Lebanon Part I
Land of Hope and Opportunity
Text and Photographs ©2012 Tom Cannavan
Part II includes profiles of six more wineries. There is another link at bottom of page.
If the phrase 'triumphing against the odds' applies to winemakers anywhere in the world, then surely it is in Lebanon. The obstacles they face are not viticultural, for Lebanon is a paradise for grape growing
with its limestone soils, high altitude vineyards and near perfect climatic conditions. But this tiny and strategic country sits in one of the world's most troubled areas,
engulfed by the currently chaotic state of Syria to the north and east and, with huge unease, sharing its southern border with Israel and the Golan Heights.
It is impossible to write about Lebanon's wines without acknowledging the context in which its winemakers work.
As recently as 2008 an internal conflict saw Hezbollah seize western Beirut and the deaths of over 80 people.
Two years earlier, a short but intense war with Israel inflicted tragedies on both sides. Shells pounded Lebanon, killing over 1000 people. But all of that is as
nothing compared to the civil war that raged from 1975 to 1990 and the infamous
kidnapping of Terry Waite, John McCarthy and Brian Keenan. So much of Lebanon was destroyed, with at least 150,000 lives lost and hundreds of thousands wounded.
Today large tracts of Lebanon are under Hezbollah control. Tensions are growing with the situation in Syria and fears that Israel or the US may strike against Iran's nuclear
installations prompting all-out-war in the region. The country's government is also plagued by interminable deadlocks. Made up of a complex alliance of multiple factions, the constitution
demands that the President must be a Maronite Christian, the Prime Minister a Sunni Muslim, the Speaker a Shi'a Muslim and so on, covering all major cabinet posts. The concept is to share power and responsibility,
but the factions hold such extremely opposed views that progress is difficult.
Hope and opportunity
The 2006 harvest was brought in by office workers, cleaners, executives and lorry drivers as grape
pickers could not be found, the war with Israel having raged throughout the summer. At Château Ksara, a neighbour's tractor filled with new irrigation pipes was mistaken for something more sinister. A rocket strike
destroyed it and much around it, doing considerable damage to the winery. The harvest went ahead, the wine was made. Life went on.
Whilst one might imagine the picture is of a deeply depressed and downtrodden nation, in fact I have rarely met such consistently positive, forward-thinking and
happy people elsewhere in the winemaking world. The enormous Lebanese appetite for progress and success is undiminished and even as I passed through heavily armed checkpoints
and saw the armoured vehicles lined up on roadside verges, I sensed huge optimism and a determination to get on with business. As one young winemaker told me, "we have a war
every three or four years. In many ways each one brings only fresh determination to move on. Even if there is another war, we will emerge energised by it, with even more sense of urgency."
Lebanon is a country of enormous riches, including the extraordinary temples of Baalbek (pictured above), its stunning Mediterranean coastline, its dramatic snow-clad mountains and the rich, rolling beauty of
the Bekaa Valley itself. Beirut is a bustling, modern city too with its slick new waterfront and much of its historic downtown preserved. But it is the warmth, hospitality and inquisitive
friendliness of the Lebanese people that so impresses. Every meal is a banquet and a cause for celebration, washed down with local wines and a glass or two of Arak. And what food: an abundance of fruit, vegetables,
fish and seafood borrows from both Arab and French roots, as exemplified by the unique café Tawlet, part of the Souk el Tayeb farmers market, where each day a different cook from one of Lebanon's
villages cooks exemplary local food from local ingredients. Lebanon has a lot to be hopeful and optimistic about.
Geography and Vineyards
Lebanon is an ancient and beautiful country sitting in a glorious position on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean sea. With a population of less than four million people it is a small and largely agricultural
land, its landscape very unlike its Middle Eastern neighbours. Dominated by two large mountain ranges that run the length of the country, the coastal Lebanon range and interior Anti-Lebanon range, it is the
fertile and high Bekaa Valley in between where most farming takes place. The Bekaa floor is at over 900 metres, with most vineyards planted between 1000 and 1200 metres, making it very similar to Mendoza in
Argentina. The summers are hot, especially when hot winds from the gulf or Egypt sweep over, but because of the altitude nights are always cool. Though summer temperatures can hit the 40s, a diurnal
shift between 30C and 10C is typical of the Bekaa Valley summer. Rain rarely falls between April and September, but there is generally a good water supply from both wells and snow melt. Winters are harsh,
with low temperatures and heavy snowfalls, but the thermometer rarely falls to vine-damaging levels. Soils in the Bekaa tend to be on a base of limestone, topped by clay or loam, occasionally with lots of stones
and gravel or in other places rich terra rossa.
But the Bekaa is not Lebanon's only wine region. Towards the coast way to the north, the hills of Batroun are now home to several boutique wineries, whilst there are established players around Jezzine
to the south too. Generally speaking, all wineries will source some of their grapes from the Bekaa as well as their immediate surroundings, and Chateau Ka has planted all of its vineyards over in
the Hezbollah region of Baalbek.
