100 Brandy, Adam Montefiore, Baal, Baalbeck, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, Bekaa Valley, Bordeaux, Carmel Winery, Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Musar, Elijah’s cave, Galilee, Gaston Hochar, Haifa, Hezbollah, HM Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, Hosea 14:7, Israel, Jewish roots of the Last Supper, John 2:1-11, Jubail, Lebanon, Mount Carmel, oldest city in the world, Phoenicians, Prophet Elijah, Serge Hochar, UNESCO World Heritage site
When I embarked on this journey with you, I noted that good libations were a topic I’d hope to chat about.
We’ve already covered some notables, especially an over-the-top-fancy, equally overpriced bottle of Scotch created for HM Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. Then again, for the lady concerned and her 60 sound and steadfast years on the Throne, why not be a bit over the top?
That said, 60 years is the briefest of snapshots, or compared to a look back over two millennia and to the wonderful product from most ancient of lands; namely the winemakers’ art in the Ancient World.
The Ancients and their skills in various areas have been of considerable interest to and indeed enjoyment for me for over 40 years, including their agriculture and viniculture.
During one of modern Lebanon’s all-too-rare, very brief periods of political sanity, while resident in London I was introduced to Chateau Musar, a superb red wine from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon.
The Bekaa Valley nestles in between two mountain ranges running parallel to Lebanon’s Mediterranean coastline.
The area is no stranger to viniculture. Vines have been cultivated here for at least 6,000 years.
Indeed, it was the Phoenicians (the seafaring ancestors of the modern Lebanese) who were instrumental in bringing vines and wines from Byblos across to all of the areas around the Mediterranean.
If you didn’t know, it was the Greeks who named them Phoenicians after the purple dye (phoinikèia) they made from seashells.
Famed for being able to revive their cities rapidly after destruction, it was also the Phoenicians who inspired the legend of the Phoenix.
By the way, Byblos is yet another name for the Phoenician city of Gebal, which today in Arabic is known as Jubayl or Jubail, another UNESCO World Heritage site.
Jubail competes with many other cities, not only in the broader Eastern Mediterranean crescent but also elsewhere on the globe, for the title oldest city in the world. (Frankly, to me, nowadays Jubail is a petrochemical plants paradise and a port, mostly container ships at that.)
In any event, this region’s wines are mentioned many times in the Bible.
For example, in Hosea 14:7: They that dwell under his shadow shall return; they shall revive as the corn, and grow as the vine: the scent thereof shall be as the wine of Lebanon.
It was at Cana, near the southern port of Tyre, where Christ turned water into wine. (John 2:1-11).
Mind you, there are in fact four (4) villages in Galilee which are equally credible candidates for the biblical Cana. Three lie in present day Israel: Kafr Kanna, Kenet-el-Jalil, and Ain Kana. The one in Lebanon is Qana.
Baalbek, originally devoted to Phoenician fertility god Baal, is also the site of a vast Roman temple to Bacchus, the God of Wine.
Flying over Lebanon as I did a few years ago en route from Amman to Istanbul, one was reminded of her vast expanses of snow-covered mountains.
It is thereabouts, nestled at 1,000m (say, 3,000 feet) above sea level, the beautiful Bekaa Valley is blessed with 300 days of sunshine a year, fresh mountain breezes and an average temperature of 25°C (75F) (encompassing snowy winters and hot summers).
Compared to those 6,000 years, this winery is a real newcomer, founded only in 1930 by the patriarch of the family, Gaston Hochar.
Although French in their origins, the Hochar family (pronounced Hoshar) arrived in Lebanon with The Crusades, so give or take 100 or 200 years between 1100-1300 A.D. The Hochar clan just never went home.
Fast forward to 1976 when the highly-awarded British wine writer Michael Broadbent (Master of Wine since 1960) discovered Chateau Musar at the Bristol (England) Wine Fair. He hailed the 1967 vintage as the Find of the Fair.
If the Chateau Musar runs too pricey for you, do try their Hochar Père et Fils Red
So why all the noise you ask?
What other wine can you mention which has a pedigree including vines being tended, pruned, etc. literally bang in the middle of an active war zone?
With artillery shells flying over his head, M. Hochar would be out in his vineyards fulfilling his passion for quality.
Finally in 1984, the well-reputed Decanter magazine nominated Serge Hochar as their first Man of the Year, duly recognising his own dedication to producing superb wines throughout Lebanon’s Civil War (1975-1990).
