Nelida Nassar 10.27.2014
The eminence grise behind the Belle-Vue vineyards in Bhamdoun is none other than Naji Boutros and his lovely wife Jill. It is a domaine of sixty acres — a carved network of terraces with sprawling views. Wine has a long history in this village. The Romans cultivated this tiny slice of Bhamdoun a couple of millennia ago. Its most illustrious vineyard was saved, revived and purchased by the Boutros in 2000. But it’s not the pedigree that really matters. Rather, it’s the caliber of Le Chateau de Belle-Vue and the handful of other wines produced by the Domaine — all in mystique — fueling miniscule amounts of 20,000 bottles annually. The only other exclusive wine they produce is La Renaissance, in quantities more than double the amount of Le Chateau, plus very limited amount of white wine appropriately named Petit Geste.
It’s tricky to describe the difference in taste between the Bhamdoun wine and those from other areas of Lebanon. Chateau de Belle-Vue grows on terraces on the rocky mountainside; a unique producer that succeed in the region. At its best, it is floral, mouth-filling and heady, appealing more to the emotions than the intellect. So the Domaine’s rarity together with the fact that it is released at prices that are often a fraction of its market value and despite its youth, ensure an annual scramble for bottles.
I visited the Domaine last week–the actual headquarters is a simple village house behind a high steel gate where one of the two caves is located. This is where Naji and Jill Boutros and their small team do all of the serious work after the harvest finishes in September. Boutros is a thoughtful, charming man who devotes all of his waking time to the Domaine, a half mile down the hill.
We tasted the more recent 2014 vintage from the fermentation tank, which was thrilling but not revealing. We then headed to the latest Boutros additions to the Domaine, a beautiful bed and breakfast on the historic site of the French embassy, the ambassador’s summer holiday residence, followed by the exquisite new gourmet restaurant Le Telegraphe. There I was treated to a degustation of six different vintages notwithstanding the several course meal that followed: a 2013 Petit Geste as a starter followed by 2003, 2006 and 2007 La Renaissance, then a 2003 and 2007 Le Chateau.
Before they mature, wines can be tight and unyielding. Prickly, dense and powerful, the 2007 Le Chateau in particular was a tricky vintage which came right only at the very end owing to intense sun in its last few weeks. In such cases it is down to the skill of the wine makers to bring out the quality of the vines. It took more than an hour for it to settle down, I was hooked and by then I attempted to wrest a few more drops from the long-emptied decanter. Even hours after the Chateau 2007 was finished, the glass smelt intensely of ripe berries. I was impressed with the way the terroir (an innate quality of the grapes and the dirt), lent consistency to the wines, yet they were each different in expression and nuance.
My hosts modestly announced that the Chateau Belle-Vue wines were selected by the two most respected French wine critics Michel Bettane and Thierry Desseauve to participate in Wine Experience London the Saatchi Gallery. The selection included only one other Lebanese winery from over sixty country-wide. This is a great honor to these superior wines to be discovered internationally. I leaped to the occasion to ask Mr. Boutros to share with us his intoxicating wine adventure. Diners hoping to enjoy the Chateau Belle-Vue wines at “reasonable” prices should head to the restaurant Le Telegraphe where the Boutros will have them live a most memorable gastronony evening.
NelidaNassar: What first attracted you to winemaking?
Naji Boutros: I wanted to protect something in the village. The memory of green terraces and amazing grapes kept coming back… There was nothing left when we returned after
the war except the memory. We had no industry, just viticulture.
NN: How does your approach differ from other winemakers?
NB: I am driven by the protection of heritage and an absolute focus on quality, not commercial profit.
NN: How were you introduced to Bhamdoun wines?
NB: During my childhood, I always heard, “Wake up Naji, and help Khalo Philip in the vineyard” at five o’clock in the morning. Around my home, there were two acres of the best grapes you have ever seen.
NN: Are you something of a pioneer in Bhamdoun when it comes to making wine? Who are your competitors, if there are any?
NB: We are the only ones, the pioneers. There is a journal found that was written in 1810 by Eli Smith, a Protestant minister,who wrote about Bhamdoun as a village of 600 people who survived by selling wine, cognac and grape molasses. Bhamdoun’s vineyards were seven miles long and half a mile deep.Vines blanketed the entire mountain. And if there were 600 people living here back in 1810, it means that the village was found many, many years before.
NN: What kind of grapes do you cultivate that are compatible with Bhamdoun soil?
NB: Bhamdoun soil is ideal for viticulture. It is weak in organic material and full of minerals, but has a high clay content, making the harsh summer drought conditions acceptable. Also, it is very dry because of altitude, but a soft Mediterranean breeze ensures slow sugar maturation, thus allowing the aromas to develop, not masking them. The concept here is very simple. The longer the grape takes to mature, the better your quality, in general. In other words, if the sugar spikes due to very high temperatures, then the aromas do not develop well. So unlike vineyards in Europe which lack enough sun to mature the grapes, here we have the opposite problem–we need cool weather to make sure the aromas develop fully.
NN: What is your winemaking philosophy that you want to achieve in your wines?
NB: Allowing the grapes to express themselves. No added yeasts, etc…and ensuring the ever abundant tannins to not overcome the flavor.
NN: Are you filtering any of your wines?
NB: We didn’t at first and a few people complained. Now we do very light filtering. Regular consumers do not like to see any sediment in the wine glass. So they complain when they see sediment. It is a real shame.
NN: Which winegrowing region has had the most influence on you?
NB: Saint Emilion in France, due to its ecotourism. It is an amazing part of the vineyard. Though the wine is the heart of it all, many other jobs are created around it, including cheese making, the hospitality industry, etc.
NN: How critical is ensuring the vineyards are well maintained to winemaking?
NB: It is what matters. Ninety-nine percent of the wine is in the grape, not in the winemaker nor in the equipment.
NN: What are the biggest changes you have seen in winemaking since you started?
NB: The influence of wood in winemaking is much reduced, leaving more room for the grapes and the terroirs to express themselves.
NN: Summarize your achievements as a winemaker.
NB: My challenge is to balance crafting an amazing wine and preserving a precious legacy of viticulture in the village. If I can do that, I will truly live my dream.