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Details for Château Ksara, Blanc de l'Observatoire

Sauvignon Blanc
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Château Ksara
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Bekaa Valley

Until recently the Bekaa was Lebanon’s only wine region, but it has now been joined by Batroun, in the north.  Still, it remains the epicentre of the industry.  Wine has a very long history here: in northeast Bekaa lies ancient Baalbek, whose ruins include the Roman Temple of Bacchus, larger and better preserved than the Parthenon in Athens.  But the Romans were latecomers: the Phoenicians built Baalbek, and traded Bekaa wine across the eastern Mediterranean from their port at Byblos.  Hieroglyphs in Old Kingdom tombs reveal that Lebanese wine was so valued by the Egyptians that they were buried with it to sustain them in the afterlife.
Lebanese wine continued to be famed into the Middle Ages, and the Bekaa must have had a wealth of indigenous grape varieties but these largely disappeared during centuries of Ottoman rule.  Only the white Obaideh and Merweh remain.  When French missionaries restarted wine production in the mid-19th Century they had to import varieties from French-governed Algeria: Cinsault and Carignan were particularly favoured.
Bekaa summers are hot and dry, with more than 300 days of sunshine each year.  But the valley (actually more of a plateau) is around a kilometre up, and the consequent cold nights preserve aromas and acidity, while the snowy winters allow the vines to go dormant.  Snowmelt from the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountains sustains the water table, allowing the vines to survive the summer.
Most of the vineyards and wineries are in the western Bekaa, around the regional capital Zahlé.  Grape varieties here are predominently red, as is the majority of the production.  Farther to the north-east and considerably higher still, the area around Baalbek is, fittingly, a stronghold of the native Obaideh grape.
Since the Civil War ended in 1990 there has been much planting of international varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and the industry is resurgent.  But there is a growing realisation that the older southern French varieties, along with the local Obaideh, may yet prove better suited to the hot, dry climate.

Château Ksara

Founded by French Jesuit monks in 1857, Château Ksara is Lebanon’s oldest and largest winery. It claims to have produced Lebanon’s first dry red wine, as previously the tradition was for sweet wines produced from raisined grapes.  The monks introduced southern French red and white varieties to supplement the indigenous white Obaideh and Merweh.
At first production was for their own consumption and for communion wine, but the accidental discovery in 1898 of ancient, probably Roman tunnels, with constant humidity and year-round 13 to 15°C temperatures ideal for storing wine, kick-started what became a major business.  The exact details of the discovery have been lost to legend.  Ksara’s website carries an entertaining video dramatising at least three different versions of the story.
At about the same time the monastery acquired a large tract of excellent vineyard land higher up in the Bekaa as reparations from the Ottoman Empire for the murder of several priests.  During the First World War many local men fled to Ksara to avoid service in the Ottoman Army, and the monks put them to work connecting and lengthening the ancient cellars until there were six interconnected tunnels totalling two kilometres.
A papal decree in 1972 instructing religious communities to dispose of their commercial interests led to the sale of the wine business (by then producing over a million bottles annually) to a consortium of local businessmen in December of the following year.  Two years later the Civil War started, yet production continued even though the Cháteau itself was occupied by the Syrian army for 16 years.
In 1990, after the war, a change in management was reflected in a change of name from Caves de Ksara.  Much modernisation ensued, including the introduction of varietal wines from Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay, supplementing the established blends.  Today they produce 2.8 million bottles annually, of which 75% is red.
The discovery of the tunnels… perhaps.

about this wine About this wine

As the country’s largest producer, Ksara produce a wide range of wines but most of them are red.  Only 25% of production is white, which is about the same as for the country as a whole.
Of their four whites, the flagship is a varietal Chardonnay, followed by their Blanc de Blancs blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon and Sémillon.  Representing a much older tradition, there’s a sweet wine from late-harvest Muscat and Gewurtztraminer.  Then there’s this one, the Blanc de l’Observatoire, which I think is the most interesting and certainly the most uniquely Lebanese.
It represents all three eras of Lebanese winemaking, being made from a blend of Obaideh, Muscat, Clairette and Sauvignon Blanc.  There’s just 10% Sauvignon Blanc, and 30% each of the others.  Obaideh is native to Lebanon, and has been used to make wine here for centuries, perhaps even millennia.  Muscat and Clairette arrived with the first wave of French winemakers over a century ago.  The Sauvignon Blanc is a recent introduction first planted in the Nineties, after the Civil War, along with a wave of other international varieties.
The combination is unusual, but makes good sense.  Obaideh should contribute body, Clairette acidity, while Muscat and Sauvignon provide aromatic lift.
The grapes come from higher, cooler parts of Ksara’s extensive vineyards in the western Bekaa, though the winery itself and its original home vineyard lies in the east.  The Obaideh may be an exception: Ksara’s website lists an impressive range of varieties grown in their ten vineyards, but it isn’t one of them!  It’s possible that the Obaideh is bought in from vineyards around Baalbek, far to the north, which is its stronghold.
Like most in the Bekaa, Ksara’s vineyards are unirrigated despite the low rainfall, as snowmelt from the mountains replenishes the water table.  They’re also effectively organic; pesticides are unnecessary since vine diseases are practically unknown in these conditions.
The grapes were hand-harvested into small cases, taken to the winery and pressed as whole bunches using pneumatic presses.  These are particularly gentle and work by inflating a giant rubber sausage to squeeze the grapes against the perforated sides of an enclosing cylindrical tank.  Each variety was fermented separately in stainless steel at a cool 18°C to preserve the varietal aromas, before being blended together.  Malolactic fermentation was deliberately suppressed to retain fresh acidity.

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