17 Jun 2013

WINE: Michael Karam

[Photo: Norbert Schiller]
The author of the award-winning Wines of Lebanon and international columnist talks to Douglas Blyde about conflict, cocktails and an enduring love for grape variety, Cinsault... 

Is Lebanon in particular trouble?
Very much so. The Syrian civil war has destabilised the country and I can’t guarantee that we will not witness another civil conflict along religious lines. It’s all very sad really, but the Lebanese have this enormous capacity to crack-on and thrive in the most difficult circumstances. So in that respect, Lebanon and the idea of being Lebanese, will endure.

What, other than religious-inspired war, is the biggest threat to stability?
Nothing. Sectarian tension is our Achilles heel. Otherwise we’re a nation of kind, generous, hardworking and innovative bons vivants.

When were you last frightened?
As a self-confessed coward, it doesn’t take much to scare me, but the last time I experienced sustained terror was in ‘05 when I rode in a ‘75 Volvo to Damascus with my friend, the American journalist and writer, Lee Smith. At no point did Ali, our driver, dip under 120kph ‘til we got to the border. Then he carried on at the same speed ‘til we hit the Syrian capital. Any seatbelts had long been buried under the back seat, while the Koran on the wing-mirror and Ali’s cheerful reassurances that we were in a Volvo – and therefore “invulnerable” – did little to loosen my iron grip on the handle above the passenger door. Lee didn’t draw breath during the entire trip, telling me about the perils of dating in New York and how most women were in therapy three times per week. I think he was equally terrified.

Are you Lebanese or British?
My father was half-Lebanese, half-Swedish and my mother’s from a Lebanese family that moved to Cairo in the 19th century. There’s also a bit of Greek on her side. It's all a bit of an, albeit rather nice, mess. I do however feel more British than anything else. That reminds me, I really must go to Sweden.

What was your “Damascus-sip”?
When I tasted the Massaya Selection in ‘05 - a blend of Grenache Noire, Cinsault, Mourvèdre and Cabernet Sauvignon - I realised this was the inheritor of Château Musar in the sense that it was as honest an expression of Lebanese terroir as I could imagine and yet very contemporary. I still think, pound-for-pound, it’s our best red. When in a fit of rare patriotism, I had an earlier epiphany with Musar in ‘91, shelling out seven quid – a lot back then – on a bottle of ‘84 at a London wine merchant. It was like nothing I’d ever tasted, reminding me of childhood foggy and rainy days in the mountains of Lebanon.

What mistakes do producers of Lebanese wines commonly make?
Apart from an obsession with expensive new oak, it’s the assumption that red superstar grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and to a lesser extent, Syrah) will, when blended, necessarily produce more interesting wines than those made with, soi-disant, less fashionable, but much sexier varieties like Cinsault, Carignan, Grenache and Mourvèdre. They are, especially the Cinsault and the white Obeideh, the grapes upon which we must start to build a national identity.

What’s the most unusually successful food and wine match you’ve experienced?
Winemaker and pilot, Habib Karam’s St. Jean ‘08 with wild boar and snails from Jezzine, south Lebanon. In fact, all of Habib’s crazy reds work like no others when you’re at his table. Every year he hosts an end of harvest lunch that is the culinary equivalent of an Ironman Triathlon. I tell him he really should keep one of those family defibrillators in the winery, just in the case a guest has an episode.

What’s your preferred cocktail?
Boring I know, but I’d have to say a bone dry Tanqueray Martini at 6pm. No more than two. I swill out the surplus vermouth so only the ice is coated, then one drop of Angostura.

What are your favourite bars?
In Beirut, I like Pacifico, Cayenne or Dragonfly. There was the peerless Chez André with its leftist boho chic and Armenian sausage sandwiches. In London, I’m a pub person and have developed affection for the Hurlingham Arms, which I now consider my local, at the bottom of Wandsworth Bridge Road. I also go to the Antelope, Grenadier and Coopers Arms. As a pointless young man in the early and mid ‘80s, I used to drink at the Admiral Codrington and still pop in once in a while, but it’s not the same. The Botanist on Sloane Square is also fun.

And what are your restaurant tips for Beirut?
The international restaurants – we have them all – are very good if you like that sort of thing, but if one is in Beirut it would be tragic to miss the full-on Lebanese experience at Halabi, Burj il Hamam or Abdel Wahab. There you get the RSM-like (Regimental sergeant major) Maitre d’ who’s seen it all before, the obsequious waiters, mezze and Arak, the shouting, the narguileh (water pipe) and the man in the tarboush (fez) serving the coffee. It’s wonderful, but you need to starve yourself for a week beforehand, and then hike to Everest base camp afterwards.

What’s your greatest skill?
Table tennis.

Describe your ‘Life’s Like That’ books?
Funny you mention them. They’re collections of caricatures of local stereotypes. Not very serious, yet they’ve made me the most money. Go figure! My publisher wants to do an LLT “ten years on” about what’s happened to the characters. If we do, the “minister” will have come out of the closet and the “Russian cocktail waitress” will have married an ex-militia leader and be running for parliament...

Why have they been so successful locally?
Handy presents for the diaspora to take home as gifts and to show how bonkers we are as a nation.

What recent purchase gave you lasting gratification?
In 2000, I saw a 19th century painting of a Maronite Sheikh in a Beirut gallery. I couldn’t afford it and spent days wondering how to raise the money. In the end I forgot about it. Eight years later, I walked into the same gallery and asked if the painting was still for sale. It was and now hangs in my house in the mountains. I even got the price down. It was meant to be. I believe in things like that. Otherwise, an M&S heritage raincoat (very George Smiley) bought in ‘07, a Rolex Explorer II and my Persol shades are among my most treasured bits of kit. I like “stuff”.

You said in the Spectator that, after two decades in Beirut, during which you raised a family, you’re considering returning to London. Why?
When I came to Lebanon in ‘92, the country was at a crossroads. Now we’re at another junction, my family and I feel it’s time for another adventure...

www.yourwinestyle.com | www.winesoflebanon.co.uk | twitter.com/Lebanesewineman
Also see interview with Nicholas Blanford
...and images of Lebanon at Visuals