Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Those Phoenicians got it right!

 Wasfi Skaff   Monica Bhide  Kababji Grill COO Philippe Chamoun  Kate Michael.

by contributor Donna Shor

The Newest Version of the World’s Oldest Wine

Those Phoenicians got it right, and in many cases got it first.

They were early winemakers as long ago as 3000 B.C, the inventors of money and the originators of written language.  We owe a lot to the Phoenicians, those sea-going merchants on the Mediterranean trade routes they created, settling colonies and teaching viticulture as they went.  Above all, we owe them the good wines in our glass.

Due tribute was paid Monday night at a gathering of wine-mavens at Dupont Circle’s Khababji Grill with featured Chateau Ksara wines from Lebanon, as the Phoenicians’ ancient land is now known. 

The Chateau Ksara winery, which produces the largest quantity of the country’s wines, is in the Beqaa Valley, the country’s wine-growing center and not by error.  The valley is lucky: Nature loves it, granting ideal wine-growing conditions of warm summer days balanced by cool nights, letting the grapes ripen in a region free of the grape-killing diseases and frosts that universally plague winemakers.

The most burdensome problems the area has struggled with have been man-made―war, invading hordes since ancient times and frequent regional wars today.  Chateau Ksara lost most of its 2006 vintage when workers chose not to be picking grapes under the Israeli rocket attacks.  (Although, paradoxically, the two Big Wars, WWI and II, brought welcome income to the region because of the volume of wine bought for the thirsty various national armies who were camped in Lebanon.)  

Despite the invasions, wine-making flourished until it was almost completely discontinued under the rigid Ottoman Empire.  In 1857 the Jesuits rescued the wine-making locale that is now Chateau Ksara from that decline, making it Lebanon’s oldest winery.  They introduced the first non-sweet red wine to Lebanon when they began with plantings of the grape now ubiquitous in Southern France, the Cinsaut, which they brought from Algeria.

In 1973 a group of Lebanese businessmen acquired the property.  Chateau Ksara took its name from a nearby ksar, or fort, dating from Crusader times.  Going even further back, wine cellars under the property were discovered in 1999 to be caves from Roman times.  (And Bob Ballard, the discoverer of the Titanic, also found two wrecked Phoenician ships which dated back to 750 BC with vessels of Phoenician wine aboard that were still intact, even though the ships’ frames had rotted away.)

Chateau Ksara has constantly undergone a complete modernization, increasing the vineyard’s emphasis on planting the classic “noble grapes,” such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and Chardonnay.  Wasfi Skaff, representing the vineyard, was on hand at Kababji Grill to comment on the wines, aided by Kebabji’s Hakeem Bakeer and COO Philippe Chamoun.

The Kababji Grill specialties served at the wine event featured classic Middle East dishes with a Lebanese touch.  The mezze included Hummus, creamy eggplant Baba Ghannoush, Stuffed Grape Leaves, and lamb or beef versions of Orgali Kabab and little brown footballs of deep-fried Kebbeh.  All delectable.

The wines were excellent, true to their grapes, and very drinkable. One favorite was the Chateau Ksara Chardonnay, straw-pale, with a delicate, flowery bouquet, free of the “buttery” or oaky style that has been popular too long elsewhere; but with a crisp, steely quality closer to the chardonnay grape when it renders the white wine of Burgundy.

The full-bodied Reserve du Couvent was a treat, with a deep red robe, a desirable touch of wood from the French oak cask it was stored in, and a fine finish, with lightly spicy overtones.

“No wonder you like it so much,” said Waski Skaff,   “remember it is the reserved wine of the monastery (the convent) and we imagine that the good monks reserved it for themselves.”