Like many ancient practices that have continued until today, it’s difficult to pinpoint exactly when and how wine became a staple in modern life. But, like many ancient practices that have continued until today, the Middle East had a lot to do with it.
While the earliest recorded wine-making and viniculture was found in modern Georgia, it was the Phoenicians that are largely credited for spread the sweet stuff across the world; firstly into Ancient Egypt, before reaching modern-day North Africa, Italy, Spain, Greece and France.
These days, wine-making in the Middle East is relatively limited but the ancient tradition continues at heritage vineyards across the region, satiating the thirst for a little tipple and a lot of history. We put our drinking caps on and discover the best bottles…
With perfect conditions, Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley is the spiritual home of Arab wines, producing over six million bottles a year – half of which are destined for export to the UK, USA, and France. And in the great tradition of Arab millenials – if it’s good enough for foreigners, it’s good enough for us.
White: With the second biggest vineyard in the Beqaa Valley, Château Kefraya is quickly catching up to the longer-established wineries in Lebanon, garnering a few international accolades on the way. Their Blanc de Blancs is a unique blend of Viognier – Chardonnay – Muscat, with tropical notes such as mango, honey and apricot making for a distinctive drink. The 2013 vintage is an award-winning bottle, but its more recent incarnations will do just fine too.
Red: Despite being on the market for less than 10 years, Ixir has quickly become one of the best known names in Lebanese wineries. Their El Ixir Cabernet – Merlot – Syrah blend has been a hit with critics across the world, with their 2011 vintage being especially lauded. Perfect with a lamb-based meal – if you can still get your hands on it.
Despite a harsher climate, wine-making has a long, often-untold history in Egypt. Despite a decline in its consumption following Egypt’s 1952 revolution, tourism has kept the industry alive, and recent efforts to revive Egyptian wine have led to a slew of awards since 2010. In fact, the latest data puts Egypt’s wine production at 5,000 tonnes annually – more than Belgium and the UK combined.
White: Awarded a bronze medal at 2017’s San Francisco International Wine Competition, another at the International Wine and Spirit Conference, and recently commended at Decanter’s World Wine Awards, Ayam is somewhat of a cult phenomenon. Though it’s hardly the most expensive of Gianaclis Vineyard’s white wines, this Viognier comes packed with fruity bouquet of peach, pear, and apple, making it a perfect accompaniment for a famous Egyptian seafood feast. Or sushi, if you’re classy.
Red: Another stand-out bottle from Gianaclis Vineyard, Grand Marquis Carignan – Cabernet Sauvignon blend is on the sweeter side of the red wine spectrum (not to be confused for the brand’s new Sweet Red edition), hitting bitter plum and chocolate notes. With its own set of medals from 2017’s international wine conference circuits, look out for the 2013 Exceptional Oak vintage for the perfect pairing with red meat and spicy food.
With the grape vine holding an important place in Syrian culture and having formerly been at the crux of the Phoenician wine trade, it’s no surprise that wines from the area are highly regarded around the world. In the south of Syria, on the border with Jordan, a town called Suwayda held an annual vine festival until recent events left the country war-torn. In fact, Suwayda was known by the ancient Greeks as Dionysias, named after their wine god Dionysus. The country’s ideal conditions and ancient heritage in vine farming have made for some of best wines to ever emerge from the region. However, only one winery remains active today. With upheaval, violence and instability still rocking the country, the international press has dubbed Château Bargylus’ bottles “the most dangerous wine in the world.”
White: With hints of mint, lime, white peach and lemon verbena, Domaine de Bargylus’ Chardonnay – Sauvignon Blanc blend is a perfect accompaniment to a proper Syrian mezze platter, working perfectly with herbaceous salads, vine leaves, grilled chicken, and seafood. The 2010 vintage is the most sought after – following a particularly warm summer, the grapes have resulted in a unique, complex structure.
Red: Two-thirds Syrah, and one-third a combination of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, Domaine de Bargylus’ red is a very special bottle of wine – so special that Château Bargylus dedicates 75% of its vineyard to growing grapes for red. On the wine list at Michelin star restaurants including L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon and Restaurant Gordan Ramsey, the full bodied red is both fruity and spicy, hitting currant, plum, cinnamon and cocoa notes. If you can get your hands on a couple of bottles, drink one now and save one for a few years (if you can resist!) – sommeliers around the world say that this red is destined to get even better.
A former colony of both Rome and France, it’s no surprise Morocco has a long wine history. Despite political and economic shifts resulting in a massive drop in wine production, by the late 1990s the industry experienced somewhat of a renaissance thanks to the efforts of King Hassan II, lobbying to revive international interest in the potential of Moroccan vineyards. Thanks to high mountains and the cool Atlantic breeze, Morocco is well poised to grow grape varieties that wouldn’t fare too well elsewhere in the region.
White: While most Moroccan grapes are grown to create red wine, there’s a handful of fantastic whites thanks to the country’s relatively cooler weather. Perhaps the best known wine-producer, Les Celliers de Meknes’ Les Trois Domaines Guerrouane Blanc is a Sauvignon Blanc – Ugni Blanc blend which is often thought of as a uniquely French. Thanks to years of intercultural exchange, this winery pulls off a great version with subtle touches of white fruit and citrus.
