Lebanon: A new chapter

  • Friday 9 October 2009

Serge Hochar, Decanter’s first Man of the Year, is celebrating his 50th vintage making wine in Lebanon, yet the country’s wine is still relatively obscure. Fionnuala Synnott goes in search of the next generation

Name a Lebanese winery. Not Château Musar. Not so easy, is it? It’s a bit like listing 10 famous Belgians – you know it can’t be that difficult but you just can’t think of any. It is 50 years since Serge Hochar was put in charge of making Musar’s distinctive wines and, in that time, he has worked hard to turn it into an iconic name, putting Lebanon firmly on the international wine map. But where are the other great Lebanese names, the next generation?

Hochar, Decanter’s first Man of the Year in 1984, is as passionate about Lebanese wine today as he was then. This is obvious when you attend his tastings: a meandering journey through Lebanon’s terroir and history. Hochar is effusive when talking about Lebanon and often makes Biblical references. ‘The Bekaa Valley is like the Garden of Eden, giving Lebanese wine its greatest strength: quality fruit.’ With such belief, shouldn’t we have heard of more Lebanese estates since Hochar took his first steps 50 years ago?

Hochar has witnessed many changes since he returned from Bordeaux clutching his oenology degree; but, he says, the greatest have occurred since the end of the civil war. ‘After 1990, there were many newcomers. Before, there were just three or four wineries but now there are more than 30 of us.’ Now, as their vines mature, this post-war generation is at last starting to make some exciting new wines, many of which are finding their way to the UK.

Sami Ghozn founded Château Massaya in 1998, and claims his winery was the first of this new generation. He says its launch was a wake-up call for the industry, forcing established wineries to raise their game. Whether or not this is true is open to debate, but what is clear is that the quality of Lebanese wine has since improved dramatically.

Keeping cool

The Lebanese have always had an advantage when it comes to making wine. Summers in the Bekaa Valley, where most wineries are located, are long and dry, while the nearby Mount Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountains provide natural irrigation, perfect for growing grapes. But this doesn’t mean Lebanese wines are perfect; they have often been criticised for being too alcoholic. This is hardly surprising. The sunny climate may be ideal for avoiding disease and frost, but controlling grape maturity (and sugar levels) is a real challenge.

There are signs, though, that some Lebanese winemakers have learned to tame the early maturity of their vines. Growing your grapes at altitude is one way of guaranteeing good fruit. Château Kefraya, one of Lebanon’s largest wineries, has lowered the natural sugar levels of its grapes (and the alcohol content of its wines) by planting its vines on hills. ‘Planting vineyards at altitude, where the temperature varies greatly between day and night, leads to greater complexity and colour density,’ says commercial director Emile Majdalani.

This explains why so many Lebanese vineyards lie at an altitude of 900m to 1,200m, even those outside the Bekaa Valley, like Château Belle-Vue, in Bhamdoun Village. This winery is one of the positive stories to come out of the civil war. Its founder, Naji Boutros, wanted to help rebuild the village he was born in, and decided to plant a vineyard in an area known only for its table grapes, on the Beirut side of the Bekaa Valley. He, his American wife Jill, and their four children began planting in 2000 and their first vintage was released this year. Belle-Vue’s wines can be hard to find as yields are deliberately low. They are sold through a wine club and even members are only allotted one case a year. But Boutros is planning to expand production and, in the meantime, you can taste its wines in several London restaurants.

Historically, France and Lebanon have always been close and the French winemaking influence here is very strong, with many wineries employing either French consultants or French-trained winemakers. This explains why most Lebanese winemakers use Bordeaux or Rhône grape varieties for their red wine. But varieties traditionally found in Arak (an aniseed-flavoured drink and a national institution) are also used to make white: Obaideh is thought to be related to Chardonnay and Merwah to Semillon.

Less traditional grapes are also grown. Massaya is experimenting with indigenous grapes similar to Grenache; Château Kefraya sees itself as a pioneer of new varieties; and Château Ksara, Lebanon’s oldest winery, uses many different ones such as Tempranillo and Gewurztraminer. ‘Many didn’t believe it was possible to grow Merlot in Lebanon until we did it,’ says Elie Maamari, Ksara’s export manager and a Dijon-trained oenologist.

Big names

Famous winemaking consultants are increasingly drawn to the country – a sure sign that Lebanese wine is being taken more seriously. Bordeaux guru Stéphane Derenoncourt is helping Johnny Saadé and his sons Sandro and Karim establish Château Marsyas in Lebanon and Bargylus in Syria (see box, right). ‘Its microclimate, terroir and diversity of varietals means Lebanese wine has great potential,’ says Saadé. ‘But there is still room for improvement when it comes to working the vineyard.’ Massaya is another Franco-Lebanese joint venture between Sami Ghozn and his brother Ramzi; Frédéric and Daniel Brunier from Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe (see p64), and Dominique Hébrard, whose family used to own Château Cheval Blanc.

Just as Hochar fought for Lebanese wine to be taken seriously, so today’s young winemakers are keen to protect its reputation: by introducing a designated appellation for the Bekaa Valley. But the mooted AC has divided Lebanese winemakers, with some afraid of losing sales if their fruit is found not to originate from Bekaa. The Saadé family, champions of the AC cause, claim that guaranteeing the provenance of the grapes and the quality of the wine would strengthen Lebanon’s reputation abroad. ‘This is the only future for the expansion of Lebanese wine,’ says Sandro Saadé.

Hochar largely established the reputation of Lebanese wine, but in the past not everyone’s standards have been as high as his. Now, there are welcome signs of increased diligence, with more sophisticated techniques better placed to reap the benefit of a favourable Mediterranean climate. Hochar laid the groundwork, now

the post-war generation is finally developing the plans.

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