« Back to News & Features Top

Long Reads

Cinsault Rising
Lebanon's search for a flagship red

by Jamal Rayyis  palatesavvy • posted on July 28, 2016

Massaya’s vineyards at Faqra, outside of Mount Lebanon. photo by Jamal Rayyis.

Lebanon has had a more fundamental influence on wine than any country on Earth. It’s a bold statement, perhaps, and there are some, such as the French, Italians, and maybe the Greeks, who might disagree. While Georgians and Armenians were likely the first winemakers, it was the seafaring, mercantile-minded Phoenicians who spread viticulture and winemaking as far as Spain and Portugal, carrying with them both Lebanese grapes and Lebanese wines. Yes, the Phoenicians brought wine to France.

Days of past glory long gone, Lebanon’s wine industry is in the midst of a renaissance. The traumas of the past century—colonization, warfare, endemic corruption and political dysfunction—haven’t passed entirely. The country’s resilience, however, its joie de vivre, its arts and its heritage of glorious food and intoxicating drink has kept Lebanese culture thriving.

The Lebanese renaissance has been fueled by the legacy of Jesuit missionaries who launched the country’s modern wine industry in the mid-19th century.
For reasons of a love for the esoteric, sympathy with the underdog, and I must admit, my Middle Eastern heritage, I have long been drawn to the wines of Lebanon. Memories of my first taste of Lebanese wines are as blurred as my vision was in the smoke-filled Damascus nightclub where I drank it in 1989. Conversation, food and gypsy dancing girls kept my focus away from its details, but I remember that the wine, a simple blend from Château Ksara, possessed the wild herb, sweet and savory fruit flavors more akin to wines from the south of France than those from my then California home. Subsequent, albeit less colorful experiences with sublime bottles of Château Musar from the late 1970s further flamed my interest, followed by broader exploration of Lebanon’s wines in the years since.

The Lebanese wine industry is at an auspicious point. Since the end of the country’s civil war in 1991, the number of its wineries has grown tenfold, from five to 50. Existing vineyards have been expanded, and new plantings are taking place in the warm, semi-arid southwestern part of the 75-mile-long Beqaa Valley where the majority of the country’s wine is made. New vineyards in the northeastern end of the Beqaa are close to the ancient city of Baalbek with the world’s largest, best-preserved temple dedicated to Bacchus. Vines are also reaching parts of the country previously overlooked for wine grapes, including some especially high-altitude sites on Mount Lebanon with elevations reaching as high as 5,600 feet, among the highest in the northern hemisphere. Despite its ancient heritage, the Lebanese wine industry is defining itself anew, especially around questions of which grapes and what styles of wine best reflect the country.

One might think that with three millennia of winemaking history, Lebanon would have its share of unique, local grapes to work with. In fact, most of the autochthonous varieties identifi ed by research in the 1950s are today used for table grapes or araq—the fiery anise-scented spirit ubiquitous on Lebanese mezze tables. While two local white varieties, obeideh and merweh, are used for wine, there is no flagship local red. Winemakers have searched old vineyards and backyard grape arbors for such a vine, but have yet to release any significant results.

photo by Jamal Rayyis. photo by Jamal Rayyis.
“Cinsault is malleable, allowing you to produce different styles of wine, while still expressing its terroir.” —Tarek Sakr, Château Musar
In the absence of an indigenous red, the Lebanese renaissance has been fueled by the legacy of Jesuit missionaries who launched the country’s modern wine industry in the mid-19th century. Arriving via Algeria, the monks brought cuttings of cinsault, carignan, and grenache, planting them at their monastery in the Beqaa Valley that became Château Ksara. Quintessential Mediterranean grapes in Lebanon’s Mediterranean climate, these became the basis of local wine production until the 1990s. In the view of several winemakers, including Tarek Sakr of Château Musar, Ramzi Ghosn of Massaya and Faouzi Issa of Domaine des Tourelles, these varieties have become effectively indigenous, developing on Lebanon’s limestone-rich slopes a character distinct from their antecedents in Algeria and France.

