D.C. Restaurant Albi’s Quest to Introduce the U.S. to Levantine Wines

Regardless of a regional historical past of viniculture that reaches again greater than 5,000 years, wines that come from Jap Mediterranean nations like Lebanon, Palestine, and Turkey don’t carry the identical cache on the U.S. market as their mainstream European counterparts. In D.C., a success new wood-burning Center Jap restaurant is on a mission to enhance their fame amongst American drinkers.

At Albi, among the metropolis’s most achieved sommeliers pitch prospects bottles which can be usually tough to search out stateside. By working with small importers and distributors — and generally even sliding into vintners’ Instagram DMs to request tasting samples — Albi’s wine specialists are steadily increasing a list from the Levant area that represents thrilling developments over the previous three a long time. The overarching aim, in keeping with co-owner and high-profile D.C. sommelier Brent Kroll, is to show there’s demand for Center Jap wines on this planet of American effective eating. Kroll and different specialists suppose if a nationally acknowledged restaurant like Albi can transfer lesser-known bottles from the area, perhaps extra wholesalers, importers, and eating places will observe swimsuit.

Albi’s wine team of head sommelier Vanessa Cominsky, beverage director William Simons, and co-owner Brent Kroll pose for a portrait

Albi’s wine staff contains, from left, head sommelier Vanessa Cominsky, beverage director William Simons, and co-owner Brent Kroll
Rey Lopez/Eater D.C.

“Albi is making a sufficiently big affect the place persons are studying about it, individuals have heard about it, it’s successful awards,” says Jason Bajalia, managing accomplice of Levant-focused wine importer and distributor Terra Sancta Buying and selling Firm. “That by extension helps the wines which can be being featured in this system. And different locations are saying, ‘Wow, I didn’t know we might do that.’”

A map indicates the Bekaa Valley’s place in northern Lebanon, directly east of Beirut

Over the previous 30 years, the fertile Bekaa Valley in northern Lebanon seen a transfer away from hashish manufacturing and a development in winemaking.
Eater illustration

Regardless of its historical historical past of winemaking, the Levant continues to be thought of an “rising” area within the international wine group. Simply 30 years in the past, Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, one of many area’s most fertile grounds for vintners, was higher identified for producing round 80 percent of the world’s hashish supply than it was for producing high quality wines. Consultants and importers say Levantine wine faces a number of misconceptions from a Western viewers, primarily the idea that the Center East has no historical past of cultivating grapes for fermentation as a result of Islam, the dominant faith within the area, doesn’t allow consuming. One other dangerous rap for Levantine wines claims that they lack their very own sense of id and are merely bulk imitations of European types. These concepts have gotten much less related as extra boutique producers are popping up in every single place from the West Financial institution to the Lebanese port metropolis of Batroun.

“It feels ridiculous to check with an space with a [5,000] or 6,000-year historical past of wine manufacturing as an rising area, however that’s simply the economic system of it,” Albi beverage director William Simons says.

For Simons, Kroll, and head sommelier Vanessa Cominsky, the aim at Albi is to construct a wine listing that represents a number of Levantine nations in the identical approach chef Michael Rafidi has referenced dishes from throughout the area to realize the speedy consideration of critics. Albi gained a spot as certainly one of Esquire’s Best New Restaurants in America in 2020 and landed on the Eater 38 in D.C. as quickly because it was eligible. Rafidi first gained discover in D.C. for sprinkling Center Jap influences all through French, Spanish, and North African cooking at Mike Isabella-owned eating places Requin and Arroz, which have since closed. Rafidi wished to take a extra private tack at Albi, which implies “my coronary heart” in Arabic.

Massaya’s “Cap Est” blend of grenache and Mourvèdre grapes comes from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley

Massaya’s “Cap Est” mix of grenache and Mourvèdre grapes comes from Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley.
Rey Lopez/Eater D.C.

