A passion for wine and place drives Marcus Satchell and Lisa Sartori.

The calling came a decade or so after his father died, heroically sheltering his family from a bomb during Lebanon’s drawn-out civil war. The clarion call was to grow grapes, make wine, foster indigenous varieties. And to defend the Lebanese wine industry.

Maher Harb did not come from a winemaking background, but he was spurred on by early memories of helping harvest village grapes with his father, crushing them to make the national drink, the anise-flavoured arak. He became determined to plant vines on his father’s land, to honour him and his war-torn country. It’s as if he heard: “Your Country Needs You!”

Château Musar was founded in 1930 and supplied wine to the French army.

Harb is now part of a new movement in Lebanon, working creatively with indigenous varieties. His first vintage in 2016 was light on tuition, heavy on intuition. Using wooden presses to crush the oily, late-harvested native obeidi grape, he realised that the oiliness made it slippery and hard to press properly. So he stood back, waited a day for the semi-crushed grape skins to dry out, then successfully finished the crushing following the day’s maceration. The result was a success and it’s a technique he still employs.

In the vintages since, he has established a growing and dedicated following at Sept Winery – named because in numerology, 7 is the life path number for both Maher and his father. It was only after he named his label that it struck him: he was seven when his dad died.

For Harb, each vintage is like “a two-month high” and a welcome respite from life’s problems. His philosophy is simple: native varieties work best in the Lebanese terroir, which is why they still thrive today, specifically the white varieties obeidi, merweh and mekssesse.

He’s now experimenting with another white grape, zitania: a 10-bottle, small-batch, wild-vine trial. The results are promising, but it’s early days; his search continues.

Sept Winery (levinsept.com) is the first biodynamic vineyard in Lebanon and located in an isolated spot near Nahleh, east of the Mt Lebanon Ranges. Harb spent five years scouring villages and forests to find these old hidden vineyards. He got lucky with the century-old Merweh Vineyard – abandoned but untouched by phylloxera and war, with wild franc de pied vines for him to play with.

The 2019 Sept Winery Merweh is a revelation, intense and pure. Historically this light-skinned grape was abundant around the Mt Lebanon slopes where it would roam and climb over olive and fig trees. Tamed by Maher, this merweh celebrates “the richness and authenticity of its Mediterranean soil”. Bursting with saline minerality and floral touches, it has a tangy mouthfeel and a clean finish. Match with sayadieh (pan-fried fish and fluffy rice).

CEO Christina Tulloch is focused on legacy and evolution.

Like Sept Winery, IXSIR (ixsir.com) is in search of a difference, too. With grapes planted at six different mountainous altitudes, IXSIR has the longest harvest season of any Lebanese winery, running from mid-August to mid-October. This is crucial for the flavour profiles of the wines: youthful and easier to drink from lower altitudes; fuller bodied with higher ageing potential at higher altitudes. And IXSIR is definitely up there – its vineyards at Ainata, at 1,800m in the Mt Lebanon Ranges, are among the highest in the Northern Hemisphere.

Higher still is IXSIR’s commitment to sustainability and community. The eco-friendly winery building offers a dedicated exhibition space to promote young Lebanese artists. IXSIR’s wine manager Aurélie Khoros is proud of their limited edition releases, where “once a year we change our bottles completely and give artists the liberty to take over our bottles and create their own”.

The winery was awarded Tastingbook’s Best Rosé Wine of the World 2021 with its 2018 IXSIR Grand Reserve Rosé, A$45, in fair company alongside 2018 Château Mouton Rothschild as best red and 2018 Penfolds Yattarna Chardonnay as best white. The 2019 IXSIR Grand Reserve Rosé is impressive, too – a mourvèdre, cinsault, syrah blend. The light, floral bouquet belies the powered and textural mouthfeel of dusty berry fruits. Finishes firm and alive. Match with lamb kofta and tabbouleh.

Ralph Hochar from Château Musar, exemplifies Lebanon’s links to its past.