Red: Commended at the 2016 Decanter World Wine Awards, Bernard Magrez Domaine Excelcio exemplifies the long relationship between France and Morocco. Grown, fermented and bottled in Morocco’s Guerrouane region by Bordeaux-based winemakers, this Syrah – Grenache blend hits blackcurrant and earthy notes, perfect for a spicy lamb tagine.Also try: Les Celliers de Meknes Chateau Roslane Premier Cru Rouge, Thalvin - Domaine des Ouled Thaleb White Blend
With more vineyard land than South Africa, Algeria has long and little-told history of wine-making. With both Phoenician and Roman history, Algerian wine accounted for nearly two-thirds of international wine trade before the 1962 War of Independence that brought sweeping reforms to the country. Despite most vineyard land now having converted to table grapes, there’s still a few stellar bottles coming out of Mediterranean country.
White: Hailing from the Dahra region, right on the north coast of Algeria, Grand Crus’ Blanc de Aboukir is made from hand-picked Merseguera and Clairette grapes. Hitting both floral and citrus notes, the crisp white pairs perfectly with grilled fish, shish tawook, and grilled aubergine.
Red: Perhaps the most popular Algerian red, Chateau Tellagh Medea might be on the cheaper end of the scale, but it certainly packs a punch. A Southern Rhone red blend, it’s both oaky and floral, perfect with lamb tagines and anything with a bit of spice. This is a wine that definitely gets better with age, so if you’ve got one lying around from 2004-2008 now’s the time to crack it open.Also try: Cuvee du President Rouge
Given Jordan’s ancient history, it’s not surprise that wine-making has been recorded there as far back as 30 BC. Today, just two wineries dominate the local scene, but recent interest and investment in wine are quickly helping Jordan’s industry blossom. With a scorching morning sun and chilly nights, Jordan’s climate might be harsh, but winemakers insist that’s what gives local wines a unique edge.
White: A relatively new winemaker, Saint George has quickly become the local’s favourite thanks to its marketing exercises and cool, millennial branding. Their Chardonnay is a particular favourite, hitting lemon and vanilla notes on the nose, and a crisp fruitiness on the palate. Perfect for salty bar snacks, olives, and grilled chicken. If you can get your hands on the 2009 Winemaker’s Selection vintage, don’t let it go.
Red: Established in 1953, the Haddad winery has a special place in Jordanian drinkers’ hearts. A sub-brand of their Jordan River range, their JR Merlot is crisp un-oaked red, so light it can be drunk chilled, so this is your best choice for a fruity sangria. The 2011 Reserve vintage has a slew of international awards and still on the shelves now, so stock up if you prefer an oaky-er red.Also try: JR Tempranillo, Saint George Sauvignon Blanc (Winemaker’s Selection)
Another Middle Eastern country with a long Phoenician and Roman history, Tunisia’s wine-making may have declined with the Arab conquest, but the French occupation quickly brought it back up. With a huge export market reaching nearly $50 million annually, Tunisian wines are internationally acclaimed and unlike most wine producers in the region, the country makes a disproportionate amount of rosé.
White: From the founders of Tunisia’s historic Union of Wine Cooperatives – a group designed to protect and preserve the country’s vineyards and wine industry - Les Vignerons de Carthage’s Domaine Clipea Chardonnay might be on the cheaper end of the scale, but with a mantle-piece filled with international awards, it certainly stands out. With apple, peach, and nectarine notes, it compliments Tunisia’s famous tuna dishes well. The 2010 vintage is especially well regarded.
Red: From Domaine Atlas vineyards, and with two gold medals, two silver, and a bronze under its belt, Grand Patron is a Carignan, Mourvedre and Syrah blend, with cherry, plum, and coffee notes. It’s a dry red so pair it with spicy meat dishes, duck and anything topped with harrisa. It’s also good to cook with, so use the newer vintages for your dishes and save the older ones for drinking.Also try: Les Vignerons de Carthage Muscat Sec de Kelibia, Kelibia Premier Cru, Les Vignerons de Carthage Domaine Lansarine Coteaux Tebourba Premier Cru
Needless to say, Palestine has a long ancient history in winemaking, not only as a social lubricant but as an integral part of religious rituals. Beyond ancient times, during the 19th and early 20th centuries Palestinian wine was exported all over the world and after the repeal of the infamous American prohibition, millions of liters of wine were imported to the US from Palestine. Today, just a couple of wineries exist in Palestine, but the ancient traditions make for excellent wines.
White: Made from the indigenous Zeini grape, Nadim Zeini Blanc from Taybeh Winery is as unique as its grape, grown in Hebron. With aromas of apple and pear, the dry white is a perfect summer tipple, fermented in stainless steel tanks rather than barrels to retain a crisp, light feel. Drink with grilled chicken and vegetables.
Red: Another show-stealer from Taybeh is Nadim Merlot, with its deep violet colouring and earthy, cherry notes. Aged in French oak barrels for at least eight months, the medium bodied red goes perfectly with roasted vegetables, pizza or a home-made maqlubah; basically anything with a smokiness.Also try: Les Vignerons de Carthage Muscat Sec de Kelibia, Kelibia Premier Cru, Les Vignerons de Carthage Domaine Lansarine Coteaux Tebourba Premier Cru