Reds not dead

Lebanon needs to make better use of its indigenous white varietals, Merweh and Obeideh and work towards resurrecting an indigenous red we can call our own. I had lunch with Walid Maalouf, a landowner and grape farmer from Niha in the Bekaa on Saturday. He said that he has wine, still drinkable apparently, made by his father in the 40s from a local grape, known as Miriam and which has apparently died out. It is not the only one. Jean Hage Chahine, arguably Lebanon’s foremost grape expert, told me in 2004 that most of Lebanon’s local cultivars have disappeared.

Now there are rumors that the industry is trying to hunt down one of these dead reds a red varietal that is suitable, not only for wine making, but which will appeal to modern palates and give Lebanese wines a sharper identity and a competitive edge. The Cypriots have at least four locals grapes – two whites and two reds – the most prized of which is the Maratheftiko, a smoky, more brooding Cinsault. If we had a red, Lebanon could really begin to market our wines with a distinct national character in the same way that the South African’s have made the most out of the Pinotage.

Only two wineries use local whites: Château Musar puts both in its flagship white of which only 2000 cases are made each year. It is one of the most deeply complex and profound wines in the world. Elsewhere Massaya uses Obeideh, along with Clairette, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, in its Classic. The rest of us are apparently still in the throes of the ongoing love affair with foreign varietals.

But back to the Miriam. I promised Walid that I would visit him later this month and taste his 70-year-old wine. The tasting note should be interesting.

As the lunch progressed Walid shifted the topic of conversation to Arak, a subject on which he claimed to have extensive knowledge. I don’t doubt him as his family have been in the grape business for nearly 300 years. It did however remind me of the three things that all Lebanese will tell anyone who will care to listen: Their Arak is the best; their raw meat is the only one that won’t kill you and that they are from a ‘good family’. Some things never change!

Can Miriam offer a new dimension?

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