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Wine Buyer’s Report: The Road to Damascus - Massaya

By Alastair Marshall, also posted in News on

Adnams Senior Wine Buyer, Alastair Marshall, reports on his trip to visit Massaya, Lebanon [caption id="attachment_12077" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="Alastair with a glass of Arak"]Alastair with a glass of Arak from Massaya[/caption] English rail and tube services made their best attempt at making the journey as bad as possible but once off from Heathrow optimism prevails. I arrive in Beirut/Beyrouth at seven in the evening and it is still 27 degrees. A wall of warm air hits you as you get off the plane. I am a guest of Massaya vineyards, whose wines have featured for many years on the Adnams wine list, and this is my first visit to the Lebanon. Picked up at the airport, my driver only speaks Arabic, and so, silently, he weaves in and out of the unstructured traffic flow until the down town hotel presents itself. I have been traveling all day, and a beer, snack and bed appeal most but my host has plans. At nine o’clock I am driven to a street corner in downtown Beirut to meet my host Sami Ghosn of Massaya. A walk in the balmy evening air takes us to the Iris rooftop restaurant where the ‘beau monde’ of Beirut youth seem to be gathering. I feel out of place without my Gucci handbag but settle for a magnificent view of the bay. [caption id="attachment_12078" align="alignright" width="200" caption="Sami Ghosn, Massaya"]Sami Ghosn, Massaya[/caption] A few bottles of Massaya rosé (like a full Provençal) and some interesting nibbles and I feel more capable but “We’ll go to a club later” says Sami and my heart sinks at the thought of dark rooms, pounding music and minimal conversation. What is in store is a delight, an old cinema converted into a classic cabaret style venue. We sit at our table, order the wine (Massaya 2009 Gold Selection) and view a series of live acts of authentic regional music and a curiously good Adele imitator. The bands get better and the noise level rises until the PA climaxes with a rendition of YMCA to which the entire audience join in, gestures and all. It is definitely time for bed. Sunday morning and my hotel room looks out on to possibly the only building not re-built after the war. Pockmarked with shrapnel and bullet holes it is a sorry wreck. An anomaly in town that is mostly gleaming new, and re-built by enormous injections of Saudi cash. Into the 4x4 and head south down the coast before turning east and heading for the mountains through numerous small villages where men are wearing white skull caps which tells me we are in Druze territory, but this is soon followed by the next village sporting statues of the Virgin Mary and the next, a Mosque. Druze, Maronnites, Alloites, Shia, Christians and Suni this is an area of unique complexity. The tortuously winding road deserves a couple of stops and at the first, the terrace of an Emir’s palace that is now a hotel, I ask Sami how he got to be producing wine. [caption id="attachment_12082" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="Creative driving..."]Creative driving...[/caption] Sami’s father, the head of the family, worked in the pharmaceuticals business and bought several plots of land back in the 70s. This land was rented out and used for general farming and the growing of table grapes. After the war with Israel in the mid eighties Sami returned home from his studies in the USA determined to help rebuild the country. Unfortunately, the family land was occupied by Palestinian squatters and it took several years of gentle persuasion to get them to move on. Knowing nothing of agriculture Sami hired a local farmer of high repute, who was at the time earning a living making and selling sandwiches but was desperate to return to the land, and he set about restoring the 5 hectare plot. Still no wine was thought of but the table grapes (oubeidi) Sami decided to turn into Arak (a spirit). When Sami’s brother Ramsi returned from his studies they thought it was time to expand and considered wine. With only the vaguest connection through a friend in the cork trade Sami went to Bordeaux and met Dominique Hebrard of Cheval Blanc who took an early interest in the project. Still Sami thought that to ape Bordeaux did not feel right and that he needed a more Mediterranean influence. He knocked on doors and talked to growers and eventually came to the Brunier family of Châteauneuf-du-Pape who expressed an interest. With the French taking a 20% stake in the business Sami had the connections and know-how to plant and build a winery. That was the early 90s and today it is a business of some 40 hectares. selling into all the major world markets. We stop again further up to view some of the