Lebanon’s viticultural history is venerable. If you were in any doubt about this, a quick wander around Beirut’s National Museum should put you right. Drunken cupids cavort along the sides of a 2nd century AD sarcophagus that stands near the entrance and, close by, a mosaic Bacchus pours a generous libation. Display cases are stacked with terracotta amphorae that were once used to store the wines that the Phoenicians shipped around the Mediterranean basin, and there are plenty of drinking vessels, ranging from vast kraters used at Greek symposia to delicate iridescent cups.
Alongside the archaeological evidence there’s plenty of documentation to underline the fact that wine has been an important part of life in this corner of the world for well over 5,000 years. Even under the rule of various Islamic caliphates and then the Ottomans, wine survived, a dispensation to Lebanon’s significant Christian community, who needed it in order to celebrate mass.
It wasn’t until the arrival of the French in the latter half of 19th century, though, that the scene was set for the creation of a commercial wine industry. According to Hady Kahale, a Lebanese winery consultant, “The French missionaries were the ones who really started planting vineyards. They had the excuse that they were making wines for religious reasons, but I think they were betting on the fact that the French and English troops in the region would want to buy wine.”
Nevertheless, in all ways that matter, Lebanon is really a very new winemaking country. It wasn’t until the 1970s and ’80s that Lebanon could boast half a dozen commercial wineries, all of them heavily influenced by French culture.
“All the landowners went to high-end French schools and universities,” says Kahale. “When they came home to their vineyards, they modelled everything on France, from the varieties they planted to the names of their wineries [to this day, most Lebanese wineries are called ‘Château something-or-other’]. And, of course, all the wine experts came from France.”
Many of the winemakers hailed from Bordeaux, and the grapes they wanted to work with were, in the main, Bordeaux varieties. With the notable exception of Château Musar, they planted hectare after hectare of cabernet sauvignon and merlot, while white vineyards were largely dominated by sauvignon blanc, semillon and chardonnay. Little consideration was given at the time to the suitability of any of these grapes for Lebanon’s soils and climate.
By the time the civil war ended in 1990, only five wineries – Châteaux Ksara, Kefraya and Musar, Nakad and Domaine des Tourelles – were still in business. All of them were based in or near the Bekaa Valley. This region has remained, by far, Lebanon’s preeminent viticultural region, accounting for around 85% of total production.
The valley is, in actual fact, a raised plateau that lies between two mountain chains, the unimaginatively named Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon ranges. Latitude gives the valley hot, sunny summers with little rainfall during the grapes’ ripening phase, but altitude creates vital coolness, especially during the summer nights, when temperatures can drop by as much as 20°C from the daytime peak.
“At 1,000 metres – or more – of altitude, the bracing night-time temperatures compensate for the warmth of the day, creating freshness and perfect balance in the wines, even when we have a very hot summer,” says Domaine des Tourelles’ winemaker, Faouzi Issa.
The Bekaa’s beauty is dramatic. It’s hard to imagine, when you’re sweltering in the heat of summer, but for much of the year the mountains that border it to the east and west are usually capped with snow. In spring the valley floor and the surrounding hills are carpeted in wildflowers and lush greenery, in summer this all fades away to dull, sun-bleached shades of brown, with occasional flashes of rust-coloured, iron-rich soils, often seamed with white limestone.
It’s even harder, when you’re standing out in a vineyard, listening to the sounds of buzzing insects and distant goat bells, to remember that you are within touching distance (almost) of a civil war. And yet, every so often, an armed convoy might drive past in the distance, jogging your memory and reminding you that Syria’s struggles are being played out on the other side of those eastern peaks.
To the north of the Bekaa, past the site of the Roman Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek, and much lower in altitude at around 400 metres above sea level, lies Batroun. This ancient wine region is currently seeing a huge revival of interest. Kahale, who was a founding partner at Batroun’s glossiest winery, Ixsir (he’s since left the company), says the region shows promise.
“We weren’t expecting much initially as the vineyards are at fairly low altitude,” he says, “but the wines were far better than we expected. What we’ve realised is that we have a mini California effect in that the fog rolls in from the sea, blanketing the vineyards and protecting them from the sun. The wind arrives at around 11 in the morning, blowing the clouds away, and the end result is that the growing cycle is longer than you’d expect. Even at these altitudes the wines we produce range in quality from good to very good.”
Planting has been slower to the south, in the forested, mountainous and often humid Jezzine region and on the slopes of Mount Lebanon, but there, too, the pace of viticultural development is picking up. Overall, winemaking in Lebanon is on a bit of a roll, as confidence builds in the potential of the country’s vineyards. The pioneers of the 1990s have been joined by a growing number of producers in more recent years, bringing the current total up to around 75, of which around half are established commercial entities.
The question of what to plant is a divisive one. Established wineries largely favour cabernet – the legacy of an era when Bordeaux was seen as the acme of perfection. The current generation of Lebanese winemakers are questioning their terroirs, their grape varieties and the relationships between the two in arguably greater depth, resulting in growing viticultural diversity. Many of these younger producers are beginning to focus on Rhône grapes and there’s a developing interest in indigenous varieties too.
