It is always a pleasure to be presented with a bottle of wine, but to be gifted with one that is unusual or unfamiliar also intoxicates the mind.
My friend Andrew — who unfailingly brings a bottle of either French or Italian during his annual visits from England to Chennai — decided to play heteroclite last fortnight. Turning up at the office with a bottle of Lebanese red, he said briskly, “Try it. It's good.”
Very good it was, but more on the Chateau Musar Hochar Pere et Fils 2004 later.
The Middle-East is not the kind of place people associate with wine, but there are vintners in countries such as Lebanon, Israel, Jordan and Syria that have begun to catch the attention of the world market.
The story of the revival of ‘new old world' wines in these countries varies greatly. For instance, it was the French influence in Lebanon in the early part of the 20th century that laid the foundation for wine-drinking and, in turn, wine-making. Although European varietals were planted in Israel in the 19th century, the wine industry was truly uncorked only a few decades ago following the adoption of modern viticultural practices, including drip irrigation, and Californian wine-making technologies.
But what is easily forgotten is a much earlier history, one that records the critical role of the Levant in the wine history of the world. It was in the region that we now know as Lebanon and Syria that the Phoenicians produced wine more than 3000 years ago, influencing wine-making in ancient Greece and Rome and, as a result, all of Europe.
Today, a surprising number of varietals grow in the region. My gifted bottle of Chateau Musar is a reflection of this, being a blend of Cinsault, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache — the first two used commonly in Southern French blends in the Rhone and Languedoc-Roussillon regions.
The Hochar Pere et Fils is the Chateau's second wine. Despite its 2004 vintage, it is bright and bracing, wearing its youthful enthusiasm on its sleeve; its vivid crimson fruit softened or restrained by a hint of dried fig and date.
Only a couple of months ago, The Guardian and The Telegraph carried two large articles on wines from Lebanon, which now exports a significant percentage of its production to the United Kingdom. One of them declared them “edgy” and “exciting”. Noting there is plenty of good stuff produced in the Bekaa Valley, east of Beirut, the other article urged consumers to look beyond Chateau Musar which, with its awards and accolades, has become synonymous with Lebanese wine.
Having enjoyed Andrew's unexpected gift, perhaps I will.