A winery with a deep understanding of the true meaning of hedonism. The best possible kind. By Kate
And so it came to pass that finally, on our fourth day in Lebanon after our visit to the Temple of Bacchus, we got to see a working winery.
Buried down some Bekaa back roads, the approach is not hugely promising but once actually on the Massaya estate, things are as bucolic and beautiful as you like. Abundant lavender frames the vineyards with the winery and tasting rooms separated from the restaurant by a chunk of vines.
This is where Sami and Ramzi and their older sister grew up and the place they fled when the civil war started. It would be 17 years before they returned. Eventually, they left the country altogether to be educated first in France and then to spend time in America but the Bekaa never completely left them and having been here, I can completely understand. It is the kind of place that seeps into your bones. After spending hardly any time at all there, I want to go back.
What they have achieved in over a decade is astonishing and Sami Ghosn is now one of the people I call to mind on the days when I am really struggling to find reasons to carry on with my business. Like Eric Narioo of Caves de Pyrenes (who is one of my other great inspirations), they are both people who have built extraordinary things from almost nothing and against all odds.
As a producer of Arak, a delicious but hardly very mainstream spirit, he approached two of the most blue chip wine producers in France – Daniel Brunier of Vieux Telegraphe and Dominique Hebrard (former owner of Cheval Blanc) and, through sheer force of will I presume, persuaded both to become involved in a wine venture he wanted to launch in the valley.
The spectre of Chateau Musar must again be invoked here as obviously, Lebanon had them to brandish as a beacon of the latent potential and that no doubt helped. The reason I am slightly loathe to bring them up though is that this French/Lebanese partnership has given birth to wines that are profoundly different to what the old guard are about.
The expertise from France coupled with the energy and terroir of Lebanon have, at Massaya given birth to wines that are first and foremost, completely contemporary. I mean this in this best possible way. Crammed full of character, they none the less much more about clean, pure fruit and spice than the untamed and too often discordant notes which, until I discovered Massaya, had been all I knew of Lebanon.
We wait in their shop, suffused with the smell of dried lavender which they sell in bunches alongside the wines, for Ramzi. He has been officially in charge of wine maker since 2004 and he shows us round the small, clean, beautifully organised winery.
All formats are here – stainless steel, large oak fermentation vessels and concrete. Like so many wineries around the world that I have visited in the last 2 – 3 years, Massaya are mad about concrete. Increasingly, this is being seen as a preferable to the rigidly inert stainless steel. Here, unusually, they do not line their concrete vats with epoxy resin which does allow a very gentle interaction with oxygen. Ramzi also believes that there is a textural effect that is imparted by the rough edges of the concrete walls which he invites us to feel.
This method does mean that they need to break down the upper layer and re-line it every few years in the interests of cellar hygiene.
In most wine regions, the cost of the alone would make this method impossible but in Lebanon, labour is cheap.
We taste two different vats of Obaideh, one of which has had more skin contact and which shows, consequently, much more depth of flavour and texture. This is something Ramzi has tried for the first time this vintage and he likes the results; as do we.
He may only have been in charge of wine making for four years now but his evident dedication to constantly trying to improve and to try new things is hugely encouraging.
Into the small but very stylish barrel cellar next to taste a selection from here. Baby wines, but all components are never the less present and correct and, as always, the fruit is clean and pure.
Time for lunch, so we walk down a lavender lined avenue between vineyards to the Massaya restaurant. It is a simple wooden structure with a central room flanked by wooden decking, open to the air and under the trees, dotted with long tables. Immediately to the left of the entrance, a lady sits cross legged, kneading and pummelling dough which is eventually rolled out into thin pancakes and draped over a top of a hot saj (an inverted wok shaped piece metal). The dough is then spread with either a mixture of very finely chopped thyme and olive oil or a paste made of chickpeas and sumac.
The marquooq (for that is its Lebanese name) cooks fast this way and is, quite simply, at the pinnacle of achievement in the bread universe. We eat baskets of it, hot and soft, reeking of freshness and herbs.
For this reason alone, the restaurant at Massaya shoots instantly into my top 5 of all time. In the world. And there are even more reasons to love it absolutely. Our long table outside, looking out over the vineyards. The long table in the central room which soon fills up with huge earthenware bowls of Mezze. The wood burning fire in front of which are more bowls piled and steaming with meaty offerings.
It takes considerable intelligence and sophistication to do simplicity as well as this and Sami and Ramzi clearly have both of those attributes in spades. We eat our way through piles of more delicious food while Sami’s fabulous daughter toddles back and forth, throwing her arms in the air and doing a little dance when the music becomes livelier.
Why don’t I live in Lebanon?
There are countless reasons to visit this extraordinary country and the opportunity to visit this winery is right up there. All the best wineries in the world have that enchanting combination of physical beauty with a strong undercurrent of the sheer joy of hedonism. This is word that has been cruelly hijacked of late, giving rise to images of intensely unpleasant and wholly unattractive excess.
In essence though, good hedonism is as essential to the human experience as pain, suffering, the endurance of drudgery and all the other myriad components that make a life. The wines at Massaya, their amazing restaurant and the atmosphere that they have created here is top grade hedonism. Knowing something of the work that has gone into creating it only makes the experience even more profound for me.
As we leave, the customers around the large tables near the bread lady are all singing and either waving their arms enthusiastically in the air or have forsaken their seats altogether and are dancing.
It isn’t a particularly special occasion apparently. They are just celebrating life.