Pairing Wine with Lebanese Cuisine

Lebanese Fish
Fish at a restaurant in Jounieh, Lebanon. Fish is unexpectedly rare for this Mediterranean country.

My posts on Lebanon and my trip there last year are so overdue that I considered holding off until my next visit in April. But my first visit was so enriching and inspiring that I felt I needed to say at least a few words about the country’s burgeoning food and wine scene. Lebanon’s rich food culture and the Lebanese people’s high regard for their cuisine was an eye-opening experience. Lunch, the day’s biggest meal, takes place over the course of several hours. It starts with “mezze” (a selection of small plates), followed by multiple courses of vegetables and meat. I expected to encounter much more fish in this Mediterranean country, given its 220 km of coastline, and a plentiful supply of crisp dry white wine to wash it all down. What I found instead was a food culture based on terroir (their land) focusing on grains, greens, and lots of meat. Fish and wine was only an occasional indulgence. When I asked my Lebanese hosts why, they simply said fish wasn’t really a part of their tradition. Nevertheless, they were determined to show me that great fish could be had in The Land of Cedars. They introduced me to a fish market in the Beirut suburb of Jounieh that more or less doubled as a restaurant where we stuffed ourselves on a mix of small fried fish. This preparation reminded me of fritto misto, the mix of fried fish one might encounter in Liguria, Italy, where it is customary to guzzle a liter or two of cold Vermentino while consuming an expertly fried combination of calamari, shrimp, and anchovies. My hosts insisted on Almaza, Lebanon’s ubiquitous pilsner-style beer (which I did not refuse), but Lebanon certainly produces ultra-crisp, fresh, and modern whites perfect for such occasions. But in Lebanon, such wines are almost impossible to find!

Most meals in Lebanon begin with mezze, like these at Le Chef, Beirut’s oldest restaurant.

Chérine Yazbeck, in her excellent new book, “The Rural Taste of Lebanon,” explains that the word “mezze” comes from the Arabic “maza” meaning “savor.” Mezze is an array of starters that precedes the meal, and I encountered it everywhere I went in Lebanon. Olive oil, garlic, onion, and lemon are foundations of flavor on which all Lebanese cuisine is built, and almost all of the common mezze employs these ingredients. Equally ubiquitous is arak, the strong anise-flavored national drink which is always served with mezze. Wine or Almaza beer were sometimes ordered later in the meal, but we always began mezze accompanied by arak. Think of arack as a cousin to Turkish raki or Greek ouzo, with a similarly strong anise taste and a tendency to go from clear to milky-white when cold water is added. Arak begins as still white wine produced from native Lebanese varietals like obeideh and merweh (both of which could potentially be a great Lebanese contribution to the wine world if farmed appropriately and made in a clean, modern style), and combined with anise seed in a still (an Arabic invention), then distilled three times. Arak is then stored in clay jars for a year before being distributed around the country where it is consumed with the daily mezze. Arak was explained to me as a sort of old-timers drink. However, I couldn’t help but observe how popular it was with all generations. Many common mezze dishes lend themselves well to wine, like the mint- and parsley-stuffed grape leaves known as Waraq Inab. I immediately thought of a dry and citrusy Sauvignon Blanc for this dish, and my winemaking friend Hicham Geagea even suggested a drier, more neutral style of Viognier. Two salads, Taboulleh with parsley, lemon, and bulgar wheat, and Fatouch (pictured above) with mache and sumac seemed ideal candidates for Sauvignon or Riesling. On the other hand, hummus and stuffed pastries known as Fatyer seemed to beg for Chardonnay or earthier styles of Merlot or Syrah. Finally, grilled Kofta (beef) and Lebanon’s delicious Schwarma both seemed to want Cabernet Sauvignon or a Left Bank Bordeaux-styled blend. With such an incredible diversity of food and a built-in food loving culture, not to mention the nearby Bekaa Valley, which produces excellent examples of all of the above-mentioned wine styles, one might agree that Beirut’s reputation as “Paris of the Middle East” has been earned. Yet wine remains a distant third to arak and beer in Lebanon. Perhaps Emil Issa-el-Khoury explained it best, whose family produces wine at their Domaine des Tourelles estate in addition to what is arguably Lebanon’s most famous arack of all: Arack Brun Special Reserve.

Emil Issa-el-Khoury from Domaine des Tourelles talks to WineToMatch about the importance of arack in Lebanese culture.

posted on February 13 2010 by jesse

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