March 31, 2018

Jancis Robinson: Lebanon's Oldest Winery, Domaine des Tourelles

Written by Jancis Robinson 29 Mar 2018

Lebanon's oldest winery

Tourelles_doorway-1

Domaine des Tourelles is Lebanon's oldest commercial winery and is currently celebrating its 150th anniversary – noisily, thanks to the current co-owner and winemaker, 34-year-old Faouzi Issa.

The winery was founded in Chtaura by civil engineer François-Eugène Brun and was taken over by the (unrelated) Issa and Issa-El-Khoury families 20 years ago. Today it is run by Faouzi and his sisters and Émile Issa-El-Khoury. Faouzi is particularly proud that the winery is actually based in the Bekaa Valley, and that he is a Bekaa boy. (He does a fine imitation of the sound of explosions across the Syrian border five miles away.) He says he lives in Beirut now only because his wife is from the capital.

A graduate of Ch Margaux and René Rostaing, he seems to have all the right ideas for ushering the Bekaa Valley-based operation into the next century and a half. Not for him the heavy bottles full of oaked Cabernet that go down best in the restaurants of Beirut. He is all about concrete; indigenous, or at least local, grape varieties; organic viticulture. He even filters the wines with the local dried thistles shown below.

Because the Bekaa Valley is so dry, agrochemicals are virtually unknown in Lebanese vineyards. Issa is contemptuous of organic certification. 'Bekaa is 100% organic. Any chemicals are brought in from abroad – just like the symbols for certification', he says.

One respect in which he has quite radical views, certainly strongly opposed to the philosophy of the Hochars at Chateau Musar, is the question of ageing wine. His argument is that people nowadays are in a hurry. They can't be bothered to age wine. He'd like to make wines that are drinkable almost immediately. Certainly the standard Domaine des Tourelles 2014 red is a brilliant example of a wine with a strong local character, sold at an extremely reasonable price (about £12.50 in the UK), that is totally accessible but shouldn't fall off its perch in a hurry.

Another crop with which Faouzi is now involved is aniseed. Lebanon is not a big wine- drinking country. Spirits are the thing, particularly the aniseed-flavoured local spirit arak. Arak Brun is Lebanon's favourite brand and is a sister product to Domaine des Tourelles wines. Syria was traditionally the source of Lebanon's aniseed but today Syria's major export to Lebanon is of course hundreds of thousands of traumatised Syrians fleeing the war. So Faouzi, to supply aniseed for Arak Brun and to provide farmers with an alternative to the cannabis that has been a traditional crop in the Bekaa Valley, is now farming aniseed.

One of many side-effects of the terrible war in Syria is that Lebanon's wonderful heritage of ancient sites is all but unvisited. The temple of Bacchus at Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley is the most extraordinarily well preserved relic. Now is the time for brave tourists to visit the ancient sites not just in Egypt but in Lebanon too.

These 11 wines were served at a 150th anniversary celebration held in London. The eye-openers were the three Vieilles Vines Cinsaults, a wine launched with the 2014 vintage as a sign of Faouzi's faith in what used to be the country's most-planted grape variety. The two wonderful relics, the 1976 and 1989, would not have had Cinsault on the label but that would have been the dominant ingredient in each wine.

Faouzi's father made the wine initially and then hired a French winemaker, who worked at Tourelles for eight years but was promptly shown the door when Faouzi returned from France in 2008. The Frenchman was responsible for planting the Tempranillo that plays a part in the rosé of which Faouzi is so proud. Tourelles were the first to make a rosé in Lebanon, a country whose wine industry now has quite a reputation for its food- friendly pink wines that can go beautifully with local mezze.

  • Tourelles 2017 Bekaa Valley: 60% Viognier, remainder Chardonnay, Obaideh, Muscat. Fresh and easy with lots of fruit. Fairly simple but certainly not industrial. Drink 2017-2018. £12–£14 Borough Wines, Highbury Vintners, Talking Wines 16

  • Tourelles, Marquis des Beys 2016 Bekaa Valley: 100% Chardonnay. Fourth vintage. Vines 25 years old. 8 months in oak (50% new). Very cold fermentation.Not much nose but very seductive, juicy, lime fruit on the palate. Attractive and non-stereotypical with a slightly bitter bite on the end. Drink 2018-2021. £27.50 Talking Wines 16

  • Tourelles 2017 Bekaa Valley: 40% Cinsault, 30% Syrah, 30% Tempranillo (planted by their French winemaker between father’s and son’s reigns). Domaine des Tourelles claims to be Lebanon’s first producer of rosé, in 1963. Big and round and bumptious; very different from the Provençal norm, for example. More of a light red and with fairly low acid. Quite chewy. Deliberately made for food. Drink 2018-2021. £12–£14 Borough Wines, Highbury Vintners, Talking Wines 16

  • Tourelles, Vieilles Vignes Cinsault 2016 Bekaa Valley: Aged for six to eight months in old oak after fermentation in ancient, unlined concrete. Transparent crimson. Relatively simple nose at this point but admirably fruity palate. Racy, light, flirtatious – these wines seem to get progressively fresher with each vintage. Flirtatious and quintessentially 21st century. I’m sure it will continue to improve in bottle. Drink 2018-2027

  • Tourelles, Vieilles Vignes Cinsault 2015 Bekaa Valley: Claret-like structure. Fuller than the 2016. So meaty it almost tastes like a Grenache! Beautiful balance and roundness. Drink 2017-2030. £17–£19 Highbury Vintners, Talking Wines, The Wine Society 17

  • Tourelles, Vieilles Vignes Cinsault 2014 Bekaa Valley: The first vintage of this Vieilles Vignes bottling.

    Bright, deep garnet. Very ripe and spicy; not as fresh as the 2016. Deep- flavoured and rich with lots of sweet fruit on the mid palate and a very satisfying savoury finish. Drink 2016-2027

  • Tourelles 2014 Bekaa Valley: 40% Syrah, 40% Cabernet, 10% Carignan, 10% Cinsault aged for two years in concrete – their only wine that sees only concrete. This is their entry-level red but it looks awfully good. Very deep crimson. Well- integrated blend with polished tannins. Still lots of life. GV. Drink 2017-2020. £12–£14 Borough Wines, Hennings Wine, Highbury Vintners, Talking Wines 16

  • Tourelles, Marquis des Beys 2013 Bekaa Valley: 50% Syrah, 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35-year-old vines. Aged in ancient, unlined concrete. Light nose. Notably deep crimson. Sweet, spicy start but not heavy, with strong cedar-wood notes – perhaps not surprising considering the wine’s country of origin.... Great balance. Drink 2017-2022. £27.50 Talking Wines 16.5

  • Tourelles, Syrah du Liban 2012 Bekaa Valley: 100% Syrah. Inspired by the winemaker’s stint chez Rostaing. Syrah is relatively rare in Lebanon. 40-year-old bush vines. Aged in US oak for 24 months. Rich and round. Aromas of leather and tobacco leaf but with a good combination of fruit and structure. Excellent freshness despite the relatively high alcohol. Drink 2016-2022. £50 Borough Wines 16.5

  • Tourelles 1989 Bekaa Valley: Cinsault.Mid rose red. Round, smooth and sweet with a very flattering sweet start; really glorious, fully mature wine with no shortage of fruit or character. Drink 1995-2020

  • Tourelles 1976 Bekaa Valley: Cinsault. Opened at the very last minute from a bottle with a decidedly period label. Very pale rose red. Rose-petal-scented. Very fragile and transparent with a rich start and a dry finish but it was remarkably persistent and had a decidedly sweet undertow. Old but not dead. Drink 1985-2000

 

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