#12: Lebanon

Year: 2013
Grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon (70%), Syrah (20%), Mourvèdre (10%)
Producer: Chateau Marsyas
Alcohol: 15%
Source: Tim & Lizzie Fell (via Dulwich Vintners!)

We had dinner recently with a couple of friends who will celebrate their 25th anniversary on January 2nd next year. Lizzie and Tim got married in their early 20s after a short engagement, and like most couples their age, they were on a pretty tight budget – so their friends clubbed together to send them on a surprise honeymoon as a wedding present.

However, the gift came with one rather delicious twist. Surmising, perhaps, that allowing the happy couple to select their own dream destination would be just a bit too straightforward, they decided…well, they decided to vote on it instead. As you do.

From a shortlist of 10 far-flung locations – covering both the idyllic and the idiosyncratic (in honeymoon terms) – Thailand eventually emerged the winner, so some time after 11pm on their wedding night, Lizzie and Tim were despatched to the Ritz with their suitcases, accommodation details, and an envelope of cash, ready to fly off the next morning on their three-week trip.

Sounds great, right? Ah, but the devil is in the detail. Those suitcases were packed by the best man, who decided that all Lizzie really needed for trekking through the jungles of south-east Asia was a bag full of lingerie and high heels. Meanwhile, the cash that was meant to last them for the whole trip ran out before the end of the first week, leaving them to fend for themselves for over a fortnight with no money, no credit cards, and obviously no mobile phones or internet.

Everything about this whole story is simultaneously hilarious and terrifying, and before I go any further, I want to make it clear that Livvy and I do not want anything like this as a wedding present (just in case any of you are getting ideas). For one thing, there’s no way we’re leaving our own party that early! I’d also say that as much as we trust our nearest and dearest, there’s something so exciting about the idea of planning a honeymoon (which we’ll almost certainly delay till next January or February) that we’d feel like we were missing out if we let other people do it for us.

Still, what a test of a new marriage! And the fact that they’re still going strong over 24 years later suggests it’s one they passed with flying colours.

How is it relevant to this blog? Well according to Lizzie, the runner-up to Thailand in the big vote was somewhere rather less welcoming at the time – to young couples looking for relaxation and romance, at least. And yet if you offered me that place right now as a honeymoon destination, I would find it very, very hard to say no…

In 1993, Lebanon was three years removed from one of the 20th century’s most bitter (and tragic) civil wars. Israeli and Iranian proxy militias still engaged each other in open conflict in the south of the country; Beirut was widely viewed as a hotbed of kidnapping and political terror; and efforts to restore the political balance between Maronite Christians, Sunni Muslims, and Shi’a Muslims, first codified in the 1943 National Pact, were foundering on two decades of violence and distrust.

Only someone with a very strange sense of humour would’ve thought it wise to send two newlyweds into the middle of that. Before the civil war though, Lebanon was one of the most popular – and accessible – tourist destinations for Western Europeans in the entire Middle East. Throughout the 1960s and 1970s, tourism accounted for around 20% of total GDP, with visitors drawn to its rare mix of culture, cuisine, religious sites, and rich archaeological history.

Hugely important to both Christianity and Islam, that history has been a double-edged sword for the modern Lebanese state. However, in the years since the worst of the conflict ended, it’s once again proved to be a magnet for curious visitors, supplemented by a growing focus on the natural benefits offered by this small country’s geography and climate.

After all, how many other places are there where you can go skiing on 300km of piste during the morning, and make it down to one of dozens of beautiful Mediterranean beaches shortly after lunch? Where you can conceivably visit all five of the country’s World Heritage sites over the course of a single weekend – or just hang out in a city once known as the ‘Paris of the Middle East’, eating, drinking and partying in year-round sunshine.

I’ve wanted to visit Lebanon ever since I studied its politics and history during my third year at Oxford, and that desire has only grown over the years. I almost went there in the autumn of 2010, only to conclude that I couldn’t afford to go if I also wanted to do a US road trip the following spring. That decision remains one of my biggest regrets: I had a wonderful time driving across America, but my Lebanon plans had also included a week in Syria, and…yeah, there isn’t much more that needs to be said about that.

Liv and I probably won’t pick Lebanon for our honeymoon, but if and when we do finally go, one thing we’ll definitely do is hire a car and drive out to the Beqaa Valley, a strip of fertile farming land 75 miles long and 10 miles wide, less than an hour east of Beirut. It’s home to Lebanon’s ancient – and extremely well-regarded – wine industry, which has not only endured but thrived throughout the region’s innumerable conflicts.

I’d love to eat sujuk sausages in Beirut street markets – and fatayer, tabbouleh, and fresh moutabel. But what I really want to do is visit Chateau Ksara or Chateau Musar, and drink the wines I tried for the first time at my favourite Lebanese restaurant in Oxford. The wines that showcase Carignan and Cinsault, Grenache and Mourvèdre, grapes grown on the same vines for centuries in the heat of the Mediterranean sun. I don’t have a travel bucket list, but if I did, the Beqaa Valley might just top it.

In fact, when we started our wine challenge, I had slightly fanciful notions of making it out there some time this year, to tick off Lebanon in style. That was never going to happen…but in the end, given their honeymoon near-miss, I’m quite glad it was Lizzie and Tim who gave us our Lebanese wine experience instead. As you’ll see, they made it a fucking good one…

Wine info

Taken from the Chateau Marsyas website:

Blending finesse and minerality, B-Qā de Marsyas is defined by rounded tannins created by 8 to 10 months of gentle barrel aging. It is made with the same philosophy and attention to detail as its “elder brother” Château Marsyas.

Beautiful presentation, deep red with purple hue. Red fruits on the nose with hints of spices. On the pallet the wine is elegant and round with well integrated tannins yet smooth and chalky.

Long and savoury finish, full of fruits and freshness

Wine verdict

Livvy

This was a rich wine with a dark, opaque colour and a thick, syrupy-ness that oozed quality and extravagance. It was really good! It’s smelled like a strong red wine, with tannins detectable in its scent, but they were surrounded by a fruitiness that softened and refined them. This pattern was matched in the flavour – syrupy and smooth with a cherry softness that was really delightful! The tannins gave a strong kick, particularly in the aftertaste, but it was softened by the delicate smoothness. It was wonderful, and complemented the spicy lamb we paired it with perfectly.

9/10, would drink it again many times

Chris

I fell in love with this wine on the first sniff. Married with the smell of the juicy, marinated lamb on the plate next to me, the smell literally made my mouth water, and things only got better when I actually tasted it. Syrup-sweet stone fruits, dark tannins, and a dry, easy weight, each sip just made me want another one. Despite the high alcohol level, it felt neither overpowering nor clumsy – in fact, I almost regretted drinking it when we did, as I suspect this vintage will grow into something really impressive indeed over the next few years. Maybe one day I’ll get to go over there and taste some more…

9/10

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