The year 2020 was marked by a popular revolution in Lebanon, a financial crisis, the effects of a new coronavirus, and a massive bombing on the 4th. August 2020 in the port of Beirut, killing more than 200 people and injuring more than 6,000.

Despite recent difficulties, Lebanese wines have enjoyed a renaissance of sorts. From 1996 to 2020, the number of basements increased from 40 to nearly 80.

This is a really good time for Lebanese wine, says Michael Karam, author of Wine of Lebanon and co-author of the recently released documentary Wine and War. It is so sad that the Lebanese are facing the double burden of a pandemic, hyperinflation and political instability in their own country.

Basement of Musar Castle Photo courtesy of Musar Castle

In the beginning…

The history of viticulture in Lebanon began 7000 years ago, since biblical times.

In the town of Baalbek, in the Bekaa Valley, the beautifully preserved second century Roman god of wine, Bacchus, presents a spectacular mirror of the cultural importance of wine in this part of the world.

Between 2700 and 300 b. Chr. the Phoenicians spread viticulture throughout the Mediterranean.

 

In 1857, French Jesuit monks planted Cinsault vines in the Bekaa Valley on the site of the current Château Xara. The presence of the French between the two world wars cemented wine culture in the country.

Musar Family Musar Family / Photo : Lucy Pope

At the beginning of the 15-year Lebanese civil war, which raged from 1975 to 1990, there were only six commercial wineries, including the now famous Château Musar. Musar’s winemaker, the legendary Serge Khochar, realized he needed to export his wines. He packed bottles in a suitcase and went to Britain, where he taught Lebanese wines first to the British and then to the whole world.

Hochar’s efforts laid the foundation for a thriving wine industry.

Fauzi Issa, vintner Domaine des Tourelles / Photo courtesy of Domaine des Tourelles

Earth end

Lebanon is located on the eastern shore of the Mediterranean Sea, where it borders Syria and Israel. Today, about half a million refugees live in camps along the road from Beirut to Damascus in the western Bekaa Valley. The region is the heart of the wine region and is located about 30 miles east of Beirut.

The climate and the dry and sunny landscapes of the country are ideal for growing grapes. Snowy Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains are home to the high altitude vineyards of the Bekaa Valley, many of which are over 3,000 feet high.

Altitude also plays an important role in the rugged hills of the Jezzine wine region to the south. In Batroun, a region north of Beirut, the vineyards are cooled by the Mediterranean Sea.

French influence still dominates Lebanese viticulture. Mediterranean red grape varieties such as Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Carignan are as common as the Bordeaux grape varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.

These wines tend to be powerful, with notes of Middle Eastern spices like cumin and sumac. Their tannins allow the wines to mature for years.

The Bekaa Valley in Lebanon The Bekaa Valley in Lebanon / Alamy

A red variety that has recently appeared on the radar is one of the most historic plants in Lebanon, Sinsault.

Cinsault likes Lebanon’s Mediterranean climate and cool summer evenings [because of] the high altitude of the Bekaa Valley, says Fawzi Issa, a winemaker at the historic Domaine des Tourelles. The winery makes Cinsault from vines over 50 years old, using indigenous yeasts and concrete tanks.

It’s a very round, soft and silky wine, with lots of fruit from day one, Issa says. The tannins are structured and can survive and age. Evolution is beautiful.

For white wines, Lebanon produces Chardonnay, Viognier, Semillon and Sauvignon Blanc. More and more producers are focusing on the beautiful floral Merv and the waxy, textured Obeid grapes from Lebanon.

Traditionally, the historical arrack of aniseed brandy is made from this grape.

The [Lebanese] white wines are simply exceptional in terms of quality, [with] a freshness, depth and complexity that is not commensurate with their location, Karam says. It’s these varieties, he says, that allow winemakers to be more adventurous, a little more offbeat, less wedded to the French school.

At Batrun, Sept Winery is experimenting with Obeideh skin contact. Domaine des Tourelles plans to release a blend of two local varieties.

The Merwe vineyard [at Domaine des Tourelles] is more than 150 years old and grows next to cedars in the mountains [4,921 feet], Issa says. It’s a wild vineyard that probably hasn’t been pruned in a century.

Offices of Castle Marcias after the August attacks Offices of Castle Marcias after the August attacks / Photo courtesy of Castle Marcias

Modern challenges

As Lebanese winemakers strengthened their industry and global presence, they faced extreme challenges in their country and region.

The Chateau Marcias offices were only 1,600 feet away from the August explosion. The owners, Karim and Sandro Saade, carried their father, Johnny R. Saade, who was seriously injured, through the wreckage and down nine stories. Two weeks later, the Marcias began harvesting in the Bekaa.

During our father’s hospitalisation, we had to convert his hospital room into an operating theatre so that we could manage the harvesting process, which began just a few days after the explosion, Sandro explains. In a normal year we would go to the vineyard of Château Marcias at 5am to harvest, whereas this year we had to arrange the whole process by phone.

The Saade family also owns Domaine de Bargylus, the only commercial winery in Syria.

The Bekaa Valley in Lebanon The Bekaa Valley in Lebanon / Getty

In a normal year, grape samples are sent by taxi from Bargilus in Syria to our offices in Beirut for simultaneous tasting to determine the harvest date of each plot, Karim explains. In 2020, this Bargilus fruit, which remained active throughout the war despite repeated bombings, had to be eaten next to my father’s hospital bed.

To make matters worse, the country’s currency, the Lebanese pound, has fallen by 80% in the past year. Many people cannot get money from local banks. This has put the winegrowers in a difficult position. They are dependent on Europe for their wine supply.

They cannot survive on local sales because they cannot buy raw materials with the proceeds of those sales, says author Karam. They need fresh money, hard currency from outside Lebanon, to pay for bottles, corks, labels, yeast, sulfur, etc.

Lebanon produces about 10.5 million bottles and exports about 50% of its wines each year.

It was a situation that made wine exports a priority, a matter of survival, and it was a challenge they wanted to take on, Karam says. But then came the global lockdown and suddenly both hands were bound and had no movement. Ultimately, the world needs to buy Lebanese wine for this small industry to survive.

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