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The Passion of the Vine 

Fine wines from some unlikely places

Wine unites people. War, drought, political strife -- no matter what the painful issue, you can always find an achingly passionate wine community hunkering down with some fermented grape juice, perhaps to escape the madness. The same countries we think should be crestfallen continue to show that the language of wine and the love of the juice transcend political differences and create a free-flowing wine environment.

So I suppose it doesn't shock me that wine production thrives in Israel. According to Israel's most comprehensive wine website (www.israelwines.co.il), Israeli wine consumption has doubled since 1996 and exports have climbed 40 percent. Currently, 20 commercial wineries and more than 100 smaller, boutique wineries dot the land of northern Israel, mostly in the Galilee, Shomron and Samson regions. Large wineries like Carmel and Golan Heights grow cabernet sauvignon, merlot, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay grapes, nurtured by winemakers like Peter Stern, a passionate, dogged Californian who helped jumpstart Israel's thriving wine culture in the mid-1990s. You can find these wines in our markets mostly around Jewish holy days, like the especially yummy Carmel Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc blend.

Lebanon, just north of the best Israeli vineyards, has seen slow growth in wine consumption, but the quality has soared. I learned more about a central figure in Lebanese wine culture in a September 2004 feature in GQ magazine, highlighting the 75-year-old Bakaa Valley winery Chateau Musar and its family.

Serge Hochar, a second-generation winemaker, has brought fame and fortune into the family business with his dedication, enthusiasm and beliefs. In 1990, when a particularly powerful Syrian bombing assault began one morning, instead of seeking safety in a shelter, he remained calmly in his top-floor Beirut apartment for 12 hours, savoring an especially prized bottle of 1972 Chateau Musar cabernet sauvignon blend.

After the shelling stopped, he emerged from his bedroom to find his apartment building one of the few still standing. He calls this fate. I call it passion. Serge continues to release award-winning wine, albeit virtually impossible to find in our parts, capturing the hearts of wine fans all over the world. Other notable Lebanese wineries include Chateau de KeFraya and Massaya, producing cabernet sauvignon, syrahs and carignans.

Wine in Eastern Europe has been traced back to when the Romans ruled practically everything. Croatia now grows a grape similar to Riesling called grasevina, but has introduced merlot and chardonnay to its portfolio. The country produces over 50 million bottles of wine per year, mainly consumed by its thirsty citizens. Ukraine, getting up into the cold regions where only white grapes ripen successfully, makes sweet and dry whites, along with some sparkling wines.

In recent years, Hungary has dramatically improved the quality of its wines, as I tasted when a wine friend excitedly brought back a bottle of Hungarian red. But the country is best known for a sweet dessert wine called Tokay or Tokaj. Tokaj is both a wine region and the name of its wine, and is meant to age for decades, evolving into a smoky, unctuous treat.

Vineyards prosper all over Hungary, from the Northeastern Tokaj region to Balatonmelléke in the far west, cultivating grapes like Riesling, as well as an indigenous red variety called Kékfrankos. Amid all this, Hungarians have created a wine culture -- Sept. 4 marks the first day of the 14th Annual International Wine Festival in Budapest. For an excellent source on Hungarian wines, see: www.archimedia.hu.

Recommended Wines

Four Emus 2994 Sauvignon Blanc Western Australia Refreshing and spritzy, like running through the sprinkler on a hot summer day. Fresh lemons and grapefruit complete the picture. Sweetness = 3. $11. 4 stars.

Mont Pelier 2002 Pinot Noir California Smooth with the stereotypical pinot noir earthy bite. Bright, vibrant cherry. Very good price for the quality. Sw = 2. $10. 3.5 stars.

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