BEIRUT: “You want something new? Come,” commanded Habib Karam, the owner of Karam Winery. Rather than answer the question with his own vintage, Karam hauled me through an exhibition of Lebanese wineries to his competitor Chateau Nakad.
Nakad and Karam were two of around a dozen Lebanese winemakers participating in the HORECA hospitality trade show at the Beirut International Exhibition and Leisure center since Tuesday. For the biggest gathering of the country’s food and beverage industries, local wineries enticed show-goers with their latest innovations, such as fresh, not-yet-bottled vintages and more adventurous spirits than the quintessential arak.
One such example was Chateau Nakad’s meska liqueur. “Now, this is new,” Karam said, gleaming as if he’d made it himself.
Meska, also known in English as mastic or gum arabic, is an ingredient derived from tree sap and used locally in ice creams and sweets. It’s also often used to thicken jams.
The Greeks use meska to flavor two indigenous spirits under the umbrella name mastichato, which inspired Jalal Nakad – the oenologist and heir of the 90-year-old vineyard – to invent his own meska-infused spirit several weeks ago.
Meska liqueur looks like arak and is served in the same way, with a few ice cubes. But unlike arak, which belies its confectionary appearance with the dry bite of aniseed, Nakad’s meska was as sweet and creamy as it looked, with the deep aroma of the wood from which it was sourced. The spirit is about 25 percent alcohol, from a combination of grain and grape.
“Some like to drink it very slowly as an aperitif,” Nakad said. That seemed the most suitable way to savor the very palatable spirit. He also suggested using it in a mojito-style cocktail, made with ice, mint, sparking water and citrus.
Meska liqueur was the second such dabbling by Nakad. A year ago, the winery launched a citron spirit infused with orange and clementine peel.
Back at Chateau Karam, Habib Karam disclosed his own pet project: a Cognac-style brandy that he has titled Jezzineyac. “We can’t call it Cognac, but if we call it brandy it sounds cheap,” he said. He stole the “yac” from France, as he put it, and added “Jezzine,” the town where Chateau Karam is located.
Karam’s Jezzineyac is triple-distilled, barrel-aged in French oak for two years and then rested in glass bottles for 14 years. To imbue the fortified wine with the terroir of south Lebanon, Karam uses indigenous grape varieties like miksasi, merwahi, hifawi and zawtarani, grown at altitudes as high as 1,400 meters, he said.
Other Lebanese vintners may have tried to distill and age brandy before him, Karam said, “but I’ll say this is the first commercially viable one.”
The Phoenicia Hotel hosted several blind Cognac taste tests, where – up against known French cognacs – Karam’s creation took second place. A classic winter drink, Jezzineyac is best served after dinner, with chestnuts beside a fireplace, Karam said.
After waiting more than a decade and a half, Karam is finally breaking into the vintage – about 3,000 bottles of it – which will go on sale for $105 per bottle in the next two or three weeks.
How to buy it?
“For this you’ll have to call us,” he said.
Some wineries have also turned to indigenous grape varieties, in a break from Lebanon’s French-centric industry.
Chateau St. Thomas’ team at HORECA were showing off their Obeidy wine, a white made entirely from indigenous obeideh grapes. The wine came about as part of an international project to promote the diverse range of wine that is produced in Mediterranean countries, an initiative called the Wine Mosaic Préserver.
Micheline Touma Nassif of Chateau St. Thomas said the Wine Mosaic “are working to save the local wine grapes. The obeideh grapes were taken from different areas of Lebanon.”
Made with 100 percent obeideh grapes, the white has a low alcohol content of 12 percent. Chateau St. Thomas’ newest product, it caught the eye of a wine writer for Harper’s Bazaar U.K. just this week. He described it as an “attractive light-bodied aperitif.”
“It’s also great wine for summer,” Nassif added.
Speaking of summer wines, Adyar launched its light and fruity rose, L’Aube, this weekend. Adyar is a collective of seven wine-producing monasteries that specialize in double-certified organic wine.
Made from mourvedre and syrah grapes, the rose is launching just in time for its summer target, said sales manager Wassim Abi Raad. Adyar’s vinos suggest Thai food or a basket of fresh strawberries as perfect pairings with L’Aube.
If there was one new wine that crowned the four-day show, it was Chateau Qanafar’s yet-to-be-bottled Qanafar 2011, said visiting sommelier Paul Op ten Berg. Op ten Berg, from the Netherlands Gild of Sommeliers, was part of HORECA’s foreign delegation of wine writers.
He said it was the most interesting thing he’d tried on his trip – and that’s after tasting every Lebanese wine on display at HORECA and many more that weren’t.
Qanafar’s founder George Naim explained the Qanafar 2011 was an equal blend of three red grapes: cabernet, merlot and syrah. The result is a spicy, fruity red with notes of red currant, prune and red berries. “It’s the most noble wine we have,”Naim said.
“The complexity is immense.”