From Georgia to Lebanon: exploring the best wines of the ancient world

April 27, 2018
Chad Parkhill – The Guardian

The world of wine is vast – literally. Vitis vinifera, the plant species whose berries form the basis of wine, can grow as far north as southern Sweden and as far south as the bottom half of New Zealand’s south island, and crops up in a surprising number of places in between. (Bali? Sure, why not.)

Yet most wine drinkers, and many wine professionals, somewhat crudely divide the wine world into just two parts. There’s the “old world”, which usually encompasses France, Italy, Germany, Spain and, if you’re feeling a little adventurous, Portugal and Austria; and the “new world”, which covers the United States, South America (especially Argentina and Chile), Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

But dividing the wine world into the “old” and the “new” can blind us to the joys of wine from places that don’t quite fit the mould, especially those places that I like to call the “old-old world”, which have a very long history of winemaking, yet are considered marginal both in terms of production quantity and prestige.

Of course, just because you can grow grapes somewhere doesn’t mean that the area is especially suited to wine production, as anyone who has consumed Balinese wines can attest. By the same token, though, the conditions for good viticulture do not abruptly cease 50km east of Vienna or at the northern shores of the Mediterranean – and the countries of the old-old world are producing some wonderful wines that are very much worth tracking down.

Here’s a primer to some of the more marginal regions that produce great wines and are often overlooked, – although there are plenty more – including Greece, Croatia, Slovenia, and the Czech Republic – that are equally deserving of your attention.

Georgia, the Caucasus and the Black Sea
When it comes to the old-old world, Georgia is king, both in terms of age and trendiness. Research published in late 2017 dates wine production in Georgia’s Gadachrili Gora site back to around 6000 BC – the earliest known evidence of winemaking of any sort.

At the same time, Georgian wines have recently become a fixture on forward-thinking wine lists, and woe betide the sommelier who can’t tell their rkatsiteli from their saperavi (the most important Georgian white and red grape varieties, respectively). It’s precisely the rich sense of history that comes across with every sip of Georgian wines that makes the country so appealing to wine nerds.

The very best examples are often made with unusual techniques and equipment – such as the practice of keeping the skins of white wines in contact with the fermenting juice for extra tannins and texture, or the use of qvevri: giant ceramic fermentation and storage vessels that are traditionally buried up to their necks in the cellar.

Much of the current interest in Georgian wines is owed to Pheasant’s Tears, the winery founded in 2007 by American John Wurdeman and Georgian Gela Patalishvili, which has acted as an ambassador for Georgia’s traditional wine styles. But the real gem of Georgia’s producers may be Iago’s Wine, by the eponymous Iago Bitarishvili, who makes a minuscule 3000 or so bottles per year from only one white grape varietal, chinuri, which he vinifies in qvevri with skin contact (the resulting wine falls somewhere between a grippy white and a very light orange). At the other end of the accessibility scale is Tbilvino, the country’s largest exporter, which produces an array of simple yet delicious wines at pleasingly modest prices.

While Georgia steals much of the limelight when it comes to winemaking in the Caucasus and Black Sea area, there are other countries of note. Armenia boasts a similarly ancient winemaking tradition, and the wines of Italo-Armenian producer Zorik Gharibian, bottled under the Zorah label, have attracted serious international attention. Across the Black Sea, Moldova has emerged as a fledgling wine producer with great promise thanks to its latitude (which it shares with Burgundy), the maritime climate, and the long-established presence of French grape varieties.

Lebanon and the Levant
The largest and best-known Roman temple dedicated to Bacchus, god of wine, wasn’t built in Italy – instead, the ancient Romans built it in the Beqaa Valley of Lebanon, which should tell you something about the regard in which they held the viticulture of this region.

Despite the geopolitical turmoil that has swept over Lebanon and neighbouring Syria in recent decades (this is one of the few places on earth where you might encounter live ordnance in a vineyard), the Lebanese wine industry has grown impressively – from a mere 14 in the year 2000 to 50 today.

It’s impossible to talk about Lebanese wine without mentioning Château Musar and the late Serge Hochar, who became the first Lebanese winemaker to draw the wider wine world’s attention when his 1967 vintage was declared the best find of the 1979 Bristol wine fair. Musar’s wines remain objects of cult adoration, probably because they manage to straddle some deep divides in wine culture.

