Winemaking in Lebanon is a little more difficult than elsewhere in the world. This isn't because of anything to do with the vineyards or actually making the wine - it's to do with war.
Last summer, during the month long conflict with Israel, Massaya's winemaker Ramzi Ghosn spent his time holed up with his vats whilst being peppered with lethal shrapnel as nearby factories and the road in front of the winery were destroyed. Luckily both he and his wine survived.
Massaya's Tanail Estate is situated at an altitude of 1000 meters above sea level where the vines are free of frost and disease and the Bekaa valley enjoys a unique climate with long gentle summers, wet winters and an average temperature of 25 degrees that is perfect for viticulture. The soils are mostly clay and limestone with a few parcels of sand and gravel.
Massaya means "twilight" - named after the time of day when the sun sets on the vineyard and the sky turns purple as the sun sets behind Mount Lebanon. The story of the Tanail Estate in the heart of the Bekaa valley, an area acclaimed for its wines since Biblical times, dates back to the beginning of the 70s when the Ghosn family owned a large piece of land planted with vines. At first they made Arak (a colourless distilled drink flavoured with aniseed, the name coming from the Arabic meaning "sweat" or "juice"). However in 1975, war forced the family to leave the estate and it was seventeen years before Sami Ghosn, by then an architect working in Los Angeles, returned to the war ravaged family estate. He revived the distillation of Arak and entrusted marketing to his brother Ramzi who had settled in France and was running his own restaurant. Their famous blue bottles of Arak were an instant success. But Sami had still greater ambitions.
In May 1998 a partnership was formed with the ambition to produce world class Lebanese wines in the Bekaa Valley. It brought together the Ghosn brothers with Dominique Hebrard, proprietor of Château Belfont Belcier (and previously of Cheval Blanc) in Bordeaux and Daniel Brunier of Vieux Télégraphe in Châteauneuf-du-Pape - famous names indeed. Their first release was from the 1999 vintage, and quality has improved steadily ever since.
Massaya produce three reds, two whites and a rosé in the Classic, Silver Selection and Gold Reserve labels. The grapes for the Classic White and Rosé are Clairette and Sauvignon Blanc and Cinsault and Syrah respectively, whilst the Classic Red is made up of 60% Cinsault, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon and 20% Syrah. The Silver Section White is a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay with the Red being Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvèdre. This range is vinified and aged in French oak. The Gold Reserve contains 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Mourvèdre and 10% Syrah and is fermented in stainless steel followed by ageing for two years in new French oak.
The company normally exports 80% of the 300,000 bottles it produces each year, though this year's harvest was only a small percentage of the usual production. The Ghosn brothers and their French partners decided on a limited harvest for security reasons, once again the result of making wine in what has been a war zone for many years.
The style of the Massaya Classic Red as stocked by The Oxford Wine Company is very different from that of Château Musar's reds, produced by Serge Hochar - the 2004 Massaya is quite like a meatier and richer version of Châteauneuf du Pape, and has soft, spicy chocolaty fruit with excellent structure. It's a more modern style than Musar with fresher, more upfront fruit and the kind of character that one only finds in Lebanon - excellent, well made wine.