The passion of the vine 

Fine wines from some unlikely places

click to enlarge Connoisseurs and hobos agree: Wines are delish. - BRUCE ELLIOTT
  • Bruce Elliott
  • Connoisseurs and hobos agree: Wines are delish.

Wine unites people. War, drought, political strife -- no matter what painful issue rules the day, you always can find an achingly passionate wine community hunkering down with some fermented grape juice, perhaps to escape the madness. The same countries we think should be crestfallen continue to show that the language of wine and the love of the juice transcend political differences and create a free-flowing environment.

So it doesn't shock me that wine production thrives in Israel. According to Israel's most comprehensive wine Web site (israelwines.co.il), Israeli wine consumption has doubled since 1996, and exports have climbed 40 percent. Currently, 20 commercial wineries and more than 100 smaller, boutique wineries dot northern Israel, mostly in the Galilee, Shomron and Samson regions.

Large wineries like Carmel and Golan Heights grow Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grapes, nurtured by winemakers like Peter Stern, a passionate, dogged Californian who helped jump-start Israel's wine culture in the mid-1990s. You can find these wines, including the especially yummy Carmel Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc blend, in our markets mostly around Jewish holy days.

Lebanon, just north of the best Israeli vineyards, has seen slow growth in wine consumption, but the quality has soared. I learned more about a central figure in Lebanese wine culture in a September 2004 feature in GQ, which highlighted the 75-year-old Bekaa Valley winery Chateau Musar and its family.

Serge Hochar, a second-generation winemaker, has brought fame and fortune into the family business with his dedication, enthusiasm and beliefs. When a particularly powerful Syrian bombing assault began one morning in 1990, he forsook safety in a shelter to remain calmly in his top-floor Beirut apartment for 12 hours, savoring an especially prized bottle of 1972 Chateau Musar Cabernet Sauvignon blend.

After the shelling stopped, he emerged from his bedroom to find his apartment building one of the few still standing. He calls this fate. I call it passion. Serge continues to release award-winning wine, albeit virtually impossible to find in our parts, that is capturing the hearts of wine fans all over the world. Other notable Lebanese wineries include Chateau de KeFraya and Massaya, which produce Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrahs and Carignans.

Wine in Eastern Europe has been traced back to when the Romans ruled practically everything. Croatia grows a grape similar to Riesling called Grasevina, and has introduced Merlot and Chardonnay to its portfolio. The country produces more than 50 million bottles of wine per year, consumed mainly by its thirsty citizens.

In its cold regions, where only white grapes ripen successfully, Ukraine makes sweet and dry whites, along with some sparkling wines.

In recent years, Hungary has dramatically improved the quality of its wines, as I tasted when a wine friend excitedly brought back a bottle of Hungarian red. But the country is best known for a sweet dessert wine called Tokay or Tokaj. Sharing the name of its region, Tokaj is meant to age for decades, so it evolves into a smoky, unctuous treat.

Vineyards prosper all over Hungary, from the northeastern Tokaj region to Balatonmellke in the far west, which cultivate grapes like Riesling, as well as an indigenous red variety called Kkfrankos.

Amid all this, Hungarians have created a wine culture; they recently celebrated the 14th annual International Wine Festival in Budapest.

-- Taylor Eason

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