Vol. 2 No. 7, Wines of Lebanon

I have a great find and it came about in a most circuitous manner. Last November, I was traveling to Southern California by way of San Francisco. My seatmate asked me if I was going to San Francisco and I replied I was just changing planes. She then said, she and her husband were spending two weeks in the wine country and that of course, started a conversation. While we were talking, a voice across the aisle said she couldn’t help but hear we were talking about wine. She is a senior at Stanford and told me her parents had a small winery in Lebanon. I said, “uh huh”, but perked up when she said they only produce 10,000 bottles a year (at first I thought she said cases). As if she had read my mind, she said, “BOTTLES, not cases.” She now had my undivided attention.

Her name is Hannah Boutros. Her mother, Jill and her family are from Faribault, MN. She married a Lebanese man, Naji Boutros, she met while they both were at Notre Dame University. He had left in the 1980’s during the war after the town was destroyed, and after a successful career as an investment banker for Merrill Lynch (TB’s alma mater), he returned to his home town of Bhamdoun where his family had owned and operated the oldest hotel, Belle-Vue, which his grandfather built in the 1860’s. It was built from huge, carved stones but when he returned it had been reduced to rubble and the stones were gone.

Before the war, there were vineyards but mostly producing table grapes, and due to its proximity to Beirut, about 15km’s on a winding road on the slopes of Mount Lebanon, it had the French embassy, 35 hotels, five Christian churches, two mosques and a synagogue. The village housed a tightly-knit community that worked to support one another when someone was in need.

From their first 3,000 vines in 2000, they now have planted 30,000 vines, brought from Bordeaux, consisting of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petite Verdot, as well as Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. In 2006, there were 17 wineries, many spawned by the Boutros’ and now there are at least 35. They have invested in several vineyards rather than buy out people who cannot afford to go it alone. This is to keep them here, and restore their pride of place.

Their label is Chateau Belle-Vue, and the main wine is, of course a Bordeaux blend. It is called La Renaissance ($42) and just to see how they were doing they entered it in the Wine & Spirits Competition in London, and were pleasantly surprised when it received a Gold Medal for Best in Class in 2007. Due to planting the Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon first, the mix thus far has been 60% Merlot and 40% Cab, but while these will remain dominant I suspect smaller amounts of the other Bordeaux blends will be added for complexity.

I have tasted the 2007 vintage and liked it so much that I bought two bottles. Yes, it is distributed in the U.S., Great Britain and other countries t0o with about half of it consumed in Lebanon and half abroad amid growing popularity. What a refreshing experience to taste a Bordeaux-like wine not from Bordeaux where the prices have skyrocketed due to overwhelming Chinese demand especially for the premier cru’s.. Note that their 2007 is not a library wine but the current release outside Lebanon due to a smaller 2008 vintage, so about to be released is the 2009.

The wines are aged in French oak and Naji demands the highest quality, tight-grained barrels which they purchase from famed producer Seguin-Moreau. They use only new oak barrels that are medium/medium plus toasted. The 2007 still has some soft tannin’s and no sign of being ‘over the hill’. I would think it has perhaps another 4-5 years before peaking. If you think Lebanon is too hot to produce wine, you, like TB are thinking of the Becaa Valley. Temperatures in Bhamdoun seldom exceed 85 degrees, although last year it was slightly warmer as it is everywhere with global warming. If you doubt global warming,  I suggest you talk to a winemaker since they keep detailed notes of temperatures. I have yet to find one who doesn’t believe there is global warming.

Besides La Renaissance, they produce a meritage, Le Chateau ($50), which is 55% Syrah and 45% Cab Franc. Production is just 2,500 cases so it has not been exported, but hopefully will be included in this year’s U.S. offerings…please… They also produce a white wine for consumption locally from Chardonnay and Viognier.

By now, I hope you understand why this winery has the components necessary for inclusion in my book project. First, there is passion (I don’t need to say another word on that as it is abundantly clear. Second, quality, from importing French vines and only the fines French Oak barrels. Third, not rushing aging, which shows their demand for quality over profits, and lastly, a woman winemaker from Lebanon, Diana Salameh who studied in Dijon. It seems wherever you go in the world only about 9% of the winemakers are women, BUT they produce a much higher percentage of the finest wines.

That’s all…if you want more you will have to either Google the winery, try their wine, or wait to read the full story in TB’s forthcoming book project. Passion is key…understand what goes into pricing wine: production costs, labor, distribution, all of which are much lower for wineries producing 100,000 cases or more a year. It does not require buying the ‘cult wines’ with their ‘flying winemakers’ and priced at well over $100 a bottle. It is up to you which you want to support, passionate people producing quality wine or a corporation focused on profit. As for ratings, IGNORE them…the only critic that matters is you! You will find much higher quality wines in the $15-25 range or higher but once you get above $50 the difference isn’t usually perceptible…unless you are a collector or a wine ‘snob’?

Try it…you’ll like it!


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