Nelida Nassar 11.05.2014
Driving to Chateau Qanafar through the magnificent Bekaa Valley, where several of the more established Lebanese wineries make their home, is glorious. Leaving the Damascus Road behind, you pass village after village dotting the wide and luscious plain on both sides. The road is marked by blooming red poppies. Elegant wineries grow fewer, the sky seems to stretch and you feel closer to it: the place feels forgotten until you reach the end of the plain where the land tightens and funnels into view of the Qaraoun’s lake and dam.
Having reached the village of Khirbat Qanafar and the Johann Ludwig Schneller German School, the road continues to serpent through rolling hills of vineyards until it reaches the winery of Qanafar at the height of 1,250 meters. Nestled on the eastern flank of the Barouk Cedars mountain chain, the winery has a sprawling 360-degree view of the entire western side of the valley and the mountains beyond as far back as Jabal El Sheikh. The vineyards’ unique site, encompassing more than 17 hectares of farmland, is home to soft curves of Cabernet Sauvignon vines, red berry and redcurrant leaf which fragrance the Cabernet Franc, joyful Syrah, balanced and crisp Tempranillo, as well as fresh Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. The valley floor welcomes the Merlot’s plum and prune flavors which tend towards truffle.
Our hosts, Colette and George Naim and their winemaker son Eddy generously impart their love and infectious enthusiasm for their ancestral land. Eddy joined the enterprise in 2009 after a successful career in management consulting. George’s grandfather had settled in this village and planted vines for table consumption. Though Chateau Qanafar only made its first wine in 2005 – a new retirement hobby for George on one hectare of land – the western Bekaa region has some of the best grapes and oldest vineyards on the plateau – great, gnarled vines thought to have been planted in the 1850s.
Chateau Qanafar produces three wines: Chateau, Paradis and Blanc and is about to introduce a fourth one. Eddy explains, “The soil, primarily clayey and limestone is a highly desirable combination which helps water retention in dry weather and provides high porosity in heavy rain periods. It also delays berry maturation (ideal for Lebanon’s climate!). The domain produces a natural wine without modifying the grapes’ attributes (no adjustments in acidity, sugar, tannin, etc. with oenological products), while using a minimal amount of sulfites. It doesn’t try to replicate the same organoleptic profile of its wines year after year, only its quality. The blend, if necessary, is changed to maintain the same quality level.”
There is definitely a particular flavor to the wines up here. They are broader and less edgy than reds from further east. Black coal-dust and black (as opposed to red) berries, but with a more open feel, come to mind. If I were looking for a Lebanese wine to unite both left (Comte de M of Kefraya) and right bank fans (Chateau Khoury and Marsyas), it is to Chateau Qanafar I’d look.
I had the opportunity to taste six vintages (directly from the oak barrels), along with some of the domain’s white wine, during the visit. Chateau Qanafar could be described as a balance between finesse and structure. Though it can be austere in its youth, it is the epitome of perfume and great intensity when it matures. In great years it has a seamless quality where the flavors and intensity build to a kaleidoscopic finish. For the most part, this tasting of the unfined and unfiltered Chateau – 2014, 2013, 2012, 2011, 2010 and 2009 – showed these traits, with the character of the vintage superimposed.
My favorite was the year 2009, with its mouth-filling black cherry, black currant, earthy and alkaline flavors coming after a complex bouquet of black cherry, rose and clay. Classy and long, with a texture of raw silk, it was the darkest in color of the group, as well as the most dense and tannic. I was torn between the 2010 and 2011. The former, which was awarded a gold medal by Gilbert et Gaillard in France, revealed floral top notes, dried fruit and spice bouquet with a chalk underpinning, silky texture and seamless profile. The 2011, received 93/100 from Gilbert et Gaillard, 92/100 from the Ultimate Wine Challenge in New York and also 90-94 from Decanter in Hong Kong was beginning to hit its stride, offering mint, decaying sweet berry and cherry, with a slight vegetal note.
Paradis of Qanafar, the winery’s second wine, is primarily aged in stainless steel tanks. It doesn’t benefit from barrel-aging, which naturally stabilizes the wine through micro-oxygenation and the ellagic tannins coming from the oak. It’s a wine that is meant to be enjoyed sooner, thus filtration becomes necessary. Each year, several varieties of grape are combined in small batches to complete the assemblage. They help discover new wines that require 3 to 4 years’ time and patience to mature.
The common thread among these wines is breeding, refinement and length on the palate. I tasted from youngest to oldest, then back again several minutes later. The wines were so silky and supple it wasn’t until this second pass in reverse order that the tannins emerged.
Over lunch, at the delicious Seven Springs (Sabeah Ouyoune) restaurant, we re-sampled the 2009, 2011 Chateau and the Blanc de Qanafar. The latter wine exuded captivating aromas of cassis and acacia, leaning towards notes of peony in a rich yet elegant frame. It was long and showed intensity, an innate sense of power and mettle. In fact, all three wines enhanced the savory Lebanese mezze dishes as well as grilled birds, meat and fried frog legs.
As a whole, the wines have a sumptuous quality often found in great vintages, but at far more affordable prices. Chateau Qanafar is a potentially elite wine from a great terroir that is very well-priced. What is reassuring to see is that the Naim family and their team are upholding their patrimony, planning a state-of-the-art tasting room and gourmet restaurant. But foremost they are graciously sharing their elixir with amateurs and aficionados alike.