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Wines from the "Ancient" World

I recently watched the 2020 wine documentary Wine and War, available on Amazon Prime. With appearances from some of the world's leading wine critics such as Jancis Robinson and the late Michael Broadbent, the film looks at the Lebanese wine industry and the resilience of its winemakers in the midst of decades of ongoing internal and external conflict. One of the main characters of the story is the late Serge Hochar, leader of Chateau Musar during the Lebanese Civil War. Chateau Musar is probably the most famous Lebanese winery and probably the most widely available here in the United States, although I will still have to drive almost two hours to Louisiana to get a bottle. While living in Madison, I was able to try the "Musar jeune," or "young Musar," meant for earlier drinking. Unfortunately, I seem not to have written any tasting notes for the wine, so I can't offer any concrete review of the wine. I look forward to buying the Chateau Musar, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, and Cinsault, which is released only after a full seven years ageing at the Chateau. So more on that to come...

There are several other leading wineries in the country such as Chateau Kefraya, Massaya, and Chateau Belle-Vue, which are all represented in the movie. Wine has long been divided into the "Old" and "New" World, but I would add the category "Ancient" as one that is undervalued and underrepresented in our wine markets. While the precise location of the start of viticulture is hotly debated, Lebanon was certainly one of the first sites, with archeological evidence pointing to the prevalence of winemaking over 6,000 years ago. Long before winemaking reached the Greek and Roman Empires, the Levant was a hotbed of viticultural activity. Over it's many millennia of history, it has seen countless wars and conflicts, yet the industry of winemaking has courageously survived. War has often tried to disrupt winemaking, but it seems thankfully that wine usually gets the upper hand. French vintners were able to survive two world wars, with winemakers in Champagne using their vast chalk cellars to hide precious bottles away from the invading German forces.

Israel produces fine wine in the "Ancient" World and is of course no stranger to conflict. I remember reading a WSJ article back in 2017, highlighting an Israeli winemaker in the Golan Heights, whose vineyards were just a stone's throw across the border from ISIL-controlled territory. Not all Israeli wine is kosher, but many brands available in the US are, so the stereotype that kosher wine is sweet and of poor quality is an outdated one attributed mostly to the likes of Mogen David and Manischewitz (not even Israeli wine, made from concord grapes from New York State). With Passover arriving soon, it would be a good time to explore what the state of Israeli has to offer in terms of quality wine. My own personal experience with Israeli wine is limited, and not simply from a lack of interest. Even in Madison, the local boutique shops usually only offered a handful of Israeli wines. Again, I believe that one of the reasons behind a limited selection of Israeli wines stems from a perceived lack of quality, but another reason is a lack of knowledge in general about the potential (as well as already proven) greatness of wines from the Middle East. On the same wine trip to Steve's in Madison where I bought a bottle of Chateau Musar "Musar Jeune," I purchased a bottle of Gilgal Syrah 2009. (This was one of my 'I want to explore lesser-known wine regions' runs. A bottle of Greek Agiorgitiko also made it home I believe). Syrah is one of my favorite red-grape varietals, with a proven track record in France's Rhone Valley, Australia, and California. So, I was excited to try this wine, particularly since it had 10 years of age when I tried it. While much of Israel is hot and arid, it is a narrow country, with strong influences from the Mediterranean sea, as well as altitude providing proper microclimates for successful viticulture. Gilgal sources the Syrah for this wine from the region of Galilee--of the Wedding at Cana fame, so we know the region has a long history of quality winemaking. With its 10 years of age, the wine threw a substantial sediment, so decanting is a good idea for your more serious Syrahs. Just what you want from a Syrah this age, the wine was powerful and concentrated, with rich flavors of ripe and dried fruits along with Syrah's characteristic gaminess. The Golan Heights Winery is a relatively easy to find Israeli brand in the US also known for its quality wines. So, if you happen to see a bottle of Israeli wine on your next wine run, I encourage you to try it--you're in for a pleasant surprise.

While Lebanon and Israel lead the pack in terms of quality wine production in the "Ancient" World, wine production exists throughout the Middle East and North Africa. Not only was the vine cultivated since ancient times in these regions, but under French Colonial rule it flourished. After decolonization and the flight of European capital from countries such as Morocco and Algeria, the wine industry faltered, but they continue to produce wine. Despite the prominence of Islam in these regions, wine making is not prohibited, even by the more conservative governments; although, the selling of wine to Muslims is sometimes prohibited by law. While at first the spread of Islam slowed or halted wine cultivation in the Middle East and North Africa, this was not always to be the case. Two-thirds of Spain's vineyards were uprooted around 900 AD by the Caliph Ozman, but they made a quick recovery, and the Moorish Kingdom of Al-Andalus (from where we get the name Andalusia) advanced viticulture profoundly. The process of distillation, so essential for the production of Sherry today, was introduced by the Moors. The terms alcohol, Sherry, and the alembic (a pot still used for distillation) are all Arabic in origin.

Anise-flavored grape distillates are common throughout the Mediterranean region--sambuca in Italy, ouzo in Greece, and Raki in Turkey. The Levant's anise-flavored brandy is called Arak (or Arack) from the Arabic 'ariqa "to perspire." It is the popular aperitif/mezze accompaniment in countries such as Israel, Palestine, Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon. Chateau Musar, indeed most wineries in the Middle East, make an arak along with their wines. I personally love anise-flavored drinks, but I understand that it is usually a love-it or hate-it sort of drink. However, if you fall into the "love-it" camp, I would encourage you to try to get your hands on some Arak. I personally haven't tried any yet, so I'm not advising you to try it based on any concrete experience, just simply from the desire to be adventurous. I've checked online, and I'll be purchasing some arak on my next foray into Louisiana.

I will follow up with more concrete tasting notes once I have had the chance to try more wines from these regions. My goal here was simply to highlight an underappreciated section of the wine world (at least underappreciated by Western palates). I'm guilty of it myself, so this has also been a call for me to go out and explore the wines from these regions more thoroughly. In the meantime, I encourage you to watch Wine and War. It will give you a deeper appreciation for the human significance of wine beyond the mere pleasure of a glass. Wine has the power to change the world--for good.

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