cuisine of his wife, Ghenwa.
"But it doesn't matter, because many South African wines come close to having the texture and taste of Lebanese wines," he says. "Rosés have proliferated lately, and I don't mean swimming-pool wines, which you have to chill, but rosés with enough body to serve at around 12 or 13°C so you can taste the fruit and spice."
He says pinotage rosé lends itself very well to Lebanese food, because of its abundant fruitiness, and he wishes more producers made rosé from cabernet franc, with its exotic spices. He particularly recommends the Kleine Zalze Gamay Noir Rosé 2011, with its soft tannins and smooth mouthfeel (R42 ex cellar), as well as light, unwooded reds such as Asara's Nouveau 2012 (also made from gamay, R50 ex cellar) and Haute Cabriere's Unwooded Pinot Noir 2011 (R80 ex cellar), best served slightly chilled (14 to 16°C).
Regarding Lebanon's big reds, Steingaszner says shiraz and cabernet sauvignon blends like Rust en Vrede's 1694 Classification 2007 (R1200 ex cellar) are "not very different" from Château Musar's best-known estate blend of cab with cinsaut and carignan.
He also urges Lebanese food lovers to seek out older vintages of pinotage-based Cape blends, such as Grangehurst's Nikela (a 1.5-litre magnum of the 2003 costing R360 ex cellar) or Beyerskloof's Synergy (the 2004 available from the farm's vinoteca for R140 a bottle).
He's adamant that these big wines must be aged, with Lebanese producers deliberately delaying release to ensure drinkability and food compatibility. "When I visited Château Musar in 2006, their current release was the 1997. Anything younger than five years should be opened the day before drinking to let it breathe."