famous cedar trees of the Lebanon and the road climbs to 1800 metres at which point we crest the ridge of the Lebanese mountains and begin our descent with the vast and richly fertile Bekaa Valley laid out before us. The temperature is not the balmy 32 degrees of the coast but 8 degrees at this altitude. [caption id="attachment_12079" align="alignleft" width="200" caption="Sami Ghosn, al fresco lunch"]Sami Ghosn, al fresco lunch[/caption] Our destination is the Massaya winery near the town of Chtaura and lunch. Massaya has a popular restaurant and many people make the hour-long trip via the motorway to come for a long lunch. This is Sunday and the place is packed A truly splendid affair in the winery restaurant with unleavened bread made on the spot and a cornucopia of grilled meats and meze. My photographs do not do it justice. There is a few hours break before we are collected to go for dinner in the local town! The next morning finds us breakfasting in the garden of the Goshn’s house which is a short walk from the winery. Ramzi takes us for a tour of the cellars where the vintage is in full swing. They are bringing in grapes from the 40 hectares of land that they farm biodynamically. They are not certified as such, only prefer working that way. We taste from the vats Cinsault, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Syrah and Cabernet singly and in various blends before going to the tasting room to look at a couple of mature vintages of the ‘Silver’ (40% Carignan, 30% Cinsault, 15% Cab Sauv & 15% Mourvedre) and the ‘Gold’ (50% Cab Sauv, 40% Mourvèdre & 10% Syrah) It seems to me that the Cinsault, in particular, imparts a unique herby character to the blend making the Silver, despite its lighter price point, the wine with the most character. Roman templeBefore going back over the mountains to Beirut we drive a little further north to Balbeck to view the spectacular Roman remains there. A little extra excitement is added to the trip when as we leave Balbeck our driver pulls up sharply at the sound of gunfire. The crack of automatic weapons gets louder and soon we are passed by pick-ups full of armed young men heading a cavalcade of motor vehicles. It is a Hezbollah funeral. Out of the city and up to the mountains, and on the way we pass new plantings of Massaya vines which are against all local advice but encouraged by the Bruniers at Vieux Telegraphe who believe the altitude and particular soil will yield great results, and tastings back in their barrel cellar confirm that this terroir delivers something unique and a step on from where they are. Over the barren mountains and down towards Beirut but stopping on the way at another new Massaya project. Complete new cellars and vineyards dedicated to white wine positioned just beside what, in winter, is the most glamorous ski resort in the Middle East. It is but a building site currently but the vineyards are planted. It will incorporate a restaurant and gift shop and will most probably be a raging success when it opens next year. [caption id="attachment_12081" align="alignleft" width="113" caption="Fruit and vegetable stall"]Fruit and vegetable stall[/caption] We take the scenic route back to Beirut and experience the lush, green and vertiginous countryside that drops dramatically down to the Med. This has been a brief visit but one packed with activity and discovery. The highlights and lasting impressions must be, in no particular order, the food; I expected it to be interesting but it was much more than that with its heavy use of fresh herbs, raw veg, unleavened breads and so much more. A meal consists of five or six dishes that interest and delight and then a further four or five for the main course. Fresh pistachios, pickled aubergines, thyme, sesame and sumac in a freshly baked bread – so much to remember. The land; it is far more densely populated that I anticipated, houses are everywhere and it was only on the top of a mountain that we found open country. The driving; There do not seem to be rules only a general understanding between drivers. There are no neat lines on the road to channel traffic, a high speed free for all. As a passenger it is either terrifying or exciting and amusing, I opted for the latter. The land; far more up and down than I expected giving a whole range of mini climates in a varied and often beautiful environment. Finally the wines of Massaya impress, there is consistency, quality and a promise of more and better for the future. Oh!.. and Arak, did I mention that Massaya also makes Arak? But that is another story. You can buy two of the wines from Massaya here. View Alastair's photos of his trip to Massaya on Flickr

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Alastair Marshall

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