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The Gewürztraminer tastes good. The fruity dry white has hints of lychee and rose water on the nose. It’s not too acidic, but fresh, full-bodied and with a long finish - a good match for the prosciutto and goat’s cheese on the same table. What’s unusual about this aromatic grape, is that it performs best in cooler climates like the Alsace region in France, or South Tyrol in north-eastern Italy - yet this one is from Jordan in the Middle East.
It’s not the first wine producing region that springs to mind. Islam forbids the consumption of alcohol, and strict prohibition is a reality in places like Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Iran and Yemen. Yet it is testament to the tolerance of some Middle Eastern countries, especially those in the Levant region, that an increasing amount of alcohol is being produced and consumed here. And the quality is surprisingly high.
«The Gewürztraminer is one of our best whites,» says Omar Zumot, winemaker and owner of the Saint George winery. For over 15 years, Zumot has been confounding critics and naysayers by producing award-winning organic wines in Jordan, a country with a Muslim population of over 90 percent, and a hot climate that would leave most winemakers in a sweat.
«There was nobody before me who planted grapes, so I didn’t know what to plant or where,» says Zumot. «The whole technique was purely theoretical. Anybody who gave me advice would have got it from a book he read on hot countries. In Jordan previously, the wine was made with table grapes, which were not of a high quality. I wanted to produce something that’s really Jordanian, with its own character and personality.»
Zumot had completed training courses in France. But it was trial and error with 34 grape varieties on Jordanian soil that led to the breakthrough - first in the city of Madaba, then in Sama al Sarhan near the Syrian border, and more recently in the mountains around the Roman ruins of Jerash. «I brought Pinot Noir from France, Chardonnay from Burgundy; from Italy I brought Merlot and Sangiovese, from Germany I brought Riesling… I thought some would succeed and some wouldn’t. Everything succeeded.»
Perhaps that shouldn’t be so much of a surprise. The region’s winemaking history goes back a long way, as Zumot explains. «When Jesus did his miracle, it was not French wine - it was wine from this country. Jordan is one of the old wine countries. Grapes started in this region. Here, Iraq, Iran… This is where vines began.»
Evidence of viticulture in Jordan has been found in the areas around Petra, the ancient city carved into the sandstone by the Nabateans in around the 6th century BC. «Now in little Petra they are excavating wine presses that are 14 metres in height,» says Zumot. «Fermenters of that size, even by today’s standards, are massive industries. They made a lot of wine. It was part of their religion, their rituals and their trade.»
Jordan isn’t the only wine-producing country in the region. While a small amount of wine is made in Syria, by far the largest producer is Lebanon, with its Bekaa Valley vineyards. With over 7 million bottles produced each year, there’s a thriving wine-drinking culture here. But one Lebanese entrepreneur is aiming to put beer firmly on the local alcohol drinkers’ agenda.
Mazen Hajjar is the co-founder of 961 Beer, which is named after the dialling code for Lebanon. He had long been dissatisfied with the local beer - a Heineken-owned mass-produced brew called Almaza - so along with his Danish business partner, he set out to brew his own craft beer. He had two main goals: to make his beers flavourful, and to educate the Lebanese market about beer.
«There’s no culture of beer in Lebanon,» says Hajjar. «It’s an adult’s soft drink. That’s how it’s perceived. It’s a refreshing beer you drink at the beach, ice cold, frozen and that’s the culture Almaza’s brought people up with.»
Hajjar aimed to change this image of beer in Lebanon, to one of a sophisticated and flavourful alcoholic drink that could be enjoyed either at the bar or in a fine dining context. But cultural barriers were the least of his problems in starting up. «I’d never been in a brewery,» he says. «In fact I had no idea about the different styles of beer. I just hated our local beer.»
With a clutch of brewing books ordered from Amazon, and the inspiration of craft beermakers like the Brooklyn Brewery in the US, he was all set to start in the summer of 2006. Then war broke out.
«I started brewing in the middle of the war with Israel,» says Hajjar. «I was sitting in my house in Monot, and literally the whole place was shaking.» With encouragement from his business partner, Hajjar registered the company, knowing that brewing while his country was under siege would make great headlines.
Five years later, and 961 is producing over 5 million bottles a year from its brewery just outside Beirut. Making a range of craft beers, from pilsner and lager, to wheat beer and red ale, it’s the region’s first microbrewery, but Hajjar’s future plans involve a taste of the past.
«Beer historically started in this region,» he says. «I’m doing research on some of the historical documents we have - old recipes that were brewed in the region. I really want to produce 100 percent Lebanese beer.»