I've always regretted not visiting Lebanon when we lived in Cairo. So close, and then we moved to Malaysia. Now that I find myself in long-weekend proximity once again, it is only a matter of picking a travel date.
In the meantime, tastebud travel will have to do. Easily accomplished in Dubai at most times, and especially when a great Lebanese wine house is featured in a special wine tasting dinner. Last month, award-winning restaurant Le Classique at the Emirates Golf Club hosted a wine tasting dinner around Chateau Musar. The evening was presented by the grandson and namesake of Gaston Hochar, who founded the winery in 1930. The winery is located in Ghazir in a 17th century castle overlooking the Mediterranean coast. The winery's grapes grow a little further up in the fertile Bekaa Valley at an altitude of 1000 meters.
Wine producer Gaston Hochar gets up and introduces himself to the wine tasting audience. He talks a little about the winery's background. How and where it was founded, and how the winery struggled in the years of turmoil and tensions in Lebanon. The winery is separated from its grapes by roads that were blocked and closed repeatedly throughout years of civil war. Still, Chateau Musar managed to produce a vintage every year. With the exception of 1976 and 1984. The harvest of 1976 was lost entirely, whereas the 1984 harvest was "stuck in the trucks" for too long, and the grapes had started rotting. With little hope for a wine that year, the wine maker decided to go ahead with whatever was left. Wine maker Serge Hochar managed to squeeze out a vintage. This wine somehow made it to the USA, where it won appraisal at a gathering of sommeliers. The wine was said to be "seemingly undrinkable at first but developing a surprising finesse and superb finish".
We are loving the anecdotes recounted by the enthusiastic wine producer. As he talks, the relation becomes vivid between the wines we are tasting and the scenery of the Bekaa Valley, the backdrop of the mountains, the breeze coming in from the Mediterranean, the wild herbs and plants that abound. The wines come to life on my palate, and I want to go to Lebanon. I want to visit, taste and see.
The food coming from the kitchen matches the wines well. Chef François Porte has incorporated flavors that highlight the region into Le Classique's French cuisine, culminating in a main course of seared lamb loin coated with a za'atar crust, and accompanied by a roasted eggplant and feta cheese millefeuile, ratatouille and kibbeh potatoes.
The appetizer of sumak roasted quail with an apple and plum chutney is served with the 2004 Rosé. A complex and dry rosé made entirely from the Cinsault grape. Very well suited for the sweet and spice flavors of the sumak quail, not an easy wine to drink on it's own.
White wine is next. Or is it white? With its dark honey hue it rivals the rosé in depth of color. The 1990 Chateau Musar Blanc is a very outspoken white. "A difficult wine, not for the novice", as agreed by the wine producer. I love the hints of honey, almonds and even orange. A great match for the fragrant flavors of the Levant. It conjures up a place where the air is thick with the lingering scent of jasmine and orange blossom. Of spices and wild thyme. It is not that I "get" that from the wine itself per se. It is what it evokes when I sniff and taste it. I find it a difficult, complex wine indeed to understand completely.
From the kitchen no Lebanese flavors this time, but a mushroom velouté with an ingenious puff pastry dome. Nice, warm, and hearty the soup goes down effortless, as does all of the pastry dome. Later on in the meal I can kick myself for eating all of that pastry, when I am struggling for stomach space.
Two reds arrive at the scene. First poured is a Chateau Musar Rouge 2000 to accompany the main course. It is a rustic wine, "barnyard" as I have heard this wine character labelled before. Rough on it's own, it becomes smooth with the lamb main course. The lamb loin on my plate is seared beautifully. Pink and tender inside, with a robust spice crust on the outside. The millefeuille consists of soft and caramelized eggplant rounds layered with a creamy feta and herb mixture. The potato kibbeh are crisp and delicious, however the pastry dome devoured earlier gets in the way of full enjoyment.
The Chateau Musar Rouge 2002 is fruiter and pleasant on the palate. It is however the cheese course served at this point that catches my full attention. One of the cheeses - soft goat - is browned on top and the caramelized sensation of soft, warm goat cheese is gorgeous. It is not all. Accompanying the cheeses is a refreshing and delicate salad of julienned celery, fresh figs, peeled white grapes, chopped and toasted walnuts, toasted pine nuts, all on a bed of that bitter-delicious radicchio with a red wine vinaigrette.
I have to forego the petits fours; there comes a point where indulgence is prefixed by over...
Le Classique regularly hosts wine tasting dinners. For more information, be sure to contact the restaurant at +971 4 380 2222.
For insight tasting notes: http://www.cellartracker.com/event.asp?iEvent=15733