Kahale says that although Rhône grapes are increasingly popular, there’s little question of throwing the cabernet baby out with the syrah bathwater. “You have to think about the local market as well as export, and the Lebanese like their wines heavy and tannic. I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of new plantations of cabernet, but I don’t think what’s already planted is going to be uprooted either.
“In terms of new plantations,” he continues, “the younger generation is more excited about Mediterranean varieties. Our climate looks a lot like that of Provence, the Languedoc, Sicily and Corsica, so it stands to reason that this is a region where these varieties could find a home.”
One variety gaining a lot of traction in Lebanon is cinsaut. Like the South Africans, today’s Lebanese winemakers have inherited a wealth of old-vine cinsaut vineyards. And, like the South African cinsaut vineyards, the Lebanese ones were planted in the hope of achieving not quality but quantity. Some of the vineyards planted by the 19th-century French missionaries – or the descendants of those vineyards – are now producing some fascinating wines based on the variety.
In addition, although Lebanon is largely known for its red wines, whites are growing in popularity. The altitude afforded by those mountain vineyards helps produce wines with greater aromatic richness and vibrant acidity than one might expect given Lebanon’s geographical location.
The debate over the viability of indigenous grape varieties revolves around whites, too. So far, only three native varieties capable of creating a commercially viable wine have been identified – merwah (believed by some to be closely related to semillon), obaideh (which may be related to chardonnay) and meksesse – and even then their capacity to create high-quality whites is questionable.
“I like the idea in principle,” says Issa, “but in practice I don’t like the varieties a lot so far. Obaideh, in particular, can have an oxidative character, and I don’t think that’s a style we should be showing. It can work well, however, as part of a blend – it can lend a wine backbone and character.”
Although there is much to get excited about in terms of the prospects for Lebanese wines, the path ahead is far from clear. The broader region is chaotic, not only in political terms but also economically. There’s been huge investment in vineyards and wineries over the course of the past 10 to 15 years, but winemakers are still challenged when it comes to selling wines in export markets. Production costs are high – land and labour is expensive, and most of the kit you need to make wine has to be imported – so the wines themselves are seldom cheap.
However, most Lebanese producers are quietly optimistic about the country’s long-term prospects. “The opportunities are immense,” says Kahale. “Not only is there growing domestic demand, there’s room to boom on the international scene.”
Issa agrees, saying, “There’s a huge Lebanese diaspora around the world, and that means that we have fantastic ambassadors for Lebanese wines in many countries. Once recognition grows, the wines will sell because we have all the necessary weapons at our disposal – a great terroir, a great history and great wines.”
In terms of international recognition, Château Musar (chateaumusar.com) is, arguably, the great granddaddy of the Lebanese wine scene. Founded in 1930 by Gaston Hochar (and still owned and run by his descendants), Musar’s wines were ‘discovered’ in the late 1960s by auctioneer Michael Broadbent MW. His acclaim helped launch the wines on the international stage, and the Château Musar Red has become, for many wine lovers, the epitome of Lebanese fine wine.
That’s not to say that the wines are universally loved – indeed they’re rather divisive, loved and hated in equal measure for their funky, idiosyncratic character. Personally, I’m a bigger fan of the Musar White than the Red, and really enjoyed tasting the 2001 vintage, a blend of two-thirds obaideh, one-third merwah. The nose is reminiscent of an old white Rioja, minus the oaky richness. On the palate, it’s developed with a nutty, honeyed character and a waxy texture and a long, savoury finish. These are wines that age incredibly well, and the 1975 (made, unusually, from 100% merwah) is a layered, complex beast with concentrated notes of dried fruit, spice and mushroom, enlivened by astonishingly bright acidity and tinged with a smoky, incense-like character.
Château Ksara (chateauksara.com), founded in 1857 by Jesuit monks, is Lebanon’s oldest surviving winery. Its rich history is, quite literally, underpinned by its two kilometres of underground cellars, initially dug out by Roman settlers. When the Vatican forced monasteries around the world to sell off their commercial assets in the 1970s, Ksara was bought by a consortium of Lebanese businessmen, who turned the winery into a commercial powerhouse of wine production (it produces around three million bottles per year, and exports to over 40 countries).
Winemaking here is fairly conservative and old fashioned, with oak often to the fore, but there are some gems, including the 2018 Merwah, a creamy-textured white wine with racy acidity, hints of almond, melon and blossom and a twist of lemon sherbet on the finish. Of the reds, the 2015 Château Red, a blend of 60% cabernet sauvignon, 30% merlot and 10% petit verdot, may well be the pick of the bunch. This is dense and brooding, with layers of capsicum, violet, red plum and tomato leaf and a plush texture. The oak lends spiciness, and the tannins are fine, albeit still fairly firm. One for the long term, perhaps.
Domaine des Tourelles (domainedestourelles.com) straddles the divide between the old and the new approach to Lebanese wines quite neatly. One of the small grouping of historic wineries, Tourelles dates back to the 1860s, when it was founded by the (French) Brun family. Although wine was produced here over the years, it was perhaps best known for its arak (a spirit flavoured with anise).
