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Where Bacchus Speaks Arabic: Wine in Lebanon

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By Lindsay Groves


Vines in the Bekaa Valley

"We don't speak Arabic, we speak Lebanese!" I can already hear my friends saying as I write this. Never have I come across people who love their country so fiercely. And how can you not fall for a country where there are absolutely no road rules, where they continue unbothered for months and months without a president, and whose answer to war is to go out and party? They love life and live it to the fullest, and the mentality is contagious -- just get into a car with a Lebanese driver, and you too will be happy to be alive by the end of the ride.

The Lebanese can best be described as optimistic pessimists, wishing desperately that the situation will improve but with little hope of things going smoothly. The whole atmosphere is intriguing, but for an outsider trying to comprehend the complexities of Lebanese politics there is an overwhelming feeling of futility. Alas, many of the problems Lebanon faces stem from beyond its borders and are beyond its control.

In struggling to grasp some understanding of this small but resilient country, I turned to something a little easier to comprehend: Lebanese wine.

Lebanon's viticultural heritage dates back more than five millennia, the region itself including the ancient lands of Canaan and most of Phoenicia. The Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek, dating from the 2nd century AD, is a testament to the area's rich vinous past. In the Middle Ages, merchants of Venice traded the wines of Tyre and Sidon, ports that belonged to Italy for much of the 13th century. In 1517, Lebanon was absorbed into the Ottoman Empire, but even under the Caliphate the Christian population was permitted to produce wine for religious purposes. The roots of the modern wine industry were established with the arrival of Jesuit monks from Algeria, who imported vines and began production at Ksara in 1857. Just over a decade later, a French engineer by the name of Eugene Francois Brun followed suit and set up Domaine des Tourelles. After WWI, the Ottoman Empire was dissolved and Lebanon came under French mandate. The French occupation acted as a further catalyst for the wine industry, providing the demand as well as promoting wine culture.

I based myself in the town of Zahlé in the Bekaa Valley, where most of the wineries are located. This region was one of the breadbaskets of the Roman world and it's easy to see why with the multitude of crops that thrive between the Mt. Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges. Viticulturally, the challenge in the Bekaa lies in attaining mature phenolic ripeness in the midst of rapidly rising sugar levels. Many producers are more or less organic (most are in the three-year process of certification), having been blessed with one of the most conducive climates in the world. Irrigation is generally not necessary, although young vines are carefully observed and may be supplemented by some irrigation in their early years. The soils in the Bekaa are predominantly argilo-calcaire and extremely rocky. When planting vineyards, dynamite is sometimes needed to break up the rock. Traditionally vines were trained as gobelet (bush vines), but now over fifty percent of all vines are wire trained, either as double guyot or cordon.

Lebanon is very lucky to have preserved some of its traditional varieties, unlike neighbouring Israel. Obeideh and Merwah, both white, are the two most common indigenous grapes, most famously used in the long-lived Chateau Musar whites as well as for arak. The first foreign varieties were imported in the late 19th century by the Jesuit missionaries of Ksara, who planted the southern French varieties of Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cinsault, Carignan, Grenache, Clairette and Ugni Blanc. In the 1990’s, producers with foresight such as Ksara began planting international varieties, beginning with the mainstream Bordeaux varietals of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot and Petit Verdot, which are now used in the majority of quality blends. Popular white varieties, most obviously Chardonnay along with Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, were planted around the same time. More recent arrivals include Tempranillo, Viognier and Verdelho.

From an oenological point of view, winemakers are up against lofty potential alcohol levels along with an incredible amount of concentration. It requires great skill to produce a balanced final product. The Lebanese however are anything but lacking in the area of expertise. In fact, time and again I was blown away by the talent and professionalism of the producers I visited.

So what’s happening now on the wine scene? Lebanon is currently producing 6 million bottles annually (7000 tonnes of grapes processed), utilizing 2000 hectares specifically set aside for viniculture. Wine grapes account for only 13% of the area under vine, the rest of the 15,000 hectares is used mainly for table grapes. The Union Viticole du Liban (LIVL) was founded in 1997, one year after Lebanon joined the Office International de la Vigne et du Vin (OIV), with the objective of giving a unified voice to Lebanon’s wine producers and to build on and promote Lebanon’s image as a wine-producing country. They were also responsible for lobbying for the new wine law that was successfully passed in 2000 in order to develop legitimacy for Lebanon’s export ambitions in the European Union and other international markets. They currently have 11 members: Chateau Musar, Chateau Ksara, Chateau Kefraya, Clos St. Thomas, Domain Wardy, Vin Nakad, Domaine des Tourelles, Chateau Ka (Kassatly), Cave Kouroum, Cateaux du Liban and Heritage. Many producers are not members of Union Viticole, including Chateau Khoury, Domaine de Baal, Chateau Belle Vue, Massaya, Terres et Vignobles, Chateau Fakra, Nabise Mont Liban, Karam Winery and Clos de Cana.

