Make wine, not war

  • Tuesday 23 January 2007

Bringing in Lebanon’s 2006 harvest was challenging, to say the least. Michael Karam meets a passionate and determined band of producers

Despite air strikes, bombs and blockades, Lebanese winemakers

managed to bring in last year’s harvest. Michael Karam reports

Ramzi Ghosn takes one last look at the purple mass of fermenting Cinsault, slides the wooden lid over the vat and wipes his hands. ‘At one point, I didn’t think we would harvest at all,’ admits the co-owner of Massaya, a Franco-Lebanese boutique winery in the Bekaa town of Tanail. ‘Two weeks into the war, I walked into the vineyards and could smell that vegetal aroma of ripening grapes. I couldn’t look at grapes because I realised there was a very good chance I would not be able to pick them. There were tears in my eyes.’

Lebanon’s wine producers, mainly in the Bekaa Valley, were paralysed by the devastating war between Israel and Hizbullah militants that lasted from 12 July till 14 August. During that period, the nation’s infrastructure had been blasted back to the Stone Age, and commercial contact with the outside world suspended as Israel imposed a crippling air and sea blockade.

This was a particular problem for Lebanon’s winemakers, as it meant they couldn’t take delivery of their winemaking materials, or risk picking their grapes as Israeli planes flew overhead. But there was another potentially terrifying consequence of the fighting: as long as Israel included the Bekaa on its list of targets, the grapes could not be transported. It was a simple equation: No grapes meant no wine, which meant no sales, which meant no revenue. But it seems God (as Muslims do not drink, most wineries tend to be owned by Christians, who comprise 40% of the population) is a wine lover. A ceasefire was brokered as the first Chardonnay grapes reached maturity and the producers tentatively reached for their pruners and buckets.

The relief for Ghosn must have been as intense as the strain he endured during the fighting. He had made a conscious decision to stay at his winery throughout the conflict and was subjected to almost continuous bombardment. The road to the Syrian border, which was under regular air attack, is less than 100 meters from his property; four neighbouring factories suspected of housing Katyusha rockets were completely destroyed, sending lethal shrapnel fizzing into the vineyards.

To have cut and run would have been too painful for the 39-year-old. In 1975, war forced his family to abandon the Tanail estate, and the trauma of that madcap dash from the Bekaa to Beirut stayed with him. ‘We left here once before and I wasn’t going to leave again. If we had, the thread of hope that my brother Sami and I created when we started this new wine momentum in 1998 would have been severed.’

Ghosn is not the first Lebanese producer to put his life on the line for his grapes. Nearly 25 years ago, the wartime exploits of Château Musar’s Serge Hochar made him Decanter’s first Man of the Year. But he admits, it has been a burden.

‘I never wanted to build Château Musar on conflict,’ he recalls. ‘But we were forced to convince the world that there was another side to Lebanon at a time when it saw us only as barbarians. I wanted to show them a wine that was beyond what they could understand, a wine that was a product of millennia and not the product of war. It was about truth, culture and identity, about food and drink, about being convivial.’

Driving through Sofar, the last mountain resort before the descent into the Bekaa Valley, was the first time in years I’d taken this route. The opening of a new highway in 2001 has shaved 15 minutes off the journey, bypassing the lovely town with its crumbling colonial hotels and genteel villas. That was until the Israelis fired a missile into the eastbound carriageway, sending a half-kilometre slab of highway plunging into the valley below.

Now Sofar’s narrow roads are once again blocked with Bekaa-bound traffic and, as I sat behind strings of heavy lorries heading to Damascus, Amman and Baghdad, I remembered that Sofar was also where Jean-Pierre Sara, the genial, former managing director of Château Ksara, had twice been abducted by gunmen and subjected to a mock-execution as he made his way to work during the 1975–1990 civil war.

As I drove past shops selling everything from traditional wood-burning stoves to arak, I wondered where it was that Sara had been pulled over and what it was about him and other Lebanese that inspired them to carry on working, selling and making deals under such appalling conditions. In those days, only Musar ruled the waves. Kefraya and Ksara struggled in a local market where Lebanese wines were perceived (probably correctly) as inferior. Musar aside, Lebanese wine was nothing more than a suspicious ethnic tipple made from weary Cinsault.

Today, Lebanon’s $26 million (£13.2m) sector produces

7 million bottles annually. Producers now boast of their Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Chardonnay and at least another 14 non-indigenous varietals. Salmontini, the upmarket Beirut restaurant, says 70% of all wines ordered are Lebanese. Musar is still the international face of Lebanese wine, but the gap is closing fast. Hochar has had to develop another range of less intimidating wines to meet modern tastes and Kefraya and Ksara have improved beyond measure, spurred by the arrival of a slew of aggressive newcomers. Kefraya’s Comte de M 1996 was the first Lebanese wine to be ‘Parkerised’, and demonstrated to the world that Lebanon was no longer a one-trick pony, while Ksara celebrates its 150th birthday this year. It is Lebanon’s oldest winery, its biggest producer and biggest exporter in terms of volume.

