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Sips of the Middle East

Discover the wines of Lebanon.



One of the fun aspects of visiting Middle Eastern restaurants—such as Laziz Kitchen, Mazza, Layla Mediterranean Grill and Cedars of Lebanon—is exploring not just exotic foods, but also wines, beers, coffees, teas and liquors. Cedars of Lebanon, for example, offers nine wines from Lebanon and Morocco, plus Moroccan Casablanca beer and Lebanese Almaza. Mazza features 15 Lebanese, Israeli and Moroccan wines on its beverage menu. Layla's excellent list is a mix of New and Old World wines with some Lebanese.

Luckily, these wines are often outstanding, and run a fraction of the price of their more esteemed European cousins. Bottles of wine from top-notch Middle East producers like Ksara, Chateau Kefraya, Chateau Musar and Massaya typically sell at local restaurants in the $30-$40 range. And keep in mind that's the marked-up, per-bottle restaurant pricing. They're even cheaper if you can track them down or order them at your favorite wine store. Once you taste these, you'll know you've found a bargain.

Most of the best Middle Eastern wineries have French roots of one type or another. Such is the case of Chateau Musar: Gaston Hochar planted Musar's first vineyards, in Lebanon, after returning from a visit to Bordeaux. Chateau Musar Rouge is a cabernet/carignan/cinsault blend from vineyards in the Bekaa Valley (the Middle East's Sonoma or Napa) that takes seven years to make. It's truly a world-class red wine.

It might surprise readers to learn (it did me) that Lebanon's Chateau Ksara winery was founded in 1857 by Jesuit monks. The estate became privatized in 1973 following the Vatican's urging to sell off monasteries' and missions' commercial assets around the world. The early '90s saw the planting of French "noble grapes"—cabernet sauvignon, syrah, semillon, chardonnay, merlot and sauvignon blanc. Today, in addition to Arak and Eau de Vie, Ksara produces exceptional still wines such as their Cuvée du Troisième Millénaire and Ksara Le Prieuré, as well as more affordable everyday wines like luscious Blanc de L'Observatoire—the Middle East's first observatory was established at Ksara, where the monks recorded rainfall and seismic activity—and Le Sourverain, which is an unusual grape blend of arinarnoa, marselan and cabernet franc.

At Laziz Kitchen, I recently enjoyed the Massaya Blanc—a gorgeous white wine made from obeidi, clairette, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay by the Massaya winery in Lebanon. But I also really like Massaya's Le Colombier. It's a wonderful red for everyday sipping, with appealing pepper and spice notes—something to be enjoyed while you're young and without fanfare. Unlike Ksara, Massaya is a relatively new winery that dates back to the mid-'90s. The wines are very much French-influenced, thanks to a partnership with Bordeaux' Maison Hébrard and Vignobles Brunier in Chateauneuf-du-Pape, maker of the notable Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe. Massaya Terrasses de Baalbeck is a very Chateauneuf-like blend of grenache noir, mourvèdre and syrah grown in chalky clay. In a blind tasting, I'll bet you'd peg it as a French Rhône wine.

Chateau Kefraya is the second-largest Lebanese winery, and is also located in the Bekaa Valley. Although the current Kefraya vines were planted in 1951 and 1979, grapevines in Lebanon were already growing more than 4,000 years ago, when the Phoenicians were fermenting grape juice there. My favorite Kefraya offering is their rosé—an elegant and delicate blend of cinsault and tempranillo, the perfect wine for springtime sipping.