Lebanese Food and Wine
By Linda Kissam
Food and wine pairing is an art that goes back to the beginnings of civilization. As an indigenous cuisine and its local vineyards evolve, they influence one another. Wine was always intended to accompany food so it makes sense that people have always tried to find the perfect match of wine and food for every day and special occasions. The perfect combination of flavors in wine showcase, enrich and complement the flavors in food, making the overall culinary experience greater than the sum of its parts.
It’s rare to find wine from Lebanon in restaurants where I live. But opening guest’s eyes to the possibilities of Lebanese food and wine pairing is a specialty of Open Sesame located in the Los Angeles area. Owner Ali Kobeissi is a master at treating the eyes, nose and palate to culinary experiences most of us have never tried before.
On a cool California evening, eight wine and food writers were guests of Open Sesame’s owner/chef Ali Kobeissi and two wine reps. We were introduced to a variety of food (via Mr. Kobeissi) and wine pairings (via Chateau Musar and IXSIR Altitudes) that would rock our world.
In case you didn’t know, Lebanon’s approximately 40 wineries produces about 7 million bottles annually from regions all over the country but chiefly in the Western Bekaa and the hills above Zahleh. A wide variety of grapes are grown, including the traditional Lebanese types as well as more recent arrivals.
Lebanon is located along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea, with Israel to the south and Turkey to the North. The climate is warm, but the nearby Mediterranean and the inland mountains both have cooling effects.
Lebanon’s vineyards enjoy over 300 days of sunshine per year. The high altitude of the valley significantly lowers temperatures at night. This is, of course exactly where great wines start. The vineyards grow mostly on the slopes and flat lands in the Bekaa Valley at elevation of up to 3200 feet. Soils in the Bekaa Valley are predominantly gravel-based, with a thick base layer of limestone. The top export markets for Lebanese wines are the UK, France, US, Canada, Germany and Belgium.
The pairings for our evening were truly interesting, but first a bit of background on the wines.
The name IXSIR comes from “Iksir”, the original Arabic word for “Elixir. ” It’s a common word generally meant to define the purest form of a substance, or a secret potion that grants eternal youth and love.
IXSIR is the culmination of a partnership between friends who share a passion for wine, Lebanon, and the goal of associating the name of a prominent wine to their homeland.
IXSIR cultivates grapes in areas carefully chosen for their potential that stretch from Batroun in the North to Jezzine in the South, nuzzling some of the most beautiful hillsides of the Bekaa. Winemaking and aging take place in a central winery located on the hills of Batroun leading to what IXSIR says is the “Marriage between the subtle and the complex.”
Recognized as the first producer in Lebanon to achieve organic certification for its vineyards, Chateau Musar vineyards are located in the Bekaa Valley, nestled between two mountain ranges running parallel to Lebanon’s Mediterranean coastline. Vines have been cultivated there for 6,000 years or more.
Bordered by snow-covered mountains, and resting at 3,000 feet above sea level, the beautiful Bekaa Valley is blessed sunny skies, fresh mountain breezes and an average temperature of 77 degrees (with snowy winters and hot summers). Remote and unspoiled, the Chateau explains, “The Musar vineyards were ‘organic’ by default before the term was coined.”
All the grapes are hand-harvested by local Bedouins between August and October. In the winery, ambient yeasts (naturally present in wine cellars, vineyards and on the grapes themselves) are used in fermentation. The bare minimum of sulphur is used. Musar wines are not fined nor filtered.
The White Pairings at Open Sesame
Appetizers such as crispy fried potatoes served with a silky garlic sauce, tender fried cauliflower with tahini sauce hummus and tabouleh paired nicely with the IXSIR Altitudes Blanc 2012 ($21). A blend of four varieties (Muscat Blanc, Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon) this wine presents with an elegant swirl of golden hues followed by an exquisite scent of white flowers, hints of Muscat and notes of grapefruit. A soft touch of acidity gives the wine a pleasant freshness.
A sassy shrimp dish with red and green bell peppers, tomato, garlic, cilantro and a snap of hot chile and a tender lamb chop (marinated with garlic and lemon for 12 hours) went well with a 2012 Chateau Musar Jeune ($21). Three varietals – 35% Viognier, 35% Vermentino and 30% Chardonnay come together to produce an eclectic blend of French and Sicilian flavors from grapes harvested in August 2012 and fermented in stainless steel vats. Pale lemon hues pair with aromas of tropical fruit and hints of orange blossom, honeysuckle and floral notes to produce a distinct personality of silky textures, refined acidity and a dry refreshing finish.
The Red Pairings at Open Sesame
An IXSIR Altitudes 2010 Rouge ($17.99) went beautifully with the fish—a branzino (a table fish, often marketed as Mediterranean sea bass) in tahini sauce with lemon, capers and pickles. The wine is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Caladoc, Syrah and Tempranillo. Tasting of cassis, mild herbs and violets it presents with silky tannins and fresh acidity. The heady aromas of sweet spice, blackcurrant and vanilla are a pleasant surprise. The rep said it reminded him of a Syrah grown in Châteauneuf du Pape, but I’d say a Claret from France was more my take on it. Sourced from prime vineyard sites at an altitude above sea level (hence the name).
Perhaps the best pairing of the night was the IXSIR Grande Reserve red 2010 ($27.99) with the delicious seasoned beef shawarma seasoned with parsley and onion with a roasted tomato on the side and the chicken tawook, marinated with lemon, orange juice, yogurt and garlic and served with garlic sauce and pickles. The wine is a Cab Syrah, Tempranillo blend. Deep purple in color it its concentrated flavors of cherry and blueberry caught the group’s attention. Full bodied with a hint of smoke the medium tannins assured a firm, smooth texture.
We also tasted the Chateau Musar 2003 ($35) a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignane and Cinsault from old vines growing in the Bekaa Valley with the beef shawarma. This is an interesting wine that deserves to be considered on its own, not at the end of a rich meal and multiple wines. The group thought is was top flight. Known as the ‘Grand Vin’ of the estate it has had a long journey from vineyard to table. Seven years from harvest to release. The Cab Sav-Cinsault-Carignane blend is fermented in cement lined vats. It spends 12-15 months in newer French oak barrels and four years in bottle prior to release. Full bodied and tannic, the winery describes the wine as, “Elegant controlled power! “ Advising that, “This wine will come together to make a great wine that will go the distance over the coming decades.”
There was a sense of disappointment when the evening came to an end. When we arrived at Open Sesame just a few hours before we knew little about Lebanese wine and food pairings. By the end of the night we were hooked.
Lebanon is doing its best to establish itself in the global wine market. Are they outstanding wines? Not yet, but keep your connoisseur eye on them. Great things are in store. On reflection I’d say that most of Lebanon’s best wines taste French. They are heady yet smooth, a little wild but layered with flavors, fruity and medium bodied. They are somewhat exotic and reflect a heritage where you can imagine drinking a glass or two while noshing on meze.
For additional information on Lebanese Wines
Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL)
Lebanon’s official association of wine producers. This site outlines the background, mission and activities of the UVL, directs you to the sites of our members and offers other useful data about Lebanon and Lebanese wine.