Old vine Carignan and Cinsault from Domaine des Tourelles, Lebanon

It seems like things are happening on the Lebanese wine scene. Hot on the heels of an interview with new producer Ixsir, I caught up with Faouzi Issa at Domaine des Tourelles, to discuss a new release: their old vine Carignan. This follows on from their Cinsault, which was first made in 2014.

‘In 2014 I decided to create a kind of cuvée of 100% Cinsault from vines that are old enough to create a wine with great structure and acidity,’ says Issa. He thinks that there’s something distinctive about Cinsault from Lebanon, and that it’s a unique style, with a lot of potential for development. They’ve been very happy with this wine and they wanted to add to the old vines range. ‘Last year, I decided that since I have access to Carignan that is old as well, I would make a 100% Carignan too.’

Issa is young, and although he has quite a few vintages under his belt, including experience working at Château Margaux in Bordeaux, he’s still learning. ‘I’m 36 years old, and I’ve only done 15 vintages,’ he says, ‘but this has taken me to a new understanding of wine.’

‘We need to focus on our potential, and what gives the right identity,’ he says. ‘Today, Carignan and Cinsault do. I have tasted a lot of Carignan and Cinsault from all over the world. We have a different identity here. It is not that we have the best, but we have something that looks like the country – looks like the Bekaa Valley. It is expressive, powerful, beautiful, smooth, easy to drink. It has the guts to age, too.’

‘They cannot be grown in this microclimate elsewhere. I am sitting at 1000 m altitude. It is a plain with 1000 m altitude that has 300 days of sunshine. But it also has a lot of snow, and freshness at night. In August we have 36 C in the day, but 18 C at night. It is free of diseases. God gave us the worse government with the best weather and food. We can’t have everything. We can’t have a country that is free of political problems with rainy summers and cloudy springs!’

Faouzi Issa (picture courtesy Domaine des Tourelles)

Which varieties are best suited to the region? ‘Syrah is the king of the area. For me, Cinsault is the most exciting variety: it’s what people need today – a structured wine but at the same time easy to drink when it is young. The Carignan is an amazingly beautiful elder brother of the Cinsault, with much more fruit and depth. I like Viognier in the Bekaa Valley. We have some native white varieties that we are looking at doing as varietal wines.’

Lebanon has a history of wine growing going back a long way, but there was break and many of the old varieties have been lost. ‘We need a research department in Lebanon that can support the ampeolgraphy work, and go back to the old grapes. But we have some hidden varities. Now, with modern winemaking, there are young people who are adventurous and we are against the copying of French styles, because we have a different climate. A lot of the young winemakers are becoming interested in finding the identity of Lebanon, whether in the varieties, or the winemaking, or in style. At Tourelles I am fermenting wines in 150 year old concrete vats, with indigenous yeasts. We are getting more identity and more fruit. It’s less copy/paste.’

I asked him whether he has changed his approach since he started making wine. ‘I was motivated and inexperienced when I took over aged 25 in 2008. It’s scary: you might do something wrong. So the first vintage I decided to work with indigenous yeasts, and working hard to be natural. In 2009 the phone rang. The export manager of Ksara called me and said your first vintage got the only medal awarded to a Lebanese wine at a competition in Paris.’ At this very early stage, with an entry level wine, he felt this more natural approach was validated.

‘I’m the winemaker but I am also the decision maker. With wine, in order to deliver the right passions, the right style, it has to be produced and sold by the same person. It’s bullshit to have a winemaker in their office, a technical director in their office, a managing director in their office, a chef du culture in their office. It is not wine any more. It is the manufacturing of a product. It doesn’t give you a wine of the style of the area, it gives a wine of the style of the market. You have to be the decision maker, and it helps if no one will kick you out from the winery. If I am a French winemaker in the winery, following the books, with 10 people who need to sign everything off, I’ll get the best machines and put my wines through certified labs too.’

What he’s saying is that it’s necessary to take risks to make great wines, and he can do that because he’s the owner. He says he’s lucky also because he makes Arak, so if there’s a problem wine he can send it to a distillery.   

‘My aim is to produce young wines that are drinkable.’

Domaine des Tourelles Vieilles Vignes Carignan 2018 Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
14% alcohol. This is the debut vintage of the old vines Carignan, a variety thought to be in harmony with the conditions of the Bekaa Valley, with 1000m altitude and 300 days of sunshine a year. Soils are limestone with a bit of gravel over clay, and these are dry grown bush vines. This is a ripe, harmonious expression of Carignan with sweet dark fruits, a hint of dates, some cranberry brightness and a grainy structure. It has massive drinkability and some warm spices. It’s very Mediterranean in style, showing some purpose but also generosity, with a bit of warmth and some herbal aromas in the mix with the fruits. Very stylish and quite complete. 92/100 (£17.99 Flagship Wines)

Domaine des Tourelles Vieilles Vignes Cinsault 2018 Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
14% alcohol. In 2014 Tourelles made this wine for the first time, taking 70 year old Cinsualt bush vines, and fermenting and ageing the wine in concrete tanks with wild yeasts. It’s a really beautiful expression of Cinsault, with lovely aromatics of spice, wild strawberries, cherries and dried herbs. The palate has a nice structure that’s integrated beautifully with the silky texture of the red berry fruits, with lovely purity and drinkability. There’s some substance to this wine: it’s Glou Glou plus! Ripe but very well balanced. 94/100 (£17.99 Talking Wines, Flagship Wines)

UK agent: Boutinot

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