Ksara is the only winery able to boast 150 years of uninterrupted winemaking history. The Jesuit monks of Ksara were responsible for the original introduction of new French varieties as well as French-Algerian winemaking techniques in the 19th century. Ksara has been owned by a consortium of Lebanese businessmen since 1973, the monks having been encouraged by the Vatican to sell off any major commercial ventures. As a leader in the industry, Ksara had the foresight to begin wire training vines and also planted Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. They are also the largest producer with an output of 2.1 million bottles annually. They have access to 300 hectares of vines from six different sites in the Bekaa, all of which are looked after by the super savvy (and very busy) Paulette Chlela, who has been the viticulturalist at Ksara since 1993. Paulette, who trained in Bordeaux, works alongside French winemaker James Palgé, who moved to Lebanon to join Ksara in 1994. The grounds at Ksara also include 2 km worth of caves, which were extended from the discovery of a Roman grotto in 1898. An observatory, the first modern one to be built in the Middle East in 1902, can also be found on the property.

Kefraya is the second largest winery, with production currently standing at just over 2 million bottles. Founded in 1979, it has 300 hectares of vines and uses only grapes from its own estates in the village of Kefraya. It was their premium wine, Comte de M 1996, a blend of Cabernet and Syrah, that gained Kefraya well-deserved international recognition. French-born winemaker Fabrice Guiberteau joined Kefraya recently and is definitely one to watch. Expect some stellar reds in the next few years.

Massaya is the result of a Franco-Lebanese alliance between the Ghosn brothers and Massaya's notable French partners - Dominique Hébrard, formerly of Chateau Cheval Blanc, and the Brunier family of Chateauneuf-du-Pape's Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe. Established in 1997, they produce 250,000 bottles of wine annually, plus an additional 50,000 bottles of arak, famous for its distinctive blue bottle. They have done extremely well in the export market, sending 90% of their production abroad, mainly to France. They have 7 hectares of estate vines and source additional grapes from the north-east and south-west Bekaa valley, mostly situated on clay limestone soil at an altitude of about 900 metres. They are producing four wines, white and red classic blends, the Silver Rhone style blend and finally the Gold Bordeaux-style assemblage.

"Il faut en boire pour y croire" (you have to drink it to believe it) is the clever slogan for Clos St.Thomas winery, playing on the fact the family’s name of Touma is derived from St. Thomas, the "doubting saint". When I met Nathalie Touma, one of the first stops on the tour of her family’s winery was the Chapel dedicated to their namesake saint, carved out of rock in the side of a hill. The Touma family has been producing arak since 1888, but made the switch to the production of quality wine with the establishment of Clos St. Thomas winery in 1997. From their 65 hectares, they are producing about 400,000 bottles, over half of which are exported.

Domaine Wardy is the only winery able to boast three women winemakers since their first vintage in 1998. Talented oenologist Hiba Salloum has been in charge of the well-equipped cellars at Wardy for about a year, taking over from Diana Salameh, who is now the winemaker at Chateau Belle Vue (see below). They produce wines from their 65 hectares of estate vines in addition to another 80 hectares that are on long-term lease. Wardy has been very successful as one of the few producers to concentrate on varietal wines instead of more traditional blends. In 2003 they released their small-production premium bottlings of Wardy Private Selection, comprised of a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah and an unusual white blend of Viognier and Muscat.

The producer with possibly the most heart, Vin Nakad is a small, family run winery in the village of Jdita producing wines with excellent concentration. Established in 1923, Nakad is one of the pioneering wineries in Lebanon. The land on which the winery was built has a history of its own; some of the relics found on the site include a Bronze Age wine press and a massive stone fermentation vessel, as well as tombs (with their owners) that were unearthed when the old cement tanks were being enlarged. The winery is also very well known for its famous Samir Arak.

Domaine des Tourelles is Lebanon’s second-oldest winery, based in the town of Chtaura. Rather uncommercial in size as well as principle, they have levelled out wine production at 50,000 bottles annually. In addition, they also produce a respectable amount of arak, historically considered to be one of the best in Lebanon. Founded by French-born Francois-Eugène Brun in 1868, the winery continued in the hands of the Brun family for three generations. When Pierre Brun, the last of the direct family line, died in 2000, it was bought by the Issa family who continue to run the company as a small family enterprise. They currently produce four wines: an entry level white and red, a rosé, and their flagship wine "Marquis des Beys". Winemaking will soon be taken over by the son of owner, who is finishing his oenology training at Montpellier.

