Many of us are familiar with Lebanon's rich culinary heritage, courtesy of the Lebanese diaspora and food writers such as Claudia Roden and Anissa Helou. Yet the prevalence of popular Lebanese dishes such as tabbouleh and hummous in our supermarkets is not yet matched by Lebanese wines despite a long history of grape cultivation dating back to the Phoenicians.
The answer to this curious paradox lies perhaps in the small volume of wine produced in this tiny country of 4000 square miles as well its recent turbulent history which has often disrupted wine production and export.
The country's top producers are out to remedy this lack of awareness, a recent example being a lunch I attended just before Christmas at the Lebanese restaurant Fakhreldine, pairing typical Lebanese dishes with wines from one of Lebanon's oldest producers Château Ksara.
The typical Lebanese meal starts with a selection of hot and cold mezze (see photo above) which can encompass many different flavours. With them we were offered a selection of Ksara's wines - their Blanc de Blancs 2006, Sunset Rose 2007 and red Réserve du Couvent 2006. I thought the rosé would match the mezze best, but was surprised to find that wasn't the case. The panoply of flavours in the mezze - most notably garlic, sumac and citrus - interfered with the rose's fruitiness leaving it rather overwhelmed.
The mezze included a luscious, smooth hoummos, smoky baba ghanoush, tabbouleh with lots of parsley (as it should be), crisp falafel, and stuffed vine leaves. warak inab. More unusual offerings were kibbe mekliyeh, a pumpkin and spinach pastry and spinach and sumac fatayer. Overall my favourite wine to pair these mezze was the fresh, fruity Ksara Blanc de Blancs 2006, a subtly oaked blend of Sauvignon, Semillon, and Chardonnay.
The one dish I felt paired better with a red was Fakhreldine's spiced lamb flatbreads - redolent of cinnamon and allspice - which matched Ksara's red Reserve du Couvent, a belnd of Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. We also found reds more to our taste with the main courses, a slightly disappointing dish of five-spice lamb and bukhari rice, and an exceptional mixed meat grill - skewers of lamb, infused with smoky charcoal aromas, which worked a treat with the Ksara Souverain 2004 - a wine made from a 50%/50% blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Arinarnoa - a rare crossing of Merlot and Petit Verdot. It proved a voluptuous, richly aromatic match for the lamb. This was followed by skewers of succulent lamb known as lahim meshoue, and lamb cutlets which were accompanied by Ksara's longest-aged reds Château 2002 and Château 1999, a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot which had been aged in French oak for 18 months. Both were finely nuanced wines, with good length and complexity though I thought the 2002 was marginally better with the lamb.
The surprise hit of the tasting foodwise? Shish taouk skewers, or chicken marinaded in chilli, garlic and lemon ' then flash grilled (a recipe I'll be giving you my version of for my Lebanese feast tomorrow) The simplicity of this dish belies its excellence: tender, succulent pieces of chicken served with toum, a wicked garlic dip which left me reeling for a few hours - and I love garlic. This dish was tricky to match, with its intensely garlicky character. It would almost have been worth going back to the Sauvignon-based Blanc de Blancs.
The meal finished on a light note with fresh fruit, sorbet, and Lebanese cheese. In place of the usual sweet pastries, we drank a Ksara Vin D'Or from 1935, still vibrantly honeyed - quite extraordinary for its age.
As a footnote I'd be curious to discover more about alternatives to wine with Lebanese food. Claudia Roden writes about 'white' coffee, a typical Lebanese after-dinner drink consisting of hot water and orange blossom essence, and I feel there is great potential for non-alcoholic syrups, fruit juices and teas which I think would work well with these richly aromatic dishes.
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