As many of us know who follow matters in the Levant, Lebanon is a proxy for Iran and Iran’s terrorist group du jour, Hezbollah, and which indeed controls over half of Beirut, a city once was rightly known the Paris of the Mediterranean.
All that said, the knocks on M. Hochar’s product, frankly, are two and serious:
Firstly, one needs to be careful of quality year-on-year. When the vintage is fine, it is superbly so. When it is not, well, it is best to look elsewhere.
Secondly, if anything, the political future for the Bekaa Valley as a whole is grim-to-dire. This map shows where the Iranian-proxy terrorist group Hezbollah has control.
Chateau Musar is squarely in that red-shaded area.
Around the corner in Israel, however, consistent highest quality is simply not an issue. Quality control is rigorous in the extreme.
One cannot go wrong with Carmel Wineries’ stable of vintages from very quaffable table wines to the finest premier cru.
Frankly, none of that is any real surprise, or given that Carmel was founded in 1882 by Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of Château Lafite Rothschild in Bordeaux.
Carmel owns the two largest wineries in Israel. One is south of Tel Aviv. The second is south of the beautiful, historic city of Haifa, high atop Mount Carmel and which traces its roots back to the Bronze Age (14,000 B.C.).
In somewhat later times, Haifa will be remembered as the place where the Prophet Elijah resided in a cave on Mount Carmel.
It is beyond question that the mountain caves were used as hiding places. That said, stories vary as to precisely where Elijah isolated himself, but the oldest and most recognized belief refers to the cave that lies at the foot of Mount Carmel in the vicinity of the Haifa beach.
The walls of that cave are covered in writings left by pilgrims who have visited. One of the inscriptions was by a Roman soldier named Germanous. Some researchers assert that the cave was used as an abode for the oracle of the God of Carmel.
Christians consider the place to be sacred since Jesus and his family hid there while escaping King Herod.
Each of Carmel’s two wineries has deep underground cellars built by Baron Rothschild in the 19th century.
The Carmel Limited Edition would please the most discriminating palate. This delicious deep dark red is a blend of grape varieties from the Upper Galilee; i.e., Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot, Merlot, Malbec and a tad of Cabernet Franc. Aged for 15 months in small French oak barrels, it is a fiesta for the palate.
For brandy lovers, Carmel’s smooth ‘100 Brandy’ is a winner.
All this leads me to an exotic, new historically accurate book, Divine Vintage, written by Carmel’s Mr. Adam Montefiore.
Here’s are snippets from a fine book review in The Jerusalem Post:
Wine Talk: The cradle of the grape
A new book delves into the area where wine culture was born – the ancient Eastern Mediterranean.
A new book entitled Divine Vintage follows the biblical wine route. It is not about the New World or Old World, but about the Ancient World. It delves into the area where wine culture was born and examines the recent quality revival in the historic but newly dynamic wine region of the Eastern Mediterranean. A fair proportion of the book covers Canaan, ancient Israel and modern Israel.
The Eastern Mediterranean really was the cradle of the grape. More than 2,000 years ago, this was the France and Italy of ancient times. The book meanders through ancient wine history, including the wine cultures of the Israelites, Egyptians, Greeks and Romans. It discusses the use of wine in the burial rites of the Egyptians and gives an explanation of the Greek symposium, which was a glorified wine tasting, and the Roman convivium, which was a feast or banquet.
Interwoven in the book are some of the major figures of the Bible, who all feature in the story of wine.
It all began with Noah, the first person to plant a vineyard and the first person to become drunk from its product. He must have taken some vine cuttings into the ark along with all the animals.
The first person to be blessed with bread and wine was Abraham.
Wine was later elevated to a privileged position in the religious ritual of both Jews and Christians. As is confirmed in the book: “The Fruit of the Vine has served throughout history as the primary mediator between heaven and earth…”
Lot was also infamous for becoming inebriated. When visiting a cave in the Yatir Forest in the southern Judean Hills, it is easy to imagine it was where Lot drank too much wine and was seduced by his daughters.
Moving to Egypt, we meet Pharaoh’s cupbearer in the Joseph story, who I suppose was the first sommelier. Then we have the enduring image of the spies sent by Moses to the Promised Land. They returned with a bunch of grapes so large that it had to be carried on a pole by two men. All this was to illustrate that Israel was a land flowing with milk and honey. The image lives on until today in the logos of both the Carmel Winery and the Israel Tourism Ministry.
Isaiah’s Song of a Vineyard, “Let me sing for my beloved my love-song concerning his vineyard…,” gives an illuminating description of the viticulture of the time.
