I HAVE travelled a fair amount in the Middle East and Israel in recent months and one of the things that has struck me is the quality of wine. I shouldn’t have been surprised. Europe lost its monopoly over fine wines decades ago and besides, Jesus Christ himself won considerable praise for his wine-making skills at the Wedding in Cana more than two millennia ago. Even so, some of the wines I tasted were really special, and enormous credit should be given to the people behind them for producing exceptional fruit in often arid conditions. These are big, powerful wines.
Perhaps the best known of the Middle Eastern wines is Chateau Musar, from the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. This has always been one of my favourites partly because it is produced in the most difficult of circumstances, (the grapes are harvested under the glint of the Syrian guns) and partly because it’s simply such a stylish wine.
Serge Hochar, the owner, likes to keep hold of his wines for as long as possible and only recently released the 2005 – the year before Lebanon was once again plunged into war with Israel. Like the others it is a full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon with an aroma of plums and a peppery finish from the Carignan and Cinsault grapes that are cleverly blended in. I served it at a summer party we had a couple of months ago to universal acclaim. At under £20 a bottle I reckon it remains one of the great bargains of the wine world, particularly since it will keep and improve for 20 years and more.
In Israel, they are making enormous strides with their wine-making. A few months ago in Tel Aviv I was pleasantly astonished to be poured a lovely Pinot Noir – called Altitude 720. How on earth they manage to grow that temperamental grape on those stony hillsides is a mystery.
Israeli wine is hard to come by in the UK, and it’s not cheap either, since yields are inevitably low. My recommendation is the wonderfully romantic Domaine du Castel, grown practically under the walls of Jerusalem, in the Judean hills. This is a classic claret-style Cabernet Sauvignon/Merlot blend but with the intensity of a super-Tuscan and a peppery finish like Musar. A perfect bottle for the cold English nights ahead. Hedonism, that great wine emporium in Mayfair, claims to stock it and if you fancy a classy wine with a label in Hebrew they will sell the 2010 vintage for £52.70.
From one end of the Mediterranean to the other, my last stop is Morocco. I was holed up in Marrakesh ready for a daft cycle challenge to the top of the High Atlas when once again I was persuaded to try the local brew and was surprised and impressed. Morocco takes its wines seriously, as you would expect given the strong French influence, and modern techniques are making it better and better. Once again it’s hard to come by in England, but The Maidenhead Wine Company has a decent selection. Meknes is seen as the premier wine making region, and my suggestion is the Chateau Roslane (Premier Cru no less) 2008, which comes in at £139.95 before VAT per case, or around £14 a bottle. This is more of a New World wine than the others – a combination of Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon, which makes it unusual – but again bears the hallmarks of the hot sun and wonderfully ripe fruit.