A decade of peace in Lebanon has attracted new wine producers and increased competition – with promising results, says SALLY RAMSDEN.
At a table in one of Beirut’s most elegant restaurants, where the menu is in French and the clientèle are decked out in the latest fashions, it is easy to forget you are in a city that, 10 years ago, was the war-torn heart of Lebanon. Until you turn to the wine list. For this tiny Middle Eastern country is home to some of the world’s most distinctive wines. Miraculously, the three established estates – Châteaux Musar, Kefraya and Ksara – survived 25 years of war.
A decade of peace has ushered in a new generation of producers, and new wines such as Massaya and Domaine Wardy are winning awards and attracting investment. Good wine from the Lebanon is nothing new. Since Biblical times the Bekaa Valley – really a high plain suspended between two mountain ranges – has been prized for its soil, climate and vines. A day’s march east of Beirut and the Mediterranean, the area supplied the Phoenicians, the Persians and then the Roman army with wine. Stone-carved vines still curl around the columns of the Temple of Bacchus, Roman god of wine, within the vast ruins at Baalbek on the eastern slopes.
Conditions here remain ideal for vines: rich soils; protected slopes and valleys; and almost year-round sunshine; high altitude but no summer rainfall; guaranteed harvest start dates and little risk of disease. Massaya wines from the new Tanail estate are the brainchild of 35-year-old Sami Ghosn. An architect by training, he has reclaimed family land left derelict by the fighting and turned it into a well-kept estate with a sophisticated winery. Ghosn started from scratch with no prior experience of winemaking. But he and his brother Ramzi quickly pulled off a major coup, persuading leading French winemakers from St-Emilion and Châteauneuf-du-Pape to work with them.
As a result, the slick Massaya labels boast the names Hubert de Boüard de Laforest of Château Angélus, Dominique Hébrard of Château Cheval Blanc, and Daniel Brunier of Le Vieux Télégraphe; alongside that of the Ghosn family. The fact that all three partners are shareholders, not just technical advisers, shows they are convinced of the region’s potential. Sami Ghosn says: ‘The Lebanese climate is closest to that of the Rhône. We wanted to benefit from that, as well as the Bordeaux experience. It’s a learning experience for us all.’
Already the Massaya Reserve Rouge 1999 (Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvèdre) stands up well against a host of Bordeaux and Rhône wines, while the sharp, dry white Massaya Selection is selling well. Last year 20,000 cases of wine were produced. Domaine Wardy is another new name to watch. Bekaa-born Salim Wardy, 33, launched his first wines just two years ago but is already making his mark. Wardy whites, the Perle de Château Chardonnay blend and single variety Sauvignon Blanc, have both won international awards. Wardy says: ‘The fact that single variety wines are selling well locally, and whites from a traditionally red area are winning international acclaim, are both signs of how fast the Lebanese wine scene is changing.’
The Romans would still feel at home in the famous Ocave at Ksara – Lebanon’s oldest winery. The cellars here consist of a two-mile long network of tunnels built by the Romans and re-used by the Jesuits who revived winemaking in Lebanon just over a century ago. Competing wineries say that this is not the best way to store wine, but Ksara’s export manager Elie Ma’amari disagrees: ‘It’s just sour grapes. The temperature remains between 11 and 13?C throughout the year, so it’s perfect for ageing wine.’ Developing under the watchful eye of French winemaker James Balgé, Ksara now offers a range of 12 wines, including the excellent value La Réserve du Couvent, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, some Syrah and Cabernet Franc (Vinalies 2001 gold medal) and the very fresh, drinkable rosé Vin Gris. The premium chateaux range are kept for 14–18 months in oak casks then bottled and stored in the cave for at least four years.
In the south of the Bekaa, not far from the Israeli border, a jigsaw of vineyards surrounds Kefraya village. To get there, you pass a series of checkpoints manned variously by the Lebanese army, Hizbollah militia and Syrian troops, keeping a wary eye out for Israeli airforce jets. Peace in this part of Lebanon is still a relative concept. Michel de Boustros began making his own wine at Kefraya just as the civil war broke out in 1979. But the Kefraya estate itself has succeeded in growing to 300ha (hectares) with new plantings on the steep slopes of Mount Barouk. And the revamped, enlarged winery is now almost complete, doubling storage capacity.
Roughly half of the vines are Cinsault, the rest Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon with recent additions of Merlot, Petit Verdot, Gamay and now Tempranillo. The latter, newly introduced, variety is complemented by the presence of Madrid-born oenologist Gabriel Rivero, who learned winemaking in Bordeaux. Comte de M is still undoubtedly the king of Kefraya wines. However, the château range is also worth seeking out, as is the adventurous dessert wine Lacrima d’Oro. Just across the road, building works are underway at the new La Cave Kouroum De Kefraya winery. Frenchman Yves Morard, who used to work with Bustros, has migrated here as special adviser and is already making wines with good structure, in some cases working with very old vines.
According to Bustros, there’s plenty of room in the Bekaa for everyone. ‘As long as the wine is good, it’s good for Lebanon. The more of us there are producing fine wine, the more we will be seen as a proper region and not just a handful of individual producers.’
Lebanese legend No tour of Lebanese wine would be complete without a tasting at Château Musar, presided over by Serge Hochar, winemaker and philosopher extraordinaire – and Decanter Man of the Year in 1984. High on the steep mountainside overlooking the glistening sea at Ghazir just north of Beirut, Hochar and his wines stand apart from the competition. His wines have done more than any other to put Lebanon on the world wine map. Hochar has always gone against conventional winemaking wisdom, playing with volatile acidity and using indigenous varieties such as Merwah and Obaideh in his whites when everyone else has gone over to noble varieties.
Today he blends only after the red varietals have spent three years in French oak barrels and then waits a further three or four years before releasing the results. ‘This gives time for each variety to develop its own character and quality,’ says Hochar. ‘I don’t sell single-varietal wines but try to enhance the personality of each terroir and year before blending. There is no one Château Musar like another.’ Hochar emphasises that he is determined to resist high-tech modernisation, and crusades instead for a more natural approach to winemaking, ‘in keeping with the natural environment’. The long-term future for Lebanese wine probably lies somewhere between the old and the new – a blend of history, nature and passion with more wineries taking an updated approach to winemaking and marketing. A good example of mixing the old and the new is Château Nakad, a home-based, old-fashioned winery that has recently undergone radical updating and expansion while keeping its family-run flavour. As a wine region Lebanon is still tiny – an estimated 1,100ha under vine produces jusdt two million bottles for export per year. But the natural wealth celebrated at the temples of Baalbek, where the vines of the Bekaa are immortalised in stone, is still there to be tapped. This is the vision, shared by all the producers, that makes this tiny country one of the great upcoming wine regions to watch out for.
Sally Ramsden is a freelance writer specialising in the Middle East.
Written by SALLY RAMSDEN