IT’S A RAINY Thursday in New York in early June and Paul Grieco, one of the city’s most influential ‘somms’, is wearing a green T-shirt that says simply In Serge We Trust.
It is his homage to the late Serge Hochar, Château Musar’s winemaker who single-handedly put Lebanon, and the Middle East, on the wine map with his contentious, funky reds and trippy whites, and Grieco’s passion for Musar – where and how it is made and where its DNA stands in the story of wine – is based on a profound respect for Hochar’s philosophy.
“His wines are hyper-unique and come from this unbelievable, tension-filled place which you can feel,” Grieco enthuses. “With every smell, with every taste of his wine, there is something vitally different. There are few wines that are as alive as Musar.”
Musar will always be out there, bold and brave, revered and misunderstood in equal measure and, crucially, different from almost any wine on the planet. But Lebanon is no longer a one-trick pony and hasn’t been for at least a decade. It is arguably the quintessential boutique winemaking country. Its 9m-bottle production from a mere 50 wineries makes its neighbours – Israel, Cyprus and Turkey – look like bulk producers by comparison. It also has a glamour that decades of war have been unable to dislodge.
And there is a new narrative. Syria, where the only serious winery, Domaine Bargylus – current production roughly 50,000 bottles – is still functioning in the most impossible of circumstances. In the latest edition of The World Atlas of Wine, Jancis Robinson called its Bordeaux-Rhône inspired red “the finest wine produced in the eastern Mediterranean”. So there.
So what of the other 49 Lebanese producers? There is a new mood in Lebanon, one characterised by an almost seismic shift in the quality of the white wines. And, while ‘massive’ is still the best adjective to describe the reds, there is now a willingness to deliver, as Grieco might put it, a more terroir-driven style using red varieties that may have been around a long time, but which had been seen as lesser grapes.
Until a little under 10 years ago, Lebanese white wines by and large played second fiddle to the powerful sun-drenched reds. But foreign importers pushed for better quality and this, combined with greater experience of working with what were relatively new varieties – Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat, Semillon and even Chardonnay – and planting them at higher altitudes, led to change.
All this has seen producers such as Ixsir, Château Kefraya, Domaine des Tourelles, Château Marsyas, Domaine de Baal and the Karam Winery following in the steps of Châteaux Ksara and Wardy, which, in the 90s, led the way in making premium whites. The upshot is that the whites are now arguably more diverse and complex than the reds Lebanon is famous for.