The history of winemaking in Lebanon goes back thousands of years, but the modern era began in 1857 with the arrival of Jesuits from France who established what is now Château Ksara. They planted Cinsault, trained in
free-standing 'gobolet' bushes. The goblet-shaped canopy of leaves protecting the grapes from sun and helping retain moisture. A second wave of other Mediterranean grapes, like Grenache, Carignan, Mourvèdre and
Syrah followed, and in the last 20 years or so a rush to plant Bordeaux varieties, mainly Cabernet Sauvignon, but Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec too, as well as recent plantings of Carmenère.
For white wines, Chardonnay, Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon are widespread, but Viognier is increasingly important. Some vineyards are now trained on wires, depending on variety and site.
All vineyard work is by hand.
Native grapes Merweh and Obaideh are mostly reserved for the production of Arak, the spirit delicately flavoured with green anise that is still a vital part of Lebanon's culture.
Almost all wineries distil and bottle Arak as an important part of their business. The photo, left, shows Arak ageing in hand-made clay jars, produced in the Bekaa village of Beit Chama by one septuagenarian
potter, who can produce only 100 jars per year, each one taking eight months to complete. In rare cases these grapes are being used for wine too, most notably at Château Musar, where they constitute
the blend for its white wine.
The wine industry
In 1991 there were only four wine estates in Lebanon. Today there are 36. A band of producers is also hoping to start a wine institute that will draw-up tighter regulations for viticulture and winemaking
and to put quality controls in place. "At the moment there is very
little regulation," Hady Kahale, general manager of Ixsir winery, told me. "All of the main wineries are already doing all the right things because we realise we need to work on a global marketplace.
But we need formal regulation - though it is a sensitive issue for the government: it might not be something they can publically approve of, though three quarters of wine growers are Muslim, and
everyone recognises how important the industry is to Lebanon."
A little wine history
- 3000 BC: Phoenician traders begin making wines in Lebanon
- 1517: The Ottoman Empire forbids production of wine except for religious purposes
- 1857: Jesuit missionaries introduce new vines from French-governed Algeria
- 1918: A French administration governs Lebanon, creating unprecedented demand for wine
- 1975: Lebanon descends into a 15-year civil war that stunts the development of the sector
- 1992: With a fragile peace, the development of the modern wine industry resumes.
The Bekaa Valley
In wine terms Lebanon's famous Bekaa Valley has always been an agricultural oasis: Lebanon is no desert state, with the high mountains at an average of 2000 metre snow-capped throughout the winter months, providing not only some excellent skiing, but
some protection from the rains and hot winds coming from the coast. Whilst the beaches of Lebanon enjoy a balmy Mediterranean climate, on the other side of the mountains the Bekaa is much more continental, with
very hot, dry summers and seriously cold winters.
In 1930 Gaston Hochar founded Château Musar in the cellars of the 17th century Mzar castle in Ghazir, overlooking the Mediterranean sea. What started as a hobby became a passion
after he met Ronald Barton of Bordeaux's Château Langoa-Barton in 1941 when Ronald was stationed in Lebanon during World War II. Today, over
two million bottles lie in the castle under Musar's regime of holding massive stocks and releasing wines only when they see fit. Winemaking has moved to larger premises immediately behind the castle.
I was greeted by Serge Hochar (right), Gaston's son who joined the business in 1959 having studied oenology in Bordeaux. Also present was brother Ronald who joined in 1962 and Serge's son Gaston,
one of the generation of younger Hochars who will one day run the business.
Though dwarfed by Châteaux Ksara and Kefraya, Musar is a big player by Lebanese standards producing around 700,000 bottles annually. Since 2006 much of their vineyard has been certified organic,
though Serge points out that the Bekaa is so remote and unspoilt that the vineyards were basically 'organic' by default before the term was coined. All the grapes are hand-harvested by local Bedouins, and in
the winery ambient yeasts are used for fermentation with the bare minimum of sulphur. The wines are neither fined nor filtered.
Winemaker Tarek Sakr has been with Musar for over 20 years, and explains that only cement tanks are used for fermentation: "Serge experimented with fermenting in steel, but cement was much better for all of our red wines - though we
make our transparent wines (white and rosé) in steel." Though Tarek talks proprietarily and confidently, just as he should as one of Lebanon's most experienced and high profile winemakers, one feels the watchful
eye of Serge is ever open. Serge (Decanter magazine's first ever 'Man of the Year' in 1984) says that even after 53 years with the company "we are continuously improving."
Musar's wines are idiosyncratic. For all their global fame and following, they really are not representative of Lebanon's wines, marching as they do to their own distinctive beat. The white wine, for example, is made from
Merweh and Obaideh, whilst others rely on Muscat, Viognier and other French varieties. The red is a blend of equal parts Cinsault, Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon whilst most others have homed in on Cabernet and
Syrah. There is also the question of Musar's style, and whether or not these wines show acceptable levels of volatile acidity and oxidation.