Earlier than Cominsky left her job as a sommelier at buzzy, Stephen Starr-owned tavern St. Anselm, Kroll and Simons started constructing a stockpile of Levantine wines at Albi. After opening just a little over a yr in the past with simply three wines from the area, Albi’s listing now contains a whole web page devoted to white wines from the Levant, and one other web page and a half dedicated to reds. After they had been starting to construct their Levantine wine assortment, they are saying, there weren’t actually some other eating places to look to for example. Different D.C. eating places that target the Jap Mediterranean, like Maydan, Zaytinya, and the recently rebranded Ala, have stocked wines from the Levant, however the staff at Albi staff wished the scale and variety of its assortment to dig deeper.

The opening menu at Albi listed just some wines representing the Levant, together with one from Chateau Musar. The well-known vineyard, based in 1930, was the primary producer on the trendy world stage to export Lebanese wine. It has since gained a following for low-intervention, advanced, and funky expressions of the nation’s local weather and terrain. Albi carries round 20 completely different bottlings from Chateau Musar starting from the 2018 Musar Jeune, priced at $48, to a $700 pink mix bottled in 1969. In some instances, Musar is likely to be the most effective introduction to Lebanese wine for diners, however in keeping with Kroll, after Musar “it’s important to go from there and create your personal factor.”

Bottles of white, amber, and red wine from Chateau Musar rest on mosaic tiles with a blue and yellow pattern

Based in 1930, Chateau Musar is Lebanon’s most well-known vineyard. Albi’s choice ranges from the 2018 Musar Jeune, priced at $48, to a $700 pink mix bottled in 1969.
Rey Lopez/Eater D.C.

Couvent Rouge is a main instance of a producer Albi needs to highlight. The vineyard is an outgrowth of the Coteaux d’Heliopolis co-op that lifelong farmer Walid Habchy based in 1999 to assist colleagues who wished to transform hashish and opium fields into vineyards. The farmers had been topic to sporadic authorities raids that would erase a complete yr’s price of revenue, and so they wished a safer enterprise mannequin. It’s not simply Couvent Rouge’s story, however the style and high quality of their wines, that in the end drew the eye of the Albi staff.

Albi’s sommeliers are all the time seeking to introduce their clientele to new wines from the Center East, however for a number of causes, the restaurant continues to be struggling to herald merchandise from the kind of small, natural, and low-intervention wineries that symbolize the total scope of the area’s growers.

Since opening in February 2020, Albi’s wine specialists have tried desperately to get “Leb-Nats” — the primary glowing pet-nat (pétillant-naturel) wines from Lebanon — on the menu, however bottles didn’t arrive available in the market till March of final yr, when Albi was closed due to an indoor eating ban to sluggish the unfold of COVID-19. Albi is once more ready for extra Leb-Nats to succeed in the D.C. market. Regardless of being scheduled to reach to start with of the yr, they had been held up by lingering issues on the port and restrictive COVID-19 measures from the Lebanese authorities. Couvent Rouge’s debut 2019 classic of the Leb-Nat, created by winemaker Eddie Chami, spanned 5,000 bottles that shortly offered out. That market success led Chami to extend manufacturing to twenty,000 bottles from the 2020 harvest, this time beneath his personal label, Mersel Wine. Now different Lebanese wineries are exploring growing their very own pet-nats.

When Albi was up and operating for restricted indoor and out of doors eating in August, a massive chemical explosion on the port of Beirut interrupted the export of Lebanese wine to the usand shook the trade. The blast destroyed the offices of Château Marsyas, which had been only one,600 toes from the explosion, simply two weeks earlier than the yearly harvest was scheduled to start.

But even with out the affect of COVID-19 and the Beirut port explosion, the availability of Center Jap wines within the U.S. stays restricted for extra systemic causes. Bajalia, the importer for Terra Sancta, says bringing in wine from Palestine comes with the difficulties created by the Israeli occupation. “The whole lot needs to be accomplished over borders and checkpoints with permissions” from the Israeli authorities, Bajalia says.

