Tastes of Italy: Wine workshop piques Lebanese palates

From the sensual aroma of Sicilian wine to singsongy Italian chattering, there was no escaping “la dolce vita” at the Four Seasons Hotel in Beirut Thursday, thanks to the Italian Embassy in Lebanon and the Italian Trade Agency.

Lebanese importers and distributors laid out a scintillating spread of pastas, cheeses, cold cuts and main courses to accompany a dizzying array of wines, as part of the second edition of the Italian Wine Workshop.

During the day, the workshop’s attendees were mostly representatives from Lebanon’s food and beverage industry, wooed by 13 Lebanese importers and distributors to sample over 400 varieties of products from over 100 Italian producers.

But by the evening, the hotel’s first floor was filled with a range of visitors with personal or professional ties to Italy, longing to be transported back to the culinary magic of the country for a day.

For those interested in learning more about wine, the main attraction was a guided tasting led by sommelier and enologist Paolo Peira, who had arrived from Rome.

Peira proved to be a passionate and highly informative guide, sharing anecdotes that were as colorful as the four different wines he introduced, all courtesy of the distributors present. Foregoing the usual suspects, such as Chiantis and Barbera d’Astis, Peira guided his guests through a powerful palette of more imaginative wines from lesser-known regions.

From the feather-light, rose-scented red Montepulciano d’Abruzzo, typically paired with fresh cheese and nonaged cured meats, to the Scavi & Ray moscato spumante, the ideal companion to a New Year’s Eve panettone that has gained popularity in Lebanon, guests nodded appreciatively, seemingly lost in reverie.

Peira told The Daily Star that he also made sure to pick a special prosecco for the occasion - a Jeio Prosecco di Valdobbiadene, perfectly paired with seafood and thus particularly well-suited to Lebanese cuisine. The DOCG wine - meaning it has earned the highest designation of quality among Italian wines - is named for the town of Valdobbiadene, where the landscape and designation tend to result in a superior, pricier product.

“I felt like I owed it to the guests to have them try the more real, superior prosecco,” Peira said.

The global rise of sparkling varieties has not skipped Lebanon.

Italian Trade Agency said this type of wine represented an astounding 24 percent market share of imported Italian wines in Lebanon in 2018, with a value of over $1 million. That performance proves Italian wine has become a force to be reckoned with in the country, according to the ITA.

While Italy is by far the largest wine producer in the world, Lebanese consumers still seem to prefer the French variety - that is, when they’re not drinking their preferred local wine.

However, while the market share of French wine in Lebanon in terms of consumption decreased from 75 percent in 2013 to 59 percent in 2018, Italian wines saw their market share grow by 3 percent to 11 percent last year.

Francesca Zadro, trade commissioner with the Italian Trade Agency, happily speculated as to why appreciation for Italian wine in Lebanon has continued to grow.

“First of all, the mere range of Italian wines, which, with 500 denominations is more than one wine a day, ensures that there are plenty of wines that can be perfectly matched with the famously varied Lebanese cuisine,” Zadro told The Daily Star. “Secondly, Lebanese consumers are adventurous and curious, they appreciate novelty and originality and aren’t afraid to try something new.”

Lastly, Zadro said, Lebanese are similar to Italians, in that they have a “Mediterranean soul,” which means they have a strong connection to their family and culture. “For the Lebanese, just like the Italians, wine is about more than just taste and sensation. Wine, like food, is tied to family and nature, every sip transports them back to the memories they have of their village.”

Ambassador Massimo Marotti, clearly in his element at a networking event that followed the guided tasting, agreed. Hailing from the southern coastal city of Naples, Marotti told The Daily Star that he sees a lot of similarities between not only the Italians and the Lebanese, but also his hometown and Beirut.

“Beirut in some ways is the Naples of the Middle East. Geographically, as a city, how it’s constructed and how the makeup of the city affects its people. Its history, the mixed neighborhoods. We live in the streets, everything happens outside,” he said.

Furthermore, Marotti said, both are old societies, which through history have witnessed a lot, both negative and positive. “And both cities are synonymous with rebirth. Incredibly strong cities with strong people.”

Farah-Silvana Kanaan - The Daily Star