The book contains an interesting explanation about the story surrounding Naboth’s vineyard. He came to a sticky end at the hands of the feckless King Ahab and evil Queen Jezebel.
Then there is Nehemiah, the cupbearer to Artaxerxes, King of Persia. He was the first Jewish sommelier. He paved the way for the return of the Israelites, the rebuilding of Jerusalem and a revival of winemaking. We also learn that King David was a wine lover who had vineyards and cellars so vast that he needed officials to look after them.
Galilee is brought into focus in the story of Jesus, who took on the role of winemaker at Cana (in the Galilee) when he changed the water into wine. This by a thread connects us to Israeli wine today, because 2,000 years later, the Galilee is arguably Israel’s finest quality wine region. The Jewish roots of the Last Supper, which was a Passover Seder night, are also discussed. […]
Arguably, the Eastern Mediterranean is the fastest developing wine region in the world today. Initially wineries such as Carmel in Israel, Ksara in Lebanon, Kavaklidere and Doluca in Turkey, and Achaia Clauss and Boutari in Greece revived winemaking in their respective countries. Then the Golan Heights Winery, Château Musar and Domaine Carras became the first beacons of quality in the region during the 1980s. In the last 10 to 15 years, numerous new boutique wineries and rejuvenated larger wineries have breathed life into what was a decaying wine scene. There has been an incredible flowering of quality throughout the region. To those with a sense of beginnings, history and rebirth, it is possibly the most fascinating wine region of all.
Obviously, politically Israel will always be cited as being part of the Middle East, which conjures up images of sand and camels. However, in wine terms, Israel is part of the Eastern Mediterranean. If wine retailers were to display the wines of Eastern Med countries together, it would mean that Israeli wines would not be left languishing on the kosher shelves, disregarded by most of the wine-drinking world. Kosher is not a country, and Israel is not an island.
Therefore, it would make sense if the wines of Carmel, Kavaklidere, Kourtaki and Ksara, representing Israel, Turkey, Greece and Lebanon, appeared together on the shelves of wine shops in New York, London and Paris. Likewise, Gaia or Gerovassiliou from Greece, Musar or Massaya from Lebanon, Corvus or Kayra from Turkey, and Yatir or Yarden from Israel should be together on the restaurant wine lists in an Eastern Med section.
Quite apart from the historical similarities, religion and war have also played their part in this unique wine region. The Greek and Lebanese winemakers are mainly Christian, the Israelis are, of course, mainly Jewish, and the Turks are Muslims. Also Greece and Turkey and Israel and Lebanon have each had their problems in the past, to say the least. However, it is a region with so much variety. Furthermore, the wines of today are receiving international recognition.
The uninformed observer may have in the past considered wines from these countries to be only suitable for the ethnic market. That is to say, Israeli wines for the kosher shelves, Greek wines for expatriate Greek Cypriots, Turkish wines for Turkish communities and Lebanese wines for Arabic restaurants. This is a misconception, as each of these countries is producing their best quality wines for 2,000 years.
Cyprus is not included, but the book will introduce you to Zumot, an enterprising and successful winery … in Jordan. Incidentally, there is also a very good quality new winery in Syria called Domaine Bargylus. Even though this is the most historic wine region in the world, nothing is boring or static. […]
Can’t wait to get my hands on a copy. Perhaps one should find the most comfortable chair have a large snifter of that Carmel brandy alongside. After all, this is not merely the elixir of life one is talking about, it genuinely is perhaps the most human of insights into a troubled part of the world that has been just that for millennia.
Dare we offer a toast for a saner, less bloody future in that troubled part of the world?
With Islamist extremism on the rise, perhaps we should make that brandy a double.
Divine Vintage: Following the Wine Trail from Genesis to the Modern Age is published by Palgrave Macmillan. ISBN-10: 0230112439; ISBN-13: 978-0230112438.Cover Price $26. Amazon USA has it for $10 less here: Divine Vintage – Amazon USA
Amazon UK: Divine Vintage – Amazon UK
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in both Israeli and international publications. firstname.lastname@example.org
Carmel Wines, Carmel Wines
Chateau Musar, Chateau Musar Twitter: @ChateauMusar
Israel Tourism, Israel Tourism, Twitter: @IsraelTourism
Haifa, Israel Tourist Board website (in Chinese, Russian, English & Hebrew) Haifa Tourist Board
Lebanon Tourism, Lebanon Tourism, Twitter: @lebtourism