Armchair exploring: a ‘virtual press trip’ to Lebanon

Lebanon’s two oldest wineries teamed up today to take journalists on a visit to the Bekaa Valley – without leaving lockdown. Peter Ranscombe stowed his tray table and ensured his seat was in the upright position for the online trip.

FEW winemakers can match Faouzi Issa for sheer enthusiasm.

Even as he stood on a hillside 3,000 miles away during today’s “virtual press trip” to Lebanon, the passion that Domaine des Tourelles’ winemaker feels for the Bekaa Valley was infectious.

Issa praised his valley’s 300 days of sunshine each year for bringing ripeness and flavour to the grapes.

He praised its 1,000-metre elevation above sea level for giving cool nights to help the fruit retain its fresh acidity.

He praised the cooling breeze for keeping the vines aerated and reducing diseases.

He praised the diversity of the soils, which allows for a wide range of grape varieties to be grown.

“A normal winemaker should always be stressed – about having the great vines, the great balance, the great ripening, the great sugar content, the great rain – but I don’t have that anxiety because I can take all that for granted here in the Bekaa Valley,” said Issa as he led the virtual tour through his vineyards.

A history lesson

Those ideal growing conditions in the Bekaa have been at the heart of the country’s grape-growing heritage for 9,000 years.

Wine journalist Michael Karam, who literally wrote the book on Lebanese wines, used his segment of the virtual tour to explain that the earliest evidence for grape growing dates from 7000BC.

The Phoenicians were already exporting wine across the Mediterranean Sea by 1000BC, making them the first wine merchants and the forerunners for today’s Lebanese “wheeler dealers”, as Karam put it.

Undeterred during occupation by the Romans – whose temple to Bacchus, the god of wine, stood at Baalbek in Bekaa – and later the Ottomans, the foundations for Lebanon’s modern wine industry were laid in 1857, when Jesuit priests brought vines from the French colonies in Algeria to make dry red wines instead of what Karam described as “sweet boiled church wine”.

France’s influence in Lebanon was cemented when it was handed a mandate by the League of Nations to rule the country following the end of the First World War – and the influx of 50,000 French soldiers, administrators and civil servants created a ready market for Francophile wines.

In the years following the end of Lebanon’s civil war in 1990, the country’s resurrected wine industry began planting internationally-popular grape varieties such as cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, a move that was needed to get the country “back in the game”, explained George Sara, owner of Chateau Ksara, which organised today’s “trip” in partnership with Domaine des Tourelles.

During the past ten years, Karam explained that the country’s winemakers had rediscovered their “heritage varieties”, focusing on their “adopted children” – such as the carignan, cinsault and grenache brought to the Bekaa by those Jesuits – and the small number of known indigenous white grapes, like merwah and obaideh.

But what about the wines?

It was those “adopted” and local varieties that shone during the tasting part of the “trip”.

The 2018 Domaine des Tourelles Vielles Vignes Cinsault (£14.79, All About Wine; 2017: £17, Woodwinters) is still my favourite of Issa’s wines, with a sweet and smoky nose full of raspberry and blackcurrant jams, tonnes of concentrated red cherry and raspberry flavours, and lots of fresh acidity.

Cinsault, relegated to blending status for decades in the South of France, has also found a new lease of life in South Africa’s Swartland, although Domaine des Tourelles’ incarnation is deeper and richer.

Carignan, cinsault’s southern French partner-in-crime, is also enjoying a Lebanese revival, with the 2018 Chateau Ksara Carignan – due to reach the UK in the autumn – epitomising its sweeter and jammier style, with its roast meat aromas and concentrated raspberry fruit, while the 2018 Domaine de Tourelles Vieilles Vignes Carignan (£16.99, Great Grog) flying the flag for the earthier and slightly more tannic side, with port-like notes on the nose and a warming 14% alcohol-by-volume.

That high-altitude cinsault returned in equal proportion to syrah and tempranillo to form the 2019 Domaine des Tourelles Rosé (£11.16, Kwoff, moving to the 2019), which combined a creamy mouthfeel with strawberry and cranberry flavours and a kick of fresh acidity – last autumn, I found out just how well it went with food too.

Sara’s 2018 Chateau Ksara Merwah (£12.89, All About Wine) showed what could be accomplished with Lebanon’s indigenous varieties, with peach and lemon rind on the muted nose exploding into textured peach, apricot and more lemon peel on the palate.

Sara hopes merwah could do for Lebanon what assyrtiko did for Greece, becoming the synonymous grape that opens the door for drinkers to discover the country.

Process stories

After seeing so many consumer and trade wine tastings heading online during the lockdown, I suppose it was only a matter of time before the first “virtual press trip” was organised.

And, while The West Wing taught us that process stories aren’t of interest to everyone, I wanted to take a moment to salute Domaine des Tourelles and Chateau Ksara – and their public relations consultants, Madeleine Waters and Rachel Davey – for today’s ambitious virtual press trip.

Wine samples were dispatched – along with a collection of ingredients for participants to make their own Lebanese cuisine – technical specifications for the bottles were uploaded to a file transfer website, and even amusing leaflets and “plane tickets” were printed.

What lifted it above the level of a “normal” online tasting were the longer presentations by Issa, Sara and Karam, along with drone footage of the Bekaa valley and Issa’s live-streamed walk through the vineyards.

Was the technology up to the task? Not quite – although it was the internet links in the UK that struggled, rather than the obvious superiority of Lebanon’s mobile phone network.

Even with fibre-to-the-cabinet (FTTC), I lost my video feed at one point, although the audio worked throughout.

But is this the future? Simply put, yes – until we have a vaccine or effective treatment for covid-19 then this is how wineries will be communicating with journalists and the wider public, so hats off to Lebanon for helping the UK take its first steps into this brave new world of wine.

To read more about Peter Ranscombe’s adventures around the world – both in person and online – visit his drinks blog, The Grape & The Grain.