Further east of Sept and IXSIR lies the Beqaa Valley, near the Syrian border. This fertile farming land is also home to some of the oldest and finest wineries in Lebanon, all with a story to tell, not least because of their location. If internal troubles weren’t enough, Lebanon is now surrounded by three wars, in Syria, Iraq and Yemen. Its winemakers have been able to forge a path nonetheless.

Founded in 1930 by Gaston Hochar, the family-run Château Musar (chateaumusar.com) has been spearheading Lebanon’s wine revival since the 1970s. Once the exclusive supplier for the occupying French army, under the stewardship of first Gaston’s son Serge and now his grandson Ralph, Musar produces distinctive wines that receive accolades around the world, including the 1967 Musar red wine, the ‘find of the fair’ at the 1979 Bristol Wine Fair.

While Musar’s vineyards lie far east near the Syrian border, Musar’s winery operations are located near the coast on the northern outskirts of Beirut, around 30km from the Beqaa. When Hochar founded Musar, Lebanon’s borders had not been fixed so he played it safe, to ensure the winery would be secure within Lebanon’s final borders.

But given the vineyards’ precarious location, war and chaos have never been far away in Musar’s history. Without power or road access to their vineyards, they lost one vintage, the 1976 vintage, and managed to salvage another – just. The 1984 vintage was only able to be picked after the grapes had raisined, a Musar ‘madeira’ was born. It was never marketed but had limited release – only arriving in the US in 2010. Adaptability and resilience are qualities Lebanese winemakers have in spades.

Conflict has raged around them and Israeli tanks have crossed their vineyards, but the Hochar family have refused to allow war to impact their wine. As the late Serge wryly quipped in the recently released documentary ‘War and Wine’, “War or no war, I don’t care. Because grapes, yeast, does not care about war.”

Lebanese winemakers share a passion for indigenous varieties.

The vineyards, nestled in the elevated Beqaa Valley between two 3,000m-high mountain ranges, provide fertile expanses with favourable growing conditions: cold winters and long, dry summers. However, increasing extreme weather patterns, including recent summer heat waves, are testing their resolve, as grandson Ralph Hochar admitted to me. “We are trying to adapt by increasing the varieties that resist better to heat, namely cinsault,” he said.

A recent addition to their stable is the Levantine, a cinsault-grenache blend from low-yielding vines above 1,000m. This is part of their plan to expand their offerings with new blends and varieties, while still honouring the legacy of Gaston and Serge in order to, in Ralph’s words, “express the Lebanese terroir and to pursue the no-intervention philosophy that Serge championed”.

This philosophy is amply reflected in the 2016 Château Musar Hochar Père et Fils Red, A$60, a predominantly cinsault rouge blend (with some carignan and cabernet) from 50-year-old vines based on a single vineyard in Aana.

Handpicked, then extended maceration over five weeks followed by ageing in French oak for months, the result is a wonderfully ripe and firm structured wine. With a deep crimson hue, wafting of sour cherries and clove, the palate is full of red berries and spiced fruits with a cocoa bean and black powder note. It makes you miss Lebanon. Classy. Match with sfeeha (a lid-free spiced meat pie).

These Turkish küps at Udo Hirsch’s Gelveri Manufactur winery date back to the 4th century.

On an artificial hill built by the Roman armies who controlled these areas from 64 BC to the 7th century, founder and visionary Michel de Bustros first planted Château Kefraya ( chateaukefraya.com) vines in 1951 in West Beqaa Valley. However by the time they got around to producing their own wine in 1979, they found themselves in a war zone. Exquisite timing indeed.

Still Château Kefraya has been able to build a successful wine business with a presence in more than 40 countries; renowned global wine critic Robert Parker was among the early believers back in the 1990s.

The Bustros family are keen exponents of ‘micro-vinification’ according to Kefraya director, Emile Majdalani. “We have segmented the vineyard into hundreds of micro-terroirs through soil studies, allowing us to vinify grapes coming from different soils – separately – for better precision and uniqueness in every wine’s taste.”

This credo is reflected in 2017 Château Kefraya Blanc de Blancs, A$35, a field blend dry white comprising six varieties. Light, honeyed aromatics and fresh, floral mouthfeel, with exotic muscat notes. Match with tahini-dressed grilled rock ling.  

