The flow of cars in Charles Helou highway, which our apartment oversees, never dries-out; neither late at night, nor before dawn. Like in a river, there are changes in volume; sometimes the flow almost stops and spills over the side roads. But the vehicles are always there, the sound waves of their engines aggregating into an ever-present lament that you can hear, even when the doors and windows are closed, here on the 19thfloor.
I was hoping that an early departure for my first bike ride to Byblos would help, but it didn’t. On Saturday, at 6:30am sharp, my Lebanese friend Ibrahim Mouhanna was waiting for me downstairs with his Harley – a Touring model. At 6:45 we entered the freeway heading east and I was soon riding behind him, on 5th gear, at 80 Km per hour. This was the speed displayed by the speedometer because according to my brain it felt more like 120 Km/h. I didn’t dare going any faster despite having the sensation of being a stone in the river. Cars were passing me on both sides which seemed dangerous. I was also conscious that any small mistake on my part would be the end. My speed was only 50 miles per hour, yet I was tense, fear creeping slowly, releasing large amounts of adrenaline. Ibrahim turn-light started blinking and he gradually moved to the left-lane; the safest lane according to him (I would have chosen the right lane). With his left hand he asked me to accelerate and pass him. I turned the throttle handle and reached 100 Km per hour (only 62 miles!), my max for the duration of the trip. He rode behind me most of the time, amused by my poor riding skills: at the slightest turn I would decelerate, sometimes to 60 Km per hour when 100 Km would have been just fine. The ride to Byblos took less than forty-five minutes. We were going to have breakfast there, but it was too early and everything was closed. So, after a quick stop to take pictures and mark my achievement, we headed back. The return trip was better, I felt more confident. But I need to practice before trying to ride with Natalia in the back seat.
Later during the day Natalia and I rented a small car and headed to Kefraya, a 300+ hectares winery in the Becaa Valley. The founder, the late Michel de Boustros, planted the first vine in 1951. Today they produce over 3 million bottles of wine per year; 60 percent is consumed locally, and 40 percent exported, mainly to the US. We took a short tour of the vineyard in a trolley pulled by a tractor through the vines of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. The leaves of the Cabernet are smaller, greener, with sharper angles and smother edges; a better grape and wine. We stopped at some point and tried our first two bottles: a Blanc de Blanc, very dry, unassuming, and refreshing that I enjoyed, and a scented rose’ that I did not.
From there we went to visit the production facilities guided by a newly recruited sommelier, a lady in her early 30s who studied the trade in Dijon, France. Knowledgeable, pleasant, passionate about wines. For her thesis, we learned, she had analyzed the composition of the soil of different plots of land in the vineyard, trying to identify those characteristics that produced the best wines. We ended the visit seating around a wooden table on a cellar, behind hundreds of wooden casks, under a dim light. It had been set for eight though we were only five. Our guide put bread on the table and proceeded to open two bottles of red wine: a Chateau Kefraya and a Compte M, both cabernets. The main difference, other than the price, is that the Compte spends two years in the casks oxygenating, while the Chateau is out before or after sixteen. You can taste this difference: time in the barrel polishes the edges of the Cabernet and gives you a still robust but more mature, discrete and elegant wine.
We were about to leave when the master sommelier, the man in charge of the entire production process, showed up. This was not part of the visit, just a nice surprise. He introduced himself and then invited us to try a new wine he is experimenting with. This wine doesn’t age in wood casks but in clay amphoras. The amphora, like the cask, lets oxygen in but it doesn’t transfer to the wine tastes or aromas of its own (like wood does). What you get, in theory, is a wine that only reflects the properties of the grape and soil. A wine that in a sense is “pure,” that has not been corrupted by the souls of the oak trees that permeate the barrels. I didn’t like the result of the experiment. The wine had been in the amphoras for only ten months, but it was already in a state of euphoria that could only be followed by a severe psychosis or death. Like I had written before, it would seem that without the firm embrace of the wooden cask, entropy takes over the wine and it slowly degenerates.