The Eastern Mediterranean, comprising Cyprus, Greece, Israel, Lebanon, and Turkey, is politically one of the most divisive regions in the world. Greece and Turkey have had their historical differences; the tiny island of Cyprus is still divided and Israel and Lebanon’s last altercation happened all too recently disrupting the harvest in the Galilee and Bekaa Valley respectively. These are the only wine regions in the world divided by borders of war and religion.
However, there are similarities that unite them culturally as being part of the Eastern Mediterranean. Visit a restaurant in any of these countries and you will find mezze being served on small plates. They will more often than not be accompanied by the indigenous spirit: Arak, Raki, or Ouzo. The whole area also has a well-established coffee culture too, linked to the generous local hospitality. Strong coffee is served in small cups.
Another common factor is wine. This area was the cradle of the grape, that gave wine culture to the world, long before the vine reached the rest of Europe. The history, archaeology, literature, religious ritual, and folklore bear witness to a very advanced wine industry, which was a mainstay of the economy and an important part of the lifestyle.
In the 19th century, wineries like Achaia-Clauss, Boutari, Carmel, Etko, and Ksara introduced modern wine industries in their respective countries. Doluca and Kavaklidere followed suit in the 1920’s. However until the late 20th century, the region was considered out of step with the technological advances made elsewhere. Greece was primarily known for Retsina. Cyprus produced bulk wines and ‘sherries’. Israel was associated with sweet, kosher wines. Lebanese wines were mainly found in Arab restaurants and Turkish wines in kebab fast food kiosks. The wines were pretty dire, apart from Commandaria, Retsina, and Vinsanto, which remained as historic time capsules to remind us of winemaking in ancient times.
The stirrings of a quality revolution started with three famous names. Domaine Carras from Greece employed the expertise of Bordeaux guru Emile Peynaud. Lebanon’s Chateau Musar caught the world’s attention, being from a most unlikely source and but also due to the charming owner, the much missed Serge Hochar. Yarden introduced New World technology to Israel. These three pioneers were the catalysts that triggered a whole series of changes in their respective countries.
Firstly, there was an influx of expertise. The Greeks and Lebanese were mainly influenced by France; the Israelis more by California and Australia. Secondly, there was an explosion of new boutique wineries and then the larger wineries responded to the new situation by diversifying and investing in quality. Greece and Israel led this boom, Lebanon was not far behind, and Cyprus and Turkey are the most recent to join this regional trend.
Today, these countries are making wines far removed from their old image. Worth seeking out are the white wines from Greece, especially the minerally Assyrtiko and aromatic Moschofilero. As for reds, the Lebanese blends, often based on Cabernet Sauvignon & Syrah, and Israel’s Mediterranean Rhone style blends and varietal Shiraz, together illustrate the revival of the Levant as a quality wine producing region.
If you want more ethnic flavors, there are no lack of local varieties such as the Turkish Bogazkere, Okuzgozu and Kalecik Karasi, the Greek Xinomavro and Aghiorgitiko, or the Cypriot Maratheftiko. The Lebanese have their Merweh and Obeideh. Israel lacks wines from indigenous varieties, but Marawi and Dabouki could be interesting and if you are looking for more unusual varieties, there are some particularly good Israeli Petite Sirahs.
Regarding this part of the world, it is wise to maintain an open mind and keep learning. Scratch the surface and there are no end of surprises such as Syria’s excellent Domaine Bargylus and the intriguing wine made by Cremisan Monastery from two Palestinian varieties, Hamdani and Jandali.
The Eastern Mediterranean has reawakened after being asleep for 2,000 years. It is now a fascinating wine region with a perfect climate, high elevations, unique terroir, indigenous varieties and advanced technology in vineyards and wineries. Experts compare New World and Old World wines. This region represents the Ancient World.
The Eastern Mediterranean is today making exciting wines that are sought for their quality, originality and the fact that they come from the world’s ‘newest’ quality wine region. For the first time it may be said that the long history of winemaking in the region is now matched by the high quality of its wines. The Eastern Mediterranean is one of the fastest developing, most exciting and most dynamic wine regions in the wine world. A whole new world – in one of the oldest wine producing regions on earth!