Lebanese Duet: 2011 Reds from Chateau Ksara

26 05 2015

[These bottles were provided as samples for review purposes.]

Lebanon?  Lebanon!

Lebanon? Lebanon!

The cool thing about being a wine lover is that it constantly invites you to broaden your horizons and seek out new sensory experiences.  The cool thing about running a wine blog is that sometimes those experiences come to you.  A few weeks ago, out of the blue, I got an email from the oldest winery in Lebanon, Chateau Ksara, a vinous institution that predates Canada by a good ten years (founded in 1857).  Even though their wines are not currently available in Alberta, they wanted me to try them.  Shortly afterward, the courier box arrived from Ontario, containing a duo of 2011 value reds, Ksara’s Reserve du Couvent and Le Prieure bottlings.  Each clocks in at around the $15 range (at the LCBO, at least), and each was a complete revelation to me of the strong state and developing identity of Lebanese wine.

Wine and Lebanon have actually gone together for quite a long time:  people have been making some form of wine there for over 5,000 years, and the country is even said to be the location of the scene in the New Testament where Jesus turns water into the wine.  However, Chateau Ksara, which was initially started up by Jesuit priests and got its name because the property was the site of a fortress, or ksar, during the Crusades, is the first commercial winery and the first in Lebanon to make and bottle a dry red wine.  Ksara is based in Lebanon’s primary wine region, the Bekaa Valley, which is a narrow strip of land running north-south down the central-eastern portion of the country.  It sits at around 1000m of altitude and has many features that are highly conducive to the production of top quality wine grapes:  a Mediterranean climate with dry hot summers (which promotes ripening) and much cooler nights (which preserves acidity and flavour), little precipitation during the growing season (which forces vines to root more deeply) but plenty afterward (which maintains some underground supply of moisture), stony soils and little to no vineyard pests.  Unfortunately, the Valley also sits just west of the Syrian border and due north of Israel and Jordan, which does not always provide the most geopolitically stable backdrop for wine production.  Ksara’s vineyards have been threatened multiple times, and were completely occupied by Syrian soldiers in 1981 and 1982, but to date the Chateau has never missed a harvest and even in the most challenging conditions has moved forward with its pursuit of fine wine uninterrupted for over 150 years.

Reserve du Couvent (L); Le Prieure (R)

Reserve du Couvent (L); Le Prieure (R)

Ksara sources grapes from six different vineyard sites in the Bekaa, including its own Ksara Estate vineyard, and plants a surprising number and array of different international varietals.  The two bottles I received give an indication of Lebanon’s viticultural diversity:  the 2011 Reserve du Couvent was 40% Syrah, 30% Cabernet Franc and 30% Cabernet Sauvignon, while the 2011 Le Prieure was primarily Cinsault and Carignan with a dash of added Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah.  I don’t know what I was expecting from Lebanon, but it probably wasn’t a Cinsault/Carignan blend.  However, both wines made an impressive showing, flashing some key varietal characteristics while also demonstrating a transparent yet earthy profile that spoke directly to their origins.

Cork Rating:  9.25/10 (This is the best cork I've seen in a long long time.)

Cork Rating: 9.25/10 (This is the best cork I’ve seen in a long long time.)

The Reserve du Couvent and Le Prieure were almost identical in colour, a translucent ruby-garnet, but the latter was a touch more vivid and violet.  There was a clear differentiation on the nose, with the Couvent coming across as distinctly herbal, almost medicinal, with rosemary/sage, iodine, wet leaves, olive and hot rocks aromas surrounding a quiet core of dried cranberry fruit, while the Prieure was prettier, sweeter and fruitier, with up front strawberry and cherry, trailing elements of smoke, dill and talcum powder, and a streak of funk.  Both wines were only medium-bodied despite the general heft of the grapes involved and had a delicate, papery yet still juicy mouthfeel, drying in both cases on the restrained finish.  The Couvent brought its Cab Franc essence to the fore with each sip, marrying red fruits, tomato leaf, incense and violets into a perfurmed, herbaceous flavour profile.  The Prieure flashed some Nibs-like fruitiness before settling into more restrained, deeper flavours like wet earth, blood, menthol and iron; the fruit did not immediately disappear but was forged into temperance by these tertiary notes, finishing with a touch of pleasant bitterness.

If I was served each of these wines blind, I might have guessed that the Reserve du Couvent was an Okanagan Cab Franc and that the Le Prieure was a traditional-style Cotes du Rhone.  They were both interesting and enjoyable and did not convey any lack of clarity or production issues that you sometimes see with more developing wine regions — part of the benefit of having been around the block for a century and a half, I suppose.  At 13.5% and 13% alcohol respectively, they aimed more for restraint than power and achieved it admirably.  I would give the Le Prieure the slight edge for its approachability and better fruit/earth balance, but on the whole, especially for the price point, I was quite impressed with both wines.  If you’re in a region that carries Chateau Ksara (and hopefully that includes Alberta soon), instead of buying that $14 French or Italian red you always reach for, why not take a journey?  It won’t cost you much and could gain you a whole new perspective.

2011 Reserve du Couvent:  86+ points

2011 Le Prieure:  87+ points

Each $10 to $15 CDN

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