Sibel Kutman Oral, of Doluca Wines, is one of Turkey’s new female winemakers changing the game.

Another winery steeped in history is Château Ksara ( chateauksara.com). Founded by the Jesuits in 1857, it is among the oldest wineries in the modern-era Middle East and Lebanon’s oldest. It has seen much in those years, including the end of a complicated Ottoman occupation, then French control after World War I, until the country’s independence in 1943. And finally 15 years of civil war. When the war ended in 1990, Ksara was one of only five wineries left operating. Now there are more than 50. The Ksara credo is tradition, nobility and modernity.

Ksara wines are aged in kilometres-long caves that date back to the Roman era. Tradition runs deep. Their French winemaker James Palgé has been there for nearly 30 years. Nobility stands guard, too: the winery produces fine wines from Bordeaux varieties, with fresh aromas and flavours of fruit and spice. Little surprise the region has been referred to as the ‘Médoc in the Beqaa Valley’.  

Modernity has been let in now – the team at the winery have embraced the new movement while still making wines from the ancient local varieties of merwah and obeidi.

Elie Maamari, oenologist at Ksara, is a fan of these grapes, as they give, in her words “a wonderful expression of terroir, with a nice rounded mouthfeel and a slight oxidative character which comes into its own with a bit of age”. And Ksara is forging towards new markets in China and Russia, focusing on producing a world-class pinot noir and riesling. The Jesuits, leaders in church reform, would indeed be proud of Ksara as a kindred modernising force.

2018 Château Ksara Rouge is a disarming Bordeaux-blend, full of spiced cassis with hints of smoked aubergine. Some dusty, rhizome notes. Don’t argue, just let it keep winning you over. Great with chermoula lamb shish kebab and salatet malfouf (red cabbage salad).

Kefalas Estate.

Couvent Rouge ( couventrougewinery.com) is a “weed to wine” journey. Founded by Charbel El Fakhri and his associate, Walid Habchi, the illicit cannabis plantations in the depths of Beqaa Valley were replaced with vines in 1999.

With more than 240ha now under vine spread across the Baalbek region at an elevation around 1,200m, El Fakhri is proud that he is part of the burgeoning revival of land that once produced premium wines during successive Greek and Roman empires. Lebanese wines have their own idiosyncrasies, according to El Fakhri. “A good Lebanese wine should take you back to Lebanon from the first sip. You should be able to feel the Lebanese warmth, generosity and elegance. Strong, yet well-rounded tannins, strong fruit expressions and spices from the region.”

El Fakhri and Habchi have been keen promoters of indigenous grapes with the goal of building the country’s reputation overseas. El Fakhri is adamant that “reviving the native varietals is a necessity in creating our own identity. Therefore, we use obeidi, giving a spiced taste to our white and tfeifihé, giving a floral twist to our rosé.”

2019 Couvent Rouge Petit White, A$28, takes advantage of the spiced obeidi grape. The wine is a great-value, pleasant, dry white blend of obeidi and viognier. Pale straw in colour, with a white floral nose that is fresh and inviting, it tastes of crunchy apples and pears. All balanced by a taut acidic spine. Match with a mezze on a sun-drenched deck.

Limnos Wines Coop is bound by the ocean.

Lebanese winemaking is at a crossroads: there is a war on many fronts. The deep devaluation of the lira, rising import costs, a sharp decline in domestic demand, political unrest. That’s not to mention its precarious location, surrounded by wars just across its borders. El Fakhri from Couvent Rouge believes “the threat hangs over the entire country, and not just the wine industry here. We are going through very difficult times, hoping for a better tomorrow.”

These winemakers are resourceful though, forever optimistic and stand ready always to play the long game. Nestled in a country of sheer beauty, wondrous climate and a long-standing civilisation, Lebanese vignerons are almost willing to risk their lives for their love of wine. But the calling to them is very clear – make wine, not war.

Bart Lyrarakis, of Lyrarakis Winery, notes a 4,000-year-old history.