Things changed when the Issa family took over the domaine in 2003, and winemaker Faouzi Issa (who earned his stripes working with René Rostaing in Côte Rôtie and Bordeaux’s Château Margaux) is widely acknowledged as a rising star of Lebanese winemaking. Issa’s approach is pretty hands off, working with sustainably produced grapes, and indigenous yeasts to produce wines with distinct personalities.
I’d happily drink anything he makes, but the benchmark wine is the Vielles Vignes Cinsault, made from vines that are at least 50 years old (and often older). The 2017 has a heady perfume of red berries, blood orange and spice, with a distinctive floral note and pleasingly rustic, fuzzy-textured tannins. Really fresh and juicy.
The last thing you might expect to find in the Bekaa Valley is a fresh aromatic white wine, and yet the 2017 Rêve Blanc produced by Château Khoury (chateaukhoury.com) combines riesling, gewürztraminer and chardonnay in equal proportions to great effect. Zesty acidity underpins a palate of tropical and stone fruits spiced up with a touch of lemongrass and ginger. The blend of grapes reflects the tastes of Raymond and Alsace native Brigitte El Khoury, who planted their vineyards in 1995 on land that had been abandoned after Lebanon’s civil war.
Today the winemaking baton has been passed to their son, Jean-Paul, who trained in Champagne. His light touch in the vineyard is also apparent in the 2016 Cuvée Ste Thérèse, a surprising blend of 20% pinot noir and 80% caladoc, a cross between malbec and grenache. This pale ruby wine is slightly stemmy on the nose, and has pleasingly crunchy tannins that provide a framework for flavours of red cherry, pomegranate and red plum.
Domaine de Baal (domainedebaal.com) is a relative newcomer to the Bekaa Valley, having been founded in 2006 by Sebastien Khoury (vineyards were planted in 1994). Khoury, who lived and worked in Saint-Émilion prior to his return home, is making some beautifully balanced reds.
The 2017 Le Petit Baal Red is, in many ways, a more approachable wine than its big brother, the 2014 Domaine de Baal Red, which – to my mind, at least – is a tad over oaked. The smaller Baal is a juicy, fresh-tasting blend of 80% syrah and 20% merlot aged in older barrels, which lend a delicate touch of spice to the smoky, dark-fruited palate. The tannins are gently grippy and help prolong the finish.
Glossy, glamorous Ixsir (ixsir.com), situated in the hills that rise up eastwards from Batroun, was only founded in 2008, but has already made a name for itself as a source of wines that are as slick as the environmentally friendly, architect-designed winery itself. The company sources grapes from six sites around Lebanon.
The most sumptuous wines are from the El Ixsir range (a cheap pun, but terrific wines). The 2014 El Ixsir Red, a blend of cabernet sauvignon and syrah (45% each) with a touch of merlot, is a powerful, serious wine with a complex, plush palate of incense, red and black fruits, tobacco, garrigue and oak spice draped around fine but firm tannins. Until that cuvée hits its straps in a year or two, you might prefer to dally with the 2018 Grande Reserve White, a bright-fruited blend of viognier (60%), sauvignon blanc (25%) and chardonnay (15%) that offers balance and freshness, as well as some mid-palate texture.
Also situated in Batroun is Atibaia (atibaiawine.com), named after a city in Brazil’s Sao Paolo estate. While the name sounds random, it’s where winery owner Jean Massoud first met his wife, so you might say it’s a tribute to love. An almost equal amount of devotion is lavished on the vineyards by the Massoud family and consultant Diana Salameh (a rare instance of a female winemaker in Lebanon).
Salameh is a big fan of syrah, saying that “It deals better with our warm climate and our soils than cabernet, even though that’s widely seen as the king of grapes here.” As a result, the winery’s signature red, 2014, is a blend of 55% syrah, 38% cabernet sauvignon and 7% petit verdot. It’s incredibly concentrated and intense, with firm, chewy tannins and a dense palate packed with meaty, savoury notes, liquorice and dark berries. It should, arguably, be locked away in a cellar for a couple of years to tame its exuberance.
Captain Habib Karam (Captain to his friends) is one of Lebanese wine’s biggest characters (no small accolade in a country where larger-than-life personalities thrive). His Jezzine-based winery, Karam Wines (karamwines.com), also wins my award for most improved, having come along hugely since my first visit there in 2013.
The Captain, a former pilot, is an auto-didact when it comes to wine, taking his inspirations from wines tasted on his travels around the world and conversations with winemakers, rather than anything as prosaic as a winemaking course.
Regardless, his magpie mentality has paid dividends in the form of a range of wines made from unusual varieties. He’s currently enjoying his experiments with touriga nacional, saperavi, albariño and meksesse, although I expect him to have fallen under the thrall of a different range of grapes if I visit in another six years.
Until then, it’s well worth trying his take on the local meksesse grape – the 2017 is brisk and bright, with aromas of honeyed apricots and jasmine tea and a gentle touch of oak spice. The 2015 Touriga Nacional is also promising, with its well-handled, firm, fine-grained tannins and brisk acidity, all supporting a velvety palate of blueberry, paprika, violet and Damson plum. This needs time for the oak to integrate fully, but should age well.