Lebanon hasn’t had it easy. With Syria as a neighbour to the north and east and Israel to the south, it has a complex religious identity that has made it a hotbed of many Middle Eastern conflicts, now affected yet again by unrest in the region.
Its recent history has helped to define both the landscape and the people. It’s a country of great beauty, from Beirut’s cosmopolitan seaside vibe and the vineyards of the Bekaa Valley, sandwiched between the snowcapped mountains of the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountains, to the craggy hills of Jezzine in the south. But it is the Lebanese people who are really impressive. Strong and optimistic, many have lived through years of conflict, yet remain hopeful about the future of their country; and the wine industry is confident that Lebanese wines will gain a firm place on the international stage.
The wines, like the people, express a certain strength and austerity. ‘It feels too easy [to make wine] with no war on,’ laughs Ronald Hochar who, with brother Serge, runs Château Musar.
The civil war ended 22 years ago, and since then the number of wineries has risen from five to more than 40. Eco-friendly wineries such as Ixsir are making ultra-modern styles alongside traditionalists like Château Ksara and Kefraya. Wine is being produced not just in the Bekaa but also in Batroun closer to the sea, and in Jezzine, where the steep, rocky terraces recall Portugal’s Douro Valley.
True, some of the country’s top wines are overoaked and made in a heavy, extracted style which now looks old-fashioned. But many winemakers, particularly in their entry-level range, successfully find a balance between modernity and traditionalism, with fresher, lighter, more appealing wines that are still true to their Lebanese roots.
Tanks and tunnels
Château Ksara, the oldest and biggest winery in Lebanon (dating back to 1857, it makes about three million bottles a year), provides perhaps the best example of this contrast. At ground level the winery gleams with rows of stainless-steel tanks and modern machinery; but beneath lie 1,800m of tunnels and caves dating back to the Roman era. They were discovered in 1898 by boys attempting to smoke out a fox that had been terrorising chickens. The Jesuit priests who had founded the winery, and who ran it until 1973, were delighted to find that the caves’ constant temperature was perfect for storing and ageing their wine. Nine openings to the tunnels have since been discovered, the last having been located only last year. Today the caves house Ksara’s oldest surviving wines, dating back to 1918.
Wine production at Ksara continued throughout Lebanon’s civil war and the 2006 war with Israel, even though in 1983 Ksara’s now export manager, Elie Maamari, was kidnapped, and in 2006 a neighbour’s farming equipment was mistaken for something far more sinister and bombed. Unsurprisingly, no pickers could be found that year, and everyone at Ksara, from the cleaners to that same export manager, had to pitch in and help with the harvest.
As an aside, there is a tension to the 2006 wines, noticeable in all the wineries I visited, and the finish opens up like a sense of relief. They had survived, and so had their makers.
Ksara makes many wines from a range of grape varieties, with varying degrees of success. The whites and rosés were variable in quality, and two of the latter were over-sulphured and flat. But the slightly austere Gris de Gris 2010, made from a blend of Grenache Gris and Carignan, was mineral and lovely, with aromas of raspberry and white pepper, and a slight spritz hidden behind a fresh lemony earthiness on the palate.
All of Ksara’s reds are gutsy and powerful. Several are old-fashioned, with hot alcohol and huge oaky tannins, but a few, including the Cuvée de Troisième Millénaire (see box, right) and those based on Bordeaux varieties have a lot more to offer: juicy dark fruits, eucalyptus and liquorice, oaky spice, good acidity and some sizeable tannins to aid longevity.
Eleven years after the Jesuits first planted vines at Ksara, a young French engineer, François-Eugène Brun, settled in the Bekaa village of Chtaura, after building the Beirut-to-Damascus road. Chtaura reminded Brun of his home in southern France, so he planted vines here in 1868 and founded Domaine des Tourelles, Lebanon’s first commercial winery. Three generations of Bruns continued to run it until the last, Pierre Louis, died in 2000. There were no Brun relatives remaining in Lebanon by then, so the winery had to be sold. It was bought by two neigbouring families, Nayla Kanaan Issa-el-Khoury and Elie Issa. The day-to-day running of the winery is now handled by their children, Christiane and Faouzi Issa and Emile Issa-el-Khoury, who uphold the memory of the man they knew as ‘Uncle Pierre’ through their exceptionally preserved winery.
Winemaker Faouzi who, like François-Eugene Brun, studied oenology at the University of Montpellier, is a fierce traditionalist. ‘We use four important things in our winery: indigenous yeast, indigenous terroir, indigenous old concrete vats and an indigenous winemaker.’ But thanks perhaps in part to his youth, Faouzi is also switched on to the demands of today’s market, and makes wines that are both honest expressions of Chtaura’s terroir and suited to international palates. Indeed,
Tourelles is one of a small handful of wineries chosen to feature in UK retailer Marks & Spencer’s Mediterranean wine range. Tourelles’s Blanc 2011 (45% Chardonnay, 40% Viognier, 15% Muscat d’Alexandrie) is the wine listed in M&S, and while it’s not the winery’s best wine, this unoaked, food-friendly white has a pleasing spiced pear, lemon and apple flavour.
It’s the reds that really stand out, combining power with delicacy. The Marquis des Beys is a lovely Cabernet-Syrah blend, and the Rouge 2006 (45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 45% Syrah, 10% Cinsault) aged in old concrete vats, is the perfect example of a Lebanese wine riding the line between traditional and modern. With focused, clean black fruit, olive notes, and a meaty smokiness, it’s cracking now, and will be even more exciting in another five years.
Arak into wine
Another winery to keep an eye out for is Clos St Thomas. A family-run operation, St Thomas began as an arak producer in the early 1990s. Saïd Touma, the gregarious patriarch, has been distilling the national spirit for 50 years, and was trained at the hands of his father and grandfather. In 1998 Touma’s son Joe made the first vintage of Clos St Thomas wine. Today Joe along with sister Natalie, who runs the admin and marketing side of things, have turned their modest winery into one of the most adventurous in the country.
Clos St Thomas makes Lebanon’s only varietal Pinot Noir. For a family named after the apostle Doubting Thomas, it was a giant leap of faith. It’s planted 1,200m above sea level in southwest Bekaa, where the snowcapped mountains and chilly evening winds keep the vines happy. The resulting wine is exotic and unique: dark in colour for a Pinot, and plummy in flavour. The meaty, earthy, vegetal aromas typical of developing Pinot are present, but there are also spice notes such as cumin and turmeric, and in some vintages flavours of bright cherries and tobacco.
In a tiny restaurant in the heart of the Bekaa Valley’s capital city of Zahle, the owner, Henri, recounts to a group of young winemakers how in 1981, during the Syrian siege of the city, when supplies were cut off and men carried food on their backs over the mountains, he piled sandbags in front of his restaurant and refused to close. People said it was the only place they could go to feel normal.
Today, while unrest is stirring yet again in Lebanon, the art of winemaking remains, for now, alive and well. Lebanese wines are often gutsy and powerful, with seductive Middle Eastern spices and tannins built to last. They, like their people, will persevere through whatever their uncertain future may hold.