The wine buff: Vines under siege
I was an air hostess in the Middle East, about 100 years ago (ish), and although I lived in Bahrain, which is not a dry country, I had never tasted wine from the Middle East. I didn't know it existed. But when I returned to Ireland, it just so happened that one of the standout wines to hit my now more sophisticated palate was Château Musar, at a dinner before the Trinity Ball. I was astonished - I had never tasted anything like it.
So when Tariq Sakr, the winemaker from Château Musar, was visiting Ireland earlier this year, it didn't take much persuading for me to hop in my car and head west for the wine dinner he was hosting in Ashford Castle. Yes, Musar and Ashford Castle, a bit of a treat, I know. I had been friendly with some Lebanese people when I lived in Bahrain, so it was very poignant to hear Tariq talk about the troubles they had experienced and the challenges they encountered in making wine against the backdrop of so much insurrection and unrest.
He talked us through each wine at dinner, recounting tales with a wry sense of humour, one of the best being about the harvest in 2006. Bombardment had started on July 8, it escalated, and everything had ground to a halt. But the grapes were ripening in the vineyards in the Bekaa Valley, two hours across the mountains from the winery. On August 9, Tariq got a call. The grapes were mature, they were ready to be harvested. He told Serge Hochar, the owner of the vineyard, who said 'no'. It was too dangerous to harvest. But Tariq had other ideas.
"I decided to go and bring the grapes, but first of all I had to convince the guy who drives the truck. I paid him four times his salary. Second, I told him 'I will be following you', because the bombardment was being done by a drone, and I said if anything happens I will take you to hospital," he recounts, laughing. "There was no work at all, I was putting my life as well as his life at stake, and I needed to do the wine. So he told me he would do it. And then there was one other thing, my wife, how would I convince her? I decided to lie to my wife. It was my first and last time."
When they got to the vineyards, there wasn't a soul to be seen, so they went to the church, and rang the bell. Everyone came out to see what was happening. Tariq offered them top dollar to harvest the grapes, hoisted the Château Musar flag, hoping that the circling planes would not shoot at them. The harvest was successful. It was just one of many years when they battled through adversary and ensured that the wine would be made. Tariq says that when you drink Musar, it's so much more than wine, it's people's lives. It is also organic and truly wonderful.
Musar Jeune Blanc 2017
€25, 12.5pc, from Fallon & Byrne, Corkscrew, Deveney's, Green Man Wines, all Dublin
A blend of Viognier, Vermentino and Chardonnay, this young wine from the Bekaa Valley has a crisp touch of citrus with golden notes of apples and tropical fruit. I had it paired with langoustine.
Château Ksara Reserve du Couvent
€20, 13.5pc, from Mitchell & Son, Morton's, Lotts & Co, Gibney's, The Grapevine, Doyle's, all Dublin
Another wine from the Bekaa Valley, this blend of Syrah, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon is warm and fruity with lush red and dark fruit flavours. Perfect for Middle Eastern grilled dishes.
Château Musar Rouge 2006
€41, 14pc, from Fallon & Byrne, Corkscrew, Donnybrook Fair, Mitchell & Son, Martin's, McHugh's, Sweeney's, Baggot St Wines, Green Man Wines, The Wine Library, The Grapevine, all Dublin; JJ O'Driscoll, Cork; and O'Briens.
Made in a natural style before it became a trendy thing, this is Château Musar's classic red wine. Aged for seven years before it is released, it is rich and textured, with aromas of violets and dark flavours of plums, damsons, cranberries and dates.
Kerry's Sheen Falls Lodge is running a Toasting & Hosting With Wine weekend on November 2 and 3. Talks, a tour and a private dinner, with a focus on entertaining with wines, the differences between Champagne, Prosecco and sparkling wines, how to open and serve a bottle like a pro, and food pairing. Presented by sommelier Jerome Torque and guest speaker Pascal Playon of Tindal Wine Merchants. €599 based on two people sharing. sheenfallslodge.ie, Tel: 064 664 1600