Some criticise the wines as faulty, but that is failing to understand these wines. The family will not release them until their 7th year at the earliest (2003 is the current commercial vintage) and insist they need
15 years to show their best. Those wild aromas and flavours are there, but they are the essence of the exotic, spicy, other-worldly fascination of Musar when properly aged and drunk in perfect condition. This is
truly one of the world's most idiosyncratic, but also most exciting wines and wine estates.
||for tasting notes on 12 wines from Château Musar
Château Ksara is Lebanon's oldest winery, founded in 1857 by French Jesuit priests. It is also a household name in the Lebanon thanks to being the biggest producer (close to three million bottles annually) and
a such a prominent presence in every shop, restaurant and café for its wines. I met up with Ksara's charming M.D. Elie Maamari (right), who took us deep into the historic caves beneath the winery and explained
Ksara's history. The Jesuits planted French vines, almost exclusively Cinsault, as well as developing two kilometres of original Roman caves beneath the winery and vineyards. Pictured, Elie holds a bottle of 1937 white wine that we went on to taste later that morning. The Jesuits sold the winery to the four families who currently own it in 1972,
and there has been investment since to make Ksara one of the most modern wineries in the country. Ksara farms 348 hectares of vineyard in the Bekaa Valley, without the use of chemical herbicides.
Château Ksara (built on the site of an old ksar
or fortress) has around 37% of both the domestic and export markets for all Lebanese wines. Today they grow Cinsault, Carignan, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Merlot,
Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Gamay, Tempranillo and the local Arinarnoa. Southern French cross-breeds, Marselan and Caladoc are also grown and for white wines there is Muscat, Ugni Blanc,
Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Chardonnay. Soils in their six vineyard sites include chalk, red clay and limestone, with the 43 hectares at Kanafar the first in Lebanon to be trained on wires.
Elie showed me the 125 original cement vats, still used for storage, which have excellent thermal stability. Others have been lined with steel for fermentation and
there are also 70 newer stainless steel vats with full temperature control. Syria was an important market taking 300,000 bottles annually, but since the troubles began Elie says "People in Damascus just do not go out to
restaurants and our sales have fallen to 100,000 and may go down further."
This is a wine estate with a rich history and it welcomes visitors (70,000 of them last year) to see the winery and cellars. The cellars tell fascinating tales: the entire Roman system had been grown over and concealed,
and was only re-discovered by the Jesuits when a brother chased a fox that had stolen a chicken, and disappeared into a concealed opening. The tunnels also housed 400 families during wars with Ottoman occupiers,
when more enlargement took place.
||for tasting notes on 20 wines from Château Ksara
CHATEAU ST THOMAS
One of the highlights of my trip was an afternoon and evening spent with the Touma family of Château St Thomas, including a fabulous multi-course dinner 'en famille'. Founded in 1990 by the irrepressible
Saïd Touma (a high-fiving, ultra-gregarious five-foot-nothing whirlwind of hospitality), the original focus was Arak as Saïd has 50 years' experience in its distillation, with both his father and
grandfather important producers of Arak in their day. Saïd gave us a masterful demonstration of how to determine the quality of Arak and prepare the perfect Arak drink.
Today the gentle, thoughtful but completely switched on Joe Touma (Joe and Saïd pictured) is winemaker and has established St Thomas as one of the best and most adventurous estates in the country.
Château St Thomas is located on a hill overlooking the Bekaa Valley at an altitude of more than 1000 metres. Its 65 hectares of vineyard on the eastern slope of Mount Lebanon have grown grapes to make wine
only since the 1998 vintage. The wines are aged in the caves beneath the winery, dug through rocks to a depth of 30 meters by Saïd.
Today 500,000 bottles are produced, and for such an unassuming family winery,
it is a portfolio full of innovation and surprises. Saïd was the first to plant Viognier in Lebanon. "And we planted a lot," says Joe, clearly expressing relief that Viognier has thrived to become a mainstay of
the entire white wine industry. Joe and his sister Natalie laugh at the memory: "This is St Thomas, and we are the Touma family - Thomas in Arabic," says Natalie, "so yes we are Thomases that are always full of
doubts, but thankfully the decision to plant Viognier worked out."
One wonders if the family had any such doubts over one of their more recent innovations: being the first Lebanese winery to grow and bottle a mono-varietal Pinot Noir. It must have taken an enormous leap
of faith to attempt this, in a climate with such roasting summer temperatures, and yet Joe has fashioned two vintages so far of Pinot that is full of expressive character. A full range of other French varieties are
Château St Thomas welcomes visitors to its humble winery and there is plenty to
see including a chapel dedicated to St Thomas and the cellars carved directly into the rock. The winery motto is "Il faut en boire pour y croire", or "you have to drink it to believe it," which elegantly
sums up this fascinating and high quality domaine.
||for tasting notes on 15 wines from Château St Thomas