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Lebanon goes back to its roots with 100% Merwah and less focus on “blingy reds”

Published:  27 June, 2019

Lebanese winemakers are delving into their history, and are now ready to expand their repertoire from "extracted, luxurious reds” to indigenous whites and terroir-driven styles, an expert on the country has said.

After establishing itself with international varieties such as Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon  referred to by Lebanon authority Michael Karam as ‘Super Lebs’  the country is now looking to its past for inspiration.

At a tasting at Harpers’ offices yesterday, Karam praised the courage of wineries like Ksara to bring Lebanon’s historic varieties to the fore with the launch of a 100% Merwah – believed to be the first of its kind from the country.

Harpers first wrote about the launch at the end of last year, when editor Andrew Catchpole noted that Ksara’s aim for Merwah is for the varietal to join fellow native grape Obeideh at the forefront of Lebanon’s indigenous white renaissance, while at the same time helping to propel an increased focus on fresher styles from cool climates sites.

However, Karam believes this shift isn’t being driven by Obeideh or the rare Merwah grape alone. It is also being underpinned by growing interest in the country’s ‘adopted children’, Grenache, Carignan and Cinsault, which have a long history in the country.

He said: “One of the things that makes Lebanon so intriguing is that it has these two very distinct styles: the very international, full on, blingy styles, which I’ve been known to call ‘Super Lebs’, and a tranche of more terroir-driven wines which offer a sense of place, and which are more to do with the Southern Rhône and the Languedoc: Grenache, Carignan and Cinsault.

“At the end of the civil war in 1991, these historic grapes were seen as a bit déclassé. They were put into the background while producers came out fighting with big international-style grapes. What we’ve learned is that we can live with both. They don't need to be hidden in entry-level wines: we can highlight these historic grapes which have been backbone of the industry for past 150 years, and are the grapes that really thrive in the Bekaa valley.”

"Lebanon has undergone a rapid evolution over the past 50 years, with just a handful wineries operating at the time that the Sara family bought Chateau Ksara from Jesuits priests in 1973.

This growth is visible in the UK, which is currently the biggest importer of Lebanese wine globally, and the third biggest destination for Ksara, behind France and the US.

Ksara’s George K. Sara added that red wine is still most consumed and exported style from the estate, but it is losing speed due to climate pressures and changing tastes.

“There is a huge sushi culture in Lebanon now that didn’t exist 20 years ago. We used to produce 75% red, now it’s 50% red, and the rest is split between white and rosé.

Lebanon is a coastal country: we eat a lot of fish. Salads and tabouleh go well with white and rosé equally, which is relevant especially as the younger generation is used to eating lighter and healthier. It’s a lot lighter than those big reds too, only 12.5%,” he said.

The first 100% Merwah from the 2017 vintage is bottled in Bekaa valley, but made from grapes grown in small village in the north of the country called Douma, at 1,500 metres above sea level.

Ksara’s wines are brought into the UK via Hallgarten & Novum Wines.