Lebanon is one of the oldest wine producing areas in the world, the Phoenicians having spread wine and viticulture throughout the Mediterranean. Though Lebanon has had a deeply troubled recent history, an annual production of around 600,000 cases has been maintained.Wine production in Lebanon declined over the centuries, especially under Islamist rule, though it was tolerated among Lebanon’s Christian population for religious purposes. The Christians also developed arak, an aniseed-flavoured spirit that remains popular today. Winemaking was revived in the 19th century, when Jesuit monks planted Cinsaut vines at Chateau Ksara in the Bekaa Valley.
Geography and climate
Lebanon lies at the eastern end of the Mediterranean, just north of Israel and west of Syria. The Lebanon Mountains to the west run the length of the country, while on the eastern border lies the Anti-Lebanon range. The main vine growing area of the Bekaa Valley lies between the two.
With a population of under four million who speak both Arabic and French, Lebanon is blessed with a Mediterranean climate that sees 300 days of sunshine per year. At an altitude of 700 to 1200 metres, the Bekaa Valley has short winters that are wet and cold, with long, dry hot summers. Today there are at least six wineries in the Bekaa Valley where visitors are regularly welcome. Combined with visits to the Roman ruins at Baalbek and Anjar, the town of Zahleh, the tomb of Noah in Kerak, the marshlands of Amiq, the Jesuit monastery at Tanail and Lake Qaroun, they make for a full day’s excursion.
Lebanese grape varieties
The wines of Lebanon come from vineyards that are planted mostly with French grape varieties, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cinsaut, Carignan and Grenache amongst the most popular for reds, and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Ugni Blanc, Semillon and Colombard for whites. There are indigenous Lebanese grape varieties too, for example Obaideh and Merwah, from which Château Musar makes its white wine. Obaideh is believed to be descended from Chardonnay, whilstmany think Semillon is an ancestor of Merwah.
Wine and war
In a region so regularly touched by strife and conflict, Lebanon’s producers really do deserve special praise for their dogged determination in the face of adversity. Read my report from 2012 for some of their personal stories, and of course the situation with their giant neighbour Syria has led to more unsettled times in recent years.
Château Ksara is the country’s oldest winery. A household name in Lebanon for the second half of the 20th century, it produces two million bottles annually – six reds, four whites and two rosés. My choice is the sumptuous Château Ksara 2001, a Cabernet, Merlot, Petit Verdot blend that is supple and smooth. Slightly behind Château Ksara in terms of production (1.8 million bottles), Château Kefraya came to international prominence with its ‘Parkerised’ Cabernet/Syrah Comte de M 1996, the first wine to properly step out of Musar’s shadow.
Château Musar needs no introduction, but readers may not be as familiar with the Hochar Pére et Fils, Musar’s second and, according to Serge Hochar, “more accessible” creation. One really should sample the eccentric, trippy and generally thought-provoking ‘Château’ whites and the chocolaty Cuvée Réserve Rosé. Massya is a boutique winery founded by Ramzi and Sami Ghosn and their high-profile French partners – the Brunier brothers and Dominic Hébrard – in the mid ’90s. The wines have matched their youthful, sexy and exciting image with a slew of plaudits for their three reds, two whites and a rosé.
Domaine Wardy has a portfolio of 12 wines, including a Private Selection red from Syrah and Cabernet picked from the highest vineyard (1,700m) in the Middle East, using the lowest yield (20 to 25 hl per ha). Cave Kouroum is a Kefraya winery that produces ten wines under the careful eye of the colorful, hippy winemaker Yves Morard, who did so much to put the neighbouring Château Kefraya on the map in the ’80s and early ’90s.Clos St Thomas made their name in Arak, but in the mid ’90s they moved into wine production proper. The flagship Château is a beefy monster of a wine but pound-for-pound I believe their best wine is Les Emirs
Domaine des Tourelles is Lebanon’s second oldest producer. Recent wines have failed to impress, but new owners have taken giants steps to remedy this. Other producers include the Heritage micro-winery, Château Fakra with a very classy Cabernet Sauvignon and Clos de Qana, a new winery, whose Château de Cana 2001 is an absolute knockout . Vin Nakad is one of Lebanon’s oldest producers, whislt the Karam Winery and Château Belle-Vue produce less than 50,000 bottles between them, but the results are impressive. Finally there is Nabise Mont Liban, whose 2002 is silky and long in the mouth.