Lebanese viticulture from Antiquity to today is richer than the cliché where dedicated men kept making wine under the civil war of 1975-1990 . Copying Lesley Blanch*, I embark you in A Lebanese journey in to my wines from the past to today. At the eastern end of Mediterranean, bordered by Syria to the North and East and Israel to the South, stretches 10452 Km2, Lebanon is similar to the size of Wales. The Lebanon (up to 2500 meters of altitude) and Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges run in vertical parallel through the middle of the country with the Bekaa valley (where most of the vineyard are located and 79% of the national production) between them. Due to a Mediterranean weather and this topology, the Lebanese can enjoy diving in the Big Blue in summer time and skiing in winter.
Go back further in history; we do know is that what is now Lebanon was may be (with the Mesopotamia in modern Iraq) as far back as 7000 BC, home to some of the very earliest winemaking. It is accepted that the Phoenicians, the original Lebanese, whose power bases were the ancient cities of Byblos, Sidon or Tyre, began making and exporting their wine at least by 3000 BC. The remarkable trading fleet ruled the Mediterranean at the height of Phoenician commercial dominance between 900 and 300 BC and almost achieving it pacifically (unlike the Roman and Otoman empire). Wine was one of their most important commodities. Out of this necessity grew the first great viticulture communities, one whose influence would spread to Egypt and Carthage in North Africa to Cyprus, Greece, Ancient Rome, Sardinia, Spain and even France. Built on the second century AD in Baalbek, East of Lebanon, the Bacchus temple (god of viticulture) is the best preserved Roman temple anywhere in the world and a living proof of the central roles play by this area in the Genesis of wine. Also birthplace of Judaism and Christianity this region know as the Levant where a big wine production area to supply the different worship ceremony until the Eight’s century when it was conquest by the Muslims. Between the eleven and thirteen century it’s in a harbour like Sidon that the Crusader land on their way to freedom Jerusalem. Until the nineteen century the Lebanese viticulture was only caring by the numerous monasteries who flourish in the country such as the remote Hamatoura in the Koura valley. In 2003 the Maronite Church hired a French oenologist to oversee the wine making of all its seventy-five monasteries. Chateau Ksara, today Lebanon’s biggest wine producer (2.2 millions bottles) began life in 1857 founded by Jesuit monks. But Lebanese were and are still Arak drinker in majority. Arak, a grape-based aniseed liqueur, is Lebanon’s national drink. Many of Lebanon’s winemakers began life making arak, (Arak Brun of Domaine des Tourelles is held up by many as the finest in all Lebanon).
After the Frank in medieval period, the French came back gradually in the XIX’s century such as Francois-Eugene Brun the founder of Domaine des Tourelles in 1868, then more officially between 1920 until the independence when France was awarded by the League of Nations the mandate for Lebanon and Syria. The French soldiers and civil servants where the biggest customers for the pioneers of this period such as Chateau Musar (founded in 1930) and Vin Nakad (1923). After the French left in 1946, the 1975-1990’s civil war was a second blow to the national wine market so the producer need to develops export. The Lebanese inherited from the Phoenician their trading gift and Lebanon become in the 1950’s the pearl of the Mediterranean. Thanks also to a big Diaspora all other the world, in France, London and North and South America, Lebanese wines gradually spreads in all market. Serge Hochar from Chateau Musar once declared regarding this period:” This is how we established ourselves in the UK and how our 95% local market became 5%”(15% today). A famous politician of this Civil War time, Walid Jumblat the Druze leader, started to invest from 1986 in the Chateau Kefraya founded in 1951, today he declare that his 70% stake in the vineyard it’s also a good way to protect his local land from property predators.
Since the end of the Civil War, investors are back and wine entrepreneur rush to Lebanon to planted new vineyards. Amongst them Massaya, a joint-venture between two Lebanese brother and three famous French wine-maker was the first of heavy foreign investment. Most of the time this venture are leaded by passionate wine lover originated from Lebanon and back in the homeland such as Akram Kassatly of Chateau Ka and Naji Boutros of Chateau Belle-Vue. Even the famous Carlos Ghosn (born in Brasil from Lebanese parents) the CEO of Nissan-Renault, invest recently in a new winery call Ixsir. The sales of Lebanese wine increase between 2005 and 2009 by one Million bottle to reach 7 M bottles. The size of the total Lebanese vine land is around 2500 hectares equivalent to the Corsican AOC vineyard. It’s mostly planted by a variety of red grapes from Bordeaux and Rhone Valley blend together such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Grenache, Syrah and Cinsault and Sauvignon and Chardonnay in white.
Almost all the community from this multi-cultural country has invested today the viticulture and the most impressive project is the Chateau Marsyas in the Bekaa Valley of the Saadć, the Syrian brothers also founder of Domaine de Bargylus, the first modern vineyard in Lattakia in Syria. The famous French wine-maker Stéphane Derenoncourt is the consultant for both of their vineyard planted in altitude to preserve the freshness of the wines. The first tasting shows that these two domaines from both side of this very symbolic border are the ones to watch in the next few years.
In my next blog, I will present you this two exiting vineyards. Following an invitation from the Saade family, I’m on my way to Chateau Marsyas in the heart of the Bekaa Valley.
Wine Story founder
Journey into the Mind’s Eye by Lesley Blanch, was a travel book writer and the first wife of Romain Gary.
Wines of Lebanon by Michael Karam
Le Liban contemporain by Georges Corm