Eating Lebanon: The Adventures of Chef Chad Houser, Randy Potts, and Chef Kamal Mouzawak

Yvan, Nayla, and Chad Houser. Nayla tells Chad the 5,000 year history of wine making in Lebanon.

Writer Randy Potts accompanied Parigi chef Chad Houser to Beruit to meet and eat with Kamal Mouzawak, who is referred to as the Alice Waters of the Middle East. For the past week, the threesome has been touring the area and scouting organic farms, artisan bakeries, and markets. You can read their previous reports here, here, and here. As I type, Chef Houser is cooking in the kitchen of Mouzawak’s restaurant Tawlet. Earlier this morning, Potts filed this report:

The Wines of Lebanon

Kamal graciously set us up with visits to three of the best wineries in Lebanon. instead of taking the usual tourist route and arriving in a bus, we were greeted as true guests and given personal tours by the proprietors, all three amazing in their own way.

Jump for the good stuff.

About an hour north of Beirut along the coast and 20 minutes inland is Coteaux de Botrys, a winery that sits on a 1,000-foot cliff about 1,000 which overlooks the sea. Owner Nayla Bitar took us around along with her French oenologist Yvan Jobard. The winery has been in Nayla’s family since the 1700s. Not everyone knows that wine has been produced in Lebanon for at least 5,000 years. It was very fashionable for Egyptian Pharaohs, who imported huge quantities of Phoenician wine, to put a couple dozen bottles in their tombs for their next life. Nayla’s winery is small, producing around 40,000 bottles a year. The inventory includes  a white, a rosé, a Syrah, a Cabernet, and a Cuveé, a blend of mostly Syrah with a dash of Grenache and Mourvedre. The white took first prize in 2008, but my favorite was the Syrah.  Houser prefers the Cuveé. The Syrah has a very strong, dark red color, a little jammy, with a bold, nice body, while the Cuveé was possibly one of the smoothest, softest blends I’ve ever tasted. Some patrons order 1,000 bottles a year.

To get to the largest wine growing region in Lebanon we took the fabled road to Damascus, driving literally through the clouds over the Lebanon Mountains and then coming down into the Bekaa Valley, the breadbasket of Lebanon.  If you drive another hour and you are in Syria. We happily stopped short at the Bekaa Valley.

Our first stop was Domaines des Tourelles in the little town of Zahlé which is perched on the last hills of the Lebanon Mountains overlooking the valley. Faouzi (Fow-zee) Issa is the proprietor here. He worked at Chateaux Margaux in France before taking on most of the responsibilities at Domaines des Tourelles.  More history here: Domaines des Tourelles is the oldest commercial winery in Lebanon, dating back 150 years ago when it was started by Louis Brun, a Frenchman. His armoire is still there along with all of the original buildings he built to make the wine. Faouzi rubbed the sides of the walls to show us why they don’t need to add yeast to their wine – it is literally in the air after 150 years of winemaking in the same building.

Nayla Bitar's family tree.

Next we visited Massaya, owned by Sami Ghosn who, along with his brother, has owned the winery since the 1970s. Sami hosted us for lunch outside his house in a lush, landscaped garden, and told us tales of how, during the civil war, his house was full of squatters. There is still a dog that lives on the property from those days who won’t allow anyone to pet him. Sami’s winery, like Faouzi’s, produces about 300,000 bottles a year: 200,000 of those bottles are wine and the remaining 100,000 are filled with Arak, the high alcohol content anise-flavored liqueur favored by Lebanon’s drinkers. We were lucky enough to taste Massaya’s Red Silver with Michael Kharam, who is considered THE authority on Lebanese wine. It’s an amazingly smooth, international blend of Grenache, Cinsault, Cabernet, and Mourvedre, with a nice bouquet of hay and raisins.

The Phoenicians introduced wine to the Mediterranean world over 5,000 years ago . . . they’re still at it, with pretty amazing results.