Belle Vue is a small boutique winery founded by Naji and Jill Boutros. After living in the US and London, the Boutros had a dream to return to Lebanon and initiate a project which could help revive the disheartened local community of the small mountain village of Bhamdoun, where Naji had grown up. Having a passion for wine and already aware of the historic reputation of the village’s terraced vineyards, they decided to plant their first vines in the spring of 2000, and Chateau Belle Vue was established. With their Bordeaux-trained oenologist Diana Salameh they continue to work in partnership with the local community to make small production, hand-crafted wines. All the grapes they process are grown in their valley and are harvested by neighbours and friends, making this truly the efforts of the whole village. The mere 500 cases they produced in their first vintage quickly sold out. They are now processing about 23 tonnes of grapes from 12 hectares - approximately 2,000 cases. Not only is this a heartwarming story, but the wines are top-notch and structurally the closest to a Bordeaux style that can be found in Lebanon.

Domaine de Baal is a relatively new winery, founded by Sébastien Khoury (a cousin of the founders of Chateau Khoury) whose maiden vintage was 2006. From 5 hectares based on rocky calcaire soil (another 3 hectares will be ready to harvest next year) he is currently producing 3,000 bottles, and only making two wines: a white blend of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, and a red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. About 70% of production is red. Sebastien’s first vintage was riddled with challenges. With the outbreak of war in the summer of 2006, he was forced to be resourceful when his French inox tanks failed to arrive in time for the harvest. Now that things are more established, I can hardly wait to taste what will be coming out of this promising venture.

Chateau Khoury is located on a 15-hectare property above the city of Zahlé. At an altitude of 1,300 metres, it is one of the highest wineries in Lebanon and receives substantial snow in the winter. Founded in 2004 by Raymond and Brigitte El Khoury, the winemaking has been in the capable hands of their son Jean-Paul since 2005. He joined his parents after finishing his studies in oenology at the University of Reims, France. Chateau Khoury is the first and only producer to plant Alsatian varieties in Lebanon (Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Gewurztraminer and Riesling), a move inspired by French-born Madame El Khoury’s Alsatian heritage. Khoury wines were only released into the market a year and a half ago, approximately 25% being exported. Production varies from vintage to vintage currently sitting at around 40,000-45,000 bottles per year. Chateau Khoury is also the only producer with their own water purification station on the property in order to lessen their impact on the surrounding land.

Last but not least, there is the most celebrated of Lebanese wines, Chateau Musar. Musar is definitely its own category. Shortly after arriving in Beirut, I met with the Hochar’s at the winery in Ghazir, overlooking the hills and turquoise waters around the town of Jounieh. Oenologist and agro-engineer Tariq Sakr, who has now been with Musar for 17 years, proudly announces that Musar has received organic certification for their 60 hectares of Estate vineyards in the village of Kefraya, the only winery in the Middle East to be Sincert accredited by the Instituto Mediterraneo di Certificazione (IMC). Musar also has access to 120 or so hectares of vineyard under contract, and many of these growers are also in the process of gaining organic status. Gaston Hochar, Serge’s son, arrives and I meet him for the first time after many correspondences via email. Prior to venturing into Lebanon from neighbouring Syria, I had written to Gaston to get an honest opinion as to whether or not it was a good time (politically) to visit. The travel advisory posted by the Canadian government states that non-essential travel should be avoided (and I was fairly certain that winery visits would not fall under the "essential" category). Gaston had a very level-headed reply to my concerns: "Regarding the current situation in Lebanon, it is stable in its instability. Some visitors are coming to Lebanon, others are postponing their trips. We are still living here."

This was enough for me, so I soon found myself down in the cellar in a state of amazement, watching Serge Hochar spit into buckets of sawdust with precision that would put a marksman to shame. Founded in the 1930’s by his father Gaston, Serge took it over in 1959. His younger brother Ronald looks after the marketing and finance departments.

Musar produces three labels: Chateau Musar, Hochar Père et Fils and Cuvée Musar. Each label consists of three wines (almost exclusively blends) a white, rosé and a red. Each label (and each wine as a consequence) has its own very unique personality. Not at all surprising after you meet the man who has been producing them for nearly 50 years.

There are currently about 20 wineries in Lebanon, and I was not able to visit all of them. The producers I missed include: Chateau Fakra, Cave Kouroum, Heritage, Nabise Mont Liban, Clos de Cana, Karam Winery, Chateau Ka (Kassatly), Terres et Vignobles, Chateaux du Liban and Kfifane. 
 



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