I’m always at my best during harvest,’ Faouzi Issa says. ‘I’m up at five in the morning, I work 18, 19 hours, but it’s amazing.’ Bearded and ebullient, the owner and winemaker of Domaine des Tourelles leans into the screen. ‘The grapes are superb. I’ve picked Sauvignon Blanc today at 13.5% alcohol and 4.8 acidity. Imagine that! Four-point-eight per cent – [even] in Chablis you don’t get that. And that’s in a heatwave.’
There are no shortage of cheerleaders for the wonders of Lebanon, but Issa’s enthusiasm for his country is infectious. He describes the terroir of the Bekaa Valley as almost perfect: ‘You have 300 days of sunshine at altitudes of 1,000m, with good diverse soils. What more do you want to produce good wine?’
Domaine des Tourelles is one of Lebanon’s oldest wineries. Founded in 1868 by a Frenchman, François-Eugène Brun, it was run by his descendants until the early 2000s, when it was bought by Faouzi’s father Elie, and old friends the el-Khoury family. Faouzi trained in agricultural engineering and took over the winery after stints at Domaine René Rostaing in Côte-Rôtie, and Château Margaux under the late Paul Pontallier.
Issa was in his early 20s when his adored father suffered a heart attack and asked him to come back and help in the winery. The young Issa had just been promoted from an internship to a salaried position at Margaux, and had grand plans to gain further experience around the world, in Napa, Australia and who knows where. It must have been a difficult time for the super-keen young winemaker, but he was brimming with confidence. He told his father he would come back, but only if he was given total control. ‘I said I had to be in charge. I love to test myself, and you can’t do that with lots of decision makers. So he gave me a beautiful opportunity with full authority to change things.’
By 2003, though, the winery had lost its way. It was ‘in intensive care’ as Issa puts it. He set about returning Tourelles to its former glory, putting together an international team, making the winery ‘visible internationally and locally’, buying back vineyards that had been lost to neighbours over the years. New vineyards were planted – ‘we have planted every year since I came back’. When he took over, Tourelles was producing around 25,000 bottles; today it is one million bottles of wine and 600,000 of arak (and a few thousand of gin – more on which shortly). ‘We used to produce that amount 50 years ago, so I would say it’s not expansion but a return to our legacy.’
Issa is also delighted that he’s realised another vision: to have the whole family working at the winery. ‘So now it’s me, with my twin sister Johanne and elder sister Christiane, and Emile el-Khoury, plus my wife, who joined us five months ago.’ Elie Issa is still involved in the winery but the decision-making is left to his children.
The world doesn’t want another Syrah, it wants something new
Tourelles today produces a range of nine wines, from the entry-level red and white to the Vieilles Vignes range – a Cinsault, a Carignan and the recently-launched white blend of the indigenous Merweh and Obeidi grapes. Issa (with characteristic modesty) says he kick-started the trend for reviving native grapes when he launched the Cinsault in 2014. ‘The world doesn’t want another Syrah, it wants something new. There are correct wines and there are exciting wines, and I want at least half my output to be exciting.’
He reaches for a bottle behind him. ‘I just produced a gin, too’ he says happily. ‘I wanted to bottle all the aromas of Lebanon. Mandarin peel, lemon peel, pomegranate seeds, camomile petals, coriander, cinnamon…’
Doesn’t he have enough to do, recovering from lockdown in the political and economic turmoil of Lebanon? ’You know, we’ve been locked in for the past two years,’ says the 37-year-old. ‘We lost energy in the brain, all our neurons were devastated. Any idea that was good was responded to quickly. And besides, I love production – I had three children in four years. I like to do multiple things that bring me happiness.’
What was your childhood ambition?
When I was a kid I knew I was an achiever. Not the smartest in the school, but an achiever. My dad was a civil engineer and I wanted to follow in his footsteps – he was my idol. So from the age of five I followed him everywhere at work – they used to call me the junior engineer. I was going to study civil engineering but in 2002, when my father had heart problems, I visited him in hospital and asked if I should do that or turn to agriculture, like my grandfather. He said to me: ‘I’m in hospital because of civil engineering, so if you want a hard path, do that.’ And as I like to work the land, and work with nature, I changed course to agricultural engineering.
What do you know now that you wish you’d known when you were 21?
The value of my parents.
What exercise do you do?
I’ve played tennis twice a week for the past 20 years.
What is the character trait you most wish you could change in yourself?
I don’t have a lot of patience – and it’s needed in this world.
What is the most expensive thing you’ve ever bought (aside from property)?
When I got married I told my wife there are three important things in life: your toilet, your bed, and your car. We have the best toilet you can buy, at least £300 more than any other; we have a Tempur bed, one of the best in the world; and our car is a Volvo 4×4, always brand new. I don’t want a Lamborghini or Ferrari – I drive every day, so I want the most reliable car you can buy.
If you could live anywhere, where would it be and why?
Portugal. My wife’s grandmother is Portuguese so she has a Portuguese passport. Our dream is to have a winery there, wherever we can find fuel, milk and no Hezbollah.
If you could do any other job what would it be and why?
I’d have a restaurant or be a chef. I’m not a good cook but I’d love to learn.
What luxury item would you take with you to a desert island?
I’d probably take my toilet. Seriously? Pictures of my family – everyone, my father, my kids and my friends.
What haven’t you yet achieved that you want to?
More time with my children [two boys, Elie, 8, and Karl, 6, and a girl, Syma, 4].
If you were king of the world, what’s the first law you would enact?
I would let everyone travel everywhere without restrictions.
Who would you invite to your fantasy dinner party?
[Late, legendary Côte-Rôtie producer] René Rostaing. I worked with him 15 years ago and I still miss him now.
What’s your guilty pleasure?
Eating. A lot.
What’s your secret talent?
When were you happiest?
When my first child Elie was born.
Whom do you most admire?
Which words or phrases do you most overuse?
‘Lebanon is the land of opportunity’.
What’s your greatest regret?
I regret that I didn’t work more outside Lebanon. I was at Château Margaux when conditions [his father’s illness] meant I came back to Lebanon to take over Domaine des Tourelles. That worked out well but I wanted to go to Napa, to Australia, do another two years then come back. I’ll never do that now. I’m rooted in Lebanon.
What album, boxset or podcast would you listen to on a night in alone on the sofa?
Queen – the Live Aid concert.
What time do you go to bed?