Cinsault, locally called zeitouni because of its olive-shaped (zeitoun) berries, tends to be darker in color, more perfumed, and more structured than French cinsault. In contrast, carignan, called “samsouni,” tends to have more finesse than its French counterpart. Both cinsault and carignan, it turns out, formed the foundation of the wine I sipped amid the gypsy dancers. Today, many producers rely on them for entry-level cuvées, like Château Kefraya’s Bretèches, Ksara’s Réserve du Couvent, Clos St. Thomas’s Gourmet Rouge and Domaine Wardy’s Les Terroirs, among others. All of these wines share a brightness and freshness, the red fruit flavors scented with fennel and orange zest and lifted by vibrant acidity. The varieties can also make more serious wines: cinsault and carignan, with cabernet sauvignon, are the basis of Château Musar’s iconic, long-living reds, as well as a component in Kefraya’s top traditional cuvée. For his part, Musar’s Sakr is positively thrilled by cinsault, calling it “an ideal bridge between human and earth terroirs. Unlike cabernet sauvignon, which imposes [its varietal character], cinsault is malleable, allowing you to produce different styles of wine, while still expressing its terroir.”

Said Touma, Clos St. Thomas. photo by Jamal Rayyis. Said Touma, Clos St. Thomas. photo by Jamal Rayyis.
Even so, following a similar fashion in much of the wine world back in the 1990s, many winemakers began paying more attention to the so-called ‘noble’ varieties, particularly cabernet sauvignon, merlot, and chardonnay, as well as northern Rhône grapes like syrah and viognier. It’s only now that international consumers are pushing Lebanese winemakers in a different direction. “At wine fairs, people are always asking me about local varieties. They don’t want just well-made wine, they want what is special to Lebanon,” exclaims Joe Assad Touma, winemaker at his family’s estate, Clos St. Thomas, in the western Beqaa Valley. “We knew obeideh [the indigenous white] from using it for araq, but we had to consider it as a table wine, too.” Touma has made zippy, lemony varietal versions of it since 2012. He is considering releasing a single-variety zeitouni in the future.

Fabrice Guiberteau, Château Kefraya. photo by Jamal Rayyis. Fabrice Guiberteau, Château Kefraya. photo by Jamal Rayyis.
Fabrice Guiberteau, who has been conducting detailed soil studies at Château Kefraya since 2008, has added more cinsault and carignan to the estate’s vineyards. A similar story has taken place at Massaya, where Ghosn has focused his energies away from internationally styled wines he used to make toward wines he describes as more “oriental”—that is, lighter in body, more perfumed, more languid, better suited to accompanying the diverse flavors of Lebanese cuisine.

For Ramzi Ghosn, the issue is not entirely appropriate grape variety. “Cinsault, carignan, or even a Lebanese [origin] grape, if we had it, are good starts. But, there are other things. Stop using so much oak; don’t push things. Use indigenous yeast. Let the wine take its time.”

Faouzi Issa of Domaine des Tourelles (left) Faouzi Issa of Domaine des Tourelles (left)
Thirty-two-year-old winemaker Faouzi Issa, who took charge of the decidedly old-school Domaine des Tourelles in 2009 after stints at Château Margaux in Bordeaux and René Rostaing in Côte Rôtie, isn’t reluctant to use cabernet or syrah in his blends, and his flagship wine is an indulgent red called “Syrah du Liban.” Still, when asked about Tourelles’s “traditional” wines, he is proud to serve a wine made before he was born, a 1976, 100 percent cinsault, labeled only “Vin Rouge.” While showing its age, the wine is thoroughly enjoyable, offering flavors of tart red cherry, worn leather and wafts of smoke, delicately structured, but still intact. Pressed on why he isn’t focusing on cinsault or carignan today, Issa just smiled. He released a single-variety cinsault from 70-year-old vines this past June.

This story was featured in W&S August 2016.