Pinot noir: A summery red arrives in Lebanon

BEIRUT: For red wine lovers in Lebanon, the options have largely been limited to heavy cabernet sauvignons and merlots, with the occasional syrah thrown in the mix. But now, with the launch of Chateau St. Thomas’ single grape pinot noir, there’s a new kid in town.

Notoriously difficult to grow, pinot noir presents a challenge to winemakers, and especially those in hot climates, but Joe Touma, vintner at St. Thomas, was prepared to take on the task.

“We wanted to try something new, and me and my father really like the pinot noir grape,” Touma says.

Venturing into the unknown in Lebanon – only Chateau St. Khoury has a pinot noir blend, Cuve Saint Therese, with 20 percent pinot noir and 80 percent Caladoc – and facing a long fermentation period, Touma was unsure how the wine would turn out.

“As there is no history of growing pinot noir in Lebanon, we didn’t know how it would go, so we are discovering this grape anew.

“It’s very hard to grow in a hot climate, but we chose the right terroir, in the Bekaa, at 1,100 meters.”

The current vintage is a 2008, a light, crisp and fruity wine, and while Touma knows there will be a 2009 launched next year, the winery cannot be sure it will be an annual bottle.

“We don’t know yet if we will make it each year, as it’s very much weather dependent. But we will definitely have a 2009 ready next year,” he says.

At the launch, the wine was served chilled, and Touma recommends this for the grape. “It’s a wine that can be drunk all year round. People think summer is just about roses and white wines, but this pinot noir is very light, and is better served chilled,” he says.

“While cabernet sauvignon is much muddier, darker and heavier, Pinot noir is a much lighter grape. There’s not anything else like this at the moment in Lebanon,” Touma adds.

Michael Karam, author of “Wines of Lebanon,” and an expert on the beverage agrees.

“I think this is a very exciting launch as it’s very difficult to grow, and it’s shown that the Lebanese wine industry has such potential.”

Karam voted the wine his red choice of 2011, and also recommends serving it chilled.

“It has these lovely sort of burnt flavors, giving it a Lebanese identity, which were combined with the classic pinot noir fruity freshness to give us something new in a red, and it really adds something new to Lebanon’s burgeoning industry.”

While skeptical that the new launch will encourage many other wineries to grow their own pinot noirs, Karam hopes that the perseverance of St. Thomas will inspire other growers.

“I think the message is that if winemakers are prepared to be patient, as pinot noir is very difficult to work with, especially in this climate, then they will get results,” Karam says.

Despite endorsing the St. Thomas pinot noir offering, Karam says he is not usually a fan of single grape varietals. “If anything I hope that Lebanese winemakers will be more adventurous in their blending.”

While he says Lebanon is still a “very young country” when it comes to winemaking, the reputation of the nation’s wines is growing, at home and abroad.

“As Lebanon’s wine reputation grows, and more people come out here and taste them,” a wider range of varietals will only help cement this reputation.

The debut this month of three Lebanese wines – from Chateau Ksara, Chateau Ka and Domaine des Tourelles – among the catalog of British retailer Marks and Spencer’s will be a “huge step forward in raising the profile of Lebanese wine,” Karam adds.

“Before it was seen as a bit of an ethnic curiosity, but I think this step will really help people see Lebanese wine as more than just something to drink at a restaurant.”

In terms of pairings, Karen Matta, who co-owns Cru wine bar in Hamra with her husband Wael Bou Jaoude, says that pinot noir is a great grape to go with food.

“Pinot noir is an elegant grape which is usually light to medium bodied with hints of different berry flavors and blackcurrant, although the taste does differ between regions,” Matta says.

“It goes with almost anything that is simple and savory including things like chicken salad and grilled salmon. This is a grape that can be enjoyed all year long, which makes it a great red choice for the long summer in Lebanon.”

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 15, 2012, on page 2.




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