Massaya, with its telegenic owners and French identity, may be the darling of the new generation, but it’s ably supported by quality estates Clos St Thomas and Domaine Wardy. Not far behind are Heritage, Cave Kouroum, Château Fakra, Château Ka, Vin Nakad and Domaine des Tourelles. And there are 10 other smaller producers, such as Château Belle-Vue in Bhamdoun, Château Khoury in Zahleh and Karam Winery in Jezzine.

Back in Massaya, I ask Ramzi Ghosn how easy it was to steel himself and his team for the harvest. For, although the guns had fallen silent, roads in the Bekaa were still vulnerable to air strikes as Israeli jets patrolled the skies scanning for smuggled weapons entering via Syria. ‘When we did decide to harvest, the process evolved gradually,’ he explains. ‘For our morale we had to do it, even if it meant just picking grapes on the immediate estate. Then I thought “why not harvest at the vineyards in the Tanail monastery across the road?” When we did that, I thought, “why not go a bit further?” We painted Massaya Wine in huge letters on top of our lorries [in an effort to prevent them being targeted] and went for it.’

Safety measures in place, Ghosn took his convoy to Baalbek for the next leg of his ever-increasing harvest. The ancient city is home to the Temple of Bacchus and possibly the best terroir in the country. It was also the scene of fierce fighting between Hizbullah militants and Israeli paratroopers, so there was a degree of anxiety. Mission accomplished, he travelled to Halwa, a volatile area near the Syrian border and then to Kefraya in the Western Bekaa. By October, he had harvested all his vineyards, but not to capacity.

Meanwhile, Sami Ghosn was doing his bit for exports. It was important to send a signal to the trade: the war was over and Massaya was still in business. So, in October, he hosted a tutored tasting in London. ‘There was no pressure on us,’ says Ramzi. ‘Our agent understood what we were going through. The message was “let’s stand together and get through this”.’

It wasn’t easy. ‘At first, I thought we’d only be able to harvest 10% of our crop,’ says Ramzi. In the end, they managed 65%, brought in entirely by winery staff (secretaries and account-handlers included) rather than the normal hired hands. ‘Some of it was overripe as we hadn’t been able to pick when we wanted to,’ he moans, ‘so it had to be distilled.’ Normally, ripeness is not a problem. ‘We have 300 days of sunshine a year, so can be sure of our harvest dates – rain is not a problem. The only risk from the skies are planes flying overhead, bombing.

‘It’s hard to talk wine in Lebanon and not talk politics. I don’t know everyone’s religion at Massaya, and I don’t want to. All I know is that they’re dedicated and focused on the wine. I like to think we’re portraying a positive image of the Middle East, and Lebanon in particular.’

Beyond Cinsault

Clos St Thomas is based at Qab Elias, at the entrance to the Western Bekaa, and is owned by Said Touma. The war behind him, all he wants to talk about is the quality of his grapes. ‘We need to move on and show the world we are making wines with better grapes,’ he says, immediately berating me for insisting that Cinsault still had a role in Lebanon.

But surely you need it for blending, I counter. ‘Only that much,’ he scowls, making a mark with his thumb halfway up his index finger. His daughter, Nathalie, wants to tell me about how the family slept in the open during the first days of the harvest when the risk of air attack was still real, but Touma wants to talk about grapes. ‘Did you taste my Merlot?’ I ask him how I could have possibly tasted his Merlot. He ignores me. ‘There is no Merlot like it in the Bekaa.’ I tell him I’ll take his word for it. He swears again. ‘I don’t want you telling anyone I’m part of your Cinsault love affair.’ I promise him I won’t.

When I leave Qab Elias, the sun is dipping behind the Barouk Mountains over which I make the tortuous winding journey to the southern town of Jezzine through the Druze heartland, where the men of this ancient sect wear black baggy pants and white skull caps, the women black dresses and white veils.

I visit Captain Habib Karam, owner of the Karam Winery. Karam is a suave, charismatic airline pilot and south Lebanon’s only winemaker. That evening, we eat rabbit, washed down with several bottles of St John, his big hitting Cabernet-Syrah-Merlot. ‘In 2007, I will only be using grapes harvested in Jezzine,’ Karam says. ‘I want to plant more Viognier in future. Who knows – the farmers of Jezzine might move entirely from apples to grapes? My Merlot astonished me this year. I knew I would get good grapes as I only harvested 3kg per vine but I didn’t know they would be that good. You must taste it.’

Back home in Beirut I found an interview I’d recorded with Serge Hochar but never used. I had asked him if he felt that conflict was the tragic side of a nation imbued with a reputation for compromise, commercial flair and generosity of spirit. ‘Of course!’ he replied. ‘It’s the essence of our being. The fate of Lebanon is 7,000 years old. The Lebanese story is about enduring and overcoming. We live with adversity; we cannot avoid it. Whatever happens to Lebanon, Lebanon will overcome. It is written in the Bible.’ He chuckles. ‘This is our fate.’

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