In Lebanon, he says, every little thing from wine bottles to ink for labels needs to be imported into the nation. Authorities-imposed restrictions on worldwide cash transfers usually forestall producers from shopping for necessary items, like French oak barrels, from abroad. Regardless of these hurdles, smaller Lebanese wine producers, like Sept Winery, are nonetheless trying to succeed in the U.S. market to develop their international profile. Based mostly in Batroun, Sept claims the primary skin-contact bottlings — an historical strategy of fermenting white wine in touch with their skins, including an orange or amber coloration and tannins — constituted of obeideh, an indigenous Lebanese grape. Sept’s distribution is restricted to Florida, New York, New Jersey, and Massachusetts, says Andreas Zinelis, the director of gross sales for Cava Spiliadis, an importer and distributor for the vineyard. Likewise, its boutique manufacturing numbers command excessive costs, round $50 retail.

Zinelis says that to ensure that Lebanese wines to proceed making a dent within the international market, expert wine sellers need to work on altering misperceptions and presenting labels to prospects as “a high quality wine that occurs to be from Lebanon, versus only a Lebanese wine.”

Albi chef-owner Michael Rafidi plates a dish at a metal counter

Albi chef-owner Michael Rafidi has garnered nationwide popularity of Levantine cooking that options an array of intensely smoky and acidic flavors
Rey Lopez/Eater D.C.

An enormous a part of promoting prospects on Levantine wines at Albi is figuring out what pairs properly with the intensely acidic and smoky flavors popping out of Rafidi’s kitchen. Simons focuses on balancing the acid of the wine towards the lemon juice, pomegranate syrup, and urfa chile oil Rafidi makes use of to make seemingly heavy dishes extra vibrant. Cominsky, the top sommelier, says that Rafidi’s dishes have so many parts and flavors that she likes to decide on one essential aspect of a dish to pair with a wine to make that element “zip.” If a dish contains labneh — thick, strained yogurt — she may select to focus on shiny, tangy, and creamy flavors. With the current menu addition of manti dumplings, Cominsky may serve the 2017 Thalvin “Syrocco,” a fruit-forward syrah from Morocco, or the Lebanese Syrah du Liban from Domaine des Tourelles, each of which pair properly with the slight spiciness of the manti.

Cominsky asks prospects questions like, “Do you want French reds? Do you want wines from California?” She then decides which wines from the Levant would have related traits. Simons searches for “parallels,” too. He may clarify to the shoppers that there are “similarities to be drawn with the Bekaa Valley and the Napa Valley” when it comes to topography and local weather; each areas have lengthy, dry summers with loads of daylight. Then he would spotlight the variations that make wine from the Levant distinctive, resembling the numerous soil compositions, or that the elevation in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley is 3,000 toes greater than the Napa Valley, which is round sea stage.

A vineyard sits in front of a mountainous backdrop in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley

A winery sits in entrance of a mountainous backdrop in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley
Julio Etchart/ullstein bild by way of Getty Pictures

Cominsky thinks all the eye on Albi may help steer the U.S. market towards adopting Levantine wines in the identical approach that the rise of pure wines — a obscure class that prizes low-intervention, natural, and biodynamic farming strategies — has helped extra small wineries flourish in France and Italy. She’s hoping Levantine wines can capitalize on elevated media protection for eating places like Albi, making a “symbiotic” relationship between wine sellers, prospects, and the press.

“Individuals are available now and ask about little esoteric issues as a result of they’ve examine it in an article or noticed an Instagram video,” Cominsky says.

“Wine outlets and eating places play off one another,” she provides. “The publications and now, like, quite a lot of social media, quite a lot of web media play off one another. You want the entire organism to get individuals into new issues.”

Frank Faverzani is a graduate pupil pursuing a grasp’s diploma in Arab Research at Georgetown with a focus on meals and wine historical past within the trendy Center East.

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