Made from classical Bordeaux varieties with prestigious provenance (rumoured to be cuttings from deuxième cru Château Léoville Barton in St Julien), yet vinified in a highly idiosyncratic fashion that could be called “natural winemaking” if Hochar hadn’t been doing it for decades before natural wine became trendy, Musar’s reds are some of the very few wines that can appeal both to traditional fine wine consumers and the sommelier avant-garde. They are also phenomenally good, but be warned: the older vintages can be very expensive and the wines are infamously prone to bottle variation, so you never quite know what you might get when you open one. Musar’s reds receive the lion’s share of recognition, but it’s also worth keeping an eye out for their whites (made from the indigenous varieties merwah and obaideh) and their rosés.

Musar is no longer the only significant player in the Beqaa Valley, though – the country’s largest and oldest winery, Château Ksara, was founded by Jesuit priests in 1857 and now makes delicious wines at an approachable price point. Domaine des Tourelles is producing excellent wines under the guidance of Faouzi Issa, who has ambitions to become the next Serge Hochar. While harder to find, there are Levantine wines made outside of Lebanon that are also worth investigating. Syria’s only commercial winery, Domaine de Bargylus, overcomes Herculean difficulties in order to produce its wines. The subject of Israeli wine is beset with controversy, as most of the sites best suited to viticulture are located in either the West Bank or Golan Heights – areas occupied by Israel but claimed by the Palestinian Authority and Syria, respectively. Despite this, there are signs of hope, including a Palestinian-Israeli collaborative wine by Recanati Winery, made from the ancient native variety marawi.

Where to start: For a taste of Château Musar without the sticker shock, look into their third-tier offering, Musar Jeune: young wines (a red, a white, and a rosé) intended for immediate consumption, which nonetheless express their terroir and Hochar’s winemaking philosophy.

Northwest Africa
Of all of the old-old world wine regions, the countries of the Maghreb – particularly Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria – are more of a work-in-progress than any other. But don’t let their current modest output fool you: the physical conditions are there for both quality and quantity.

In terms of quality, bear in mind that two of Europe’s most interesting winemaking regions – Portugal’s Madeira and Spain’s Canary Islands – are geologically part of Africa rather than Europe, and sit further south than the winemaking regions of these three countries. And when it comes to quantity, consider that in 1961, these three countries produced just shy of two-thirds of the world’s total wine exports. Quite an achievement for three countries whose wines are now quite difficult to find outside of their borders.

While Vitis vinifera was introduced to the Maghreb by the Phoenicians, who inhabited present-day Lebanon and parts of Israel and Syria, the industry was kickstarted in the late 19th century, after France had annexed Algeria. Early attempts at viticulture in French Algeria had failed miserably – the vines grew well enough in Algeria’s warm climate, but the high ambient temperature interfered with the fermentation process. But by the 1880s, the French colonists had the refrigeration technology to produce wine in such a climate, and a motive to do so: the Phylloxera louse, which had accidentally been introduced to France’s wine-growing regions in 1863, had devastated France’s vineyards, and French consumers were beginning to acquire their wines from – quelle horreur! – Italy and Spain (who would soon enough feel the effects of Phylloxera themselves).

The French government responded by increasing tariffs on wine imports – which would not apply to Algerian wine, as Algeria was considered a part of France. Winemakers soon flocked to Algeria and immense quantities of wine started flowing north. Large-scale winemaking spread to Morocco and Tunisia as they became French protectorates with their own favourable tariff schemes. While the Maghrebi wine industry weathered difficulties – especially after France’s vineyards recovered from Phylloxera and French winemakers demanded action against colleagues they accused of “adulterating” their wines with Algerian imports – the industry continued to thrive until the three countries became independent in the 1950s and 1960s. Soon industry in each of the countries was nationalised, vines torn up, and production shrank until, by the 1990s, the industry was practically nonexistent. Recovery has been slow.

The future of Maghrebi wine remains very much uncertain – mostly owing to the social climate, tax regimes and religious mores of these countries, which discourages the production and consumption of alcohol. While Algeria, as the first of these countries to be colonised and the last to receive its independence, got the largest dose of the French, its wine industry is in the most parlous state (although the actor Gérard Depardieu produces a red wine made from Algerian grapes). Conversely, Morocco, last to be colonised and the first to regain independence, has the highest potential as future producer of great wines. The elevation of the Atlas Mountains and the moderating influence of the Atlantic ocean mean high-quality grapes can be grown here, and when vinified with care – as in Syrocco, a collaborative wine between the Moroccan Domaine Ouled Thaleb and French winemaker Alain Graillot – the results can be truly captivating.

Where to start: Thanks to Graillot’s international syrah star power (he also makes a sought-after Crozes-Hermitage and Australian wines), his collaboration with Domaine des Ouled Thaleb, Syrocco, is probably the best example of Moroccan wine that can be found outside of the country. It’s a stunner, too: deep concentration of purple fruit balanced by fresh acidity with a pleasing herbal tobacco note.

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