The history of winegrowing in Lebanon goes back an incredible 5000 years. However, the present is determined by the situation in the neighbouring countries of Israel and Syria. In the middle of the witch’s cauldron of world politics, oenologists are looking for the best way of working in this fine terroir. And in spite of all the history, winegrowing is somehow only at the start.
The anecdote could have come from a styling tutorial from YouTube: An eyeliner called “kuul” is suddenly very much in demand. Of course the paste has its price. Part of the brand image is the innovative production method. For “kuul”, a carrier liquid is boiled up, where shimmering antimony can be extracted from its rising vapours. In any case, the hype was a thousand years ago and took place in Western Arabia, which was the science centre of its time. The make-up powder is now long forgotten there, but not the manufacturing process, which is the basis of spirit production, with the Europeanised name of alcohol.
The Lebanese used distillation to distil Arak, one of the oldest brandies in the world. Similar aniseed brandy is available across half of the Mediterranean, from Pastis on the Côte d’Azur to Raki in Istanbul. Most are industrially manufactured from grain alcohol. For good Arak, fine anise seeds macerate in clay jugs with brandy. The Lebanese swear by their “Lion’s milk” and drink it to cure every possible complaint, from a cold to a headache.
Lebanese winegrowers like to cite the Phoenicians as their ancestors. The capable craftsmen lived 4000 years ago on the Mediterranean coast and were successful in long-distance trade as far as Portugal, “and the first wine merchants in the world”, explains Michael Karam, well-informed observer of the local wine trade, the elective affinity.
However, it is unlikely that they would have purchased their wares from the Bekaa valley, where an estimated 90% of the winegrowing area is today. The Lebanese mountains rise up right on the Mediterranean coast. The Bekaa plains sprawl on the rear side at a thousand metres altitude. For the ancient traders, transport across the mountain passes was logistically too complicated.
The highlands compensate for the heat, at 32 degrees’ latitude, with cold nights. Slopes up to 1800 metres are the highest vineyards in the northern hemisphere. The temperatures fluctuate dramatically, and the grapes develop remarkable phenolic content. At 120 kilometres longitude and around 10 kilometres latitude, not only are there alternating Christian churches and posts of the Hezbollah, but the common calcareous soil is interfused with fragments of marl, lime and iron.
Geologically, the Bekaa valley is the continuation of the African rift valley and the gravel remnants of an Ice Age sea, which once flowed in a southerly direction. The terroir equals the Argentinian Mendoza, which is famous for its mountain location. But Bekaa is higher.
One metre of snow in winter stores water. “We need that urgently in the spring”, explains Joe Touma, owner of Château St. Thomas. Late frosts, hail, 270 sunny days, and a summer without rain are part of the climate. “We would like to irrigate”, concedes Touma, “but there is no water here in June”. “Dry farming” is not a fashion trend here.” “However, the vines are deep-rooted”, says Fabrice Guiberteau, oenologist from Kefraya, “and can survive even dry years.” Climate change is also not an unfamiliar concept in Lebanon.
On the other hand, moisture related diseases are rare, which is why many winegrowers look for their niche in natural farming. At any rate, a wine for vegans is not a problem in Lebanon.
On the slopes, the grapes ripen slowly, but very unevenly due to the altitude differences. The harvest lasts from mid-August to November. “The biggest problem of course is the heat”, admits Gaby Rivero, oenologist from the wine estate Ixsir. “This means that lots of alcohol arises and not much acidity.” Therefore, the winegrowers like to pick before full ripeness.
The harvest is carried out almost completely by hand, with moderate work costs. But this is also a race against the heat. “We start at 5.00 in the morning. At 10.30 it is already 25°”, says Guiberteau. The yields are low with an average of 30 hectolitres per hectare, and for some top wines it is barely 10. The must is cooled as quickly as possible in deep cellars. The development then occurs with little movement. There are enough tannins.
Wine has been drunk in Lebanon for 5000 years. The ancient Greeks and Romans first discovered wine here, imported the plants and brought the wine culture to the world. Lebanon does not particularly benefit from all the history today, or from the 400-year Ottoman rule, under which winegrowing lay fallow. Everyday life is much more determined by the recent history.
Well-positioned economically, and with a closely guarded banking secret, Lebanon was still known as the “Switzerland of the Orient” after the 2nd World War. However, in 1975, a 15-year civil war broke out, which Syria, the USA and Israel later intervened in. The Cedar Revolution of 2005 ended the Syrian military presence and influence. The following year, in the second Lebanese war, primarily Hezbollah and Israel opposed each other.
Time and again, politicians and intellectuals from the most diverse backgrounds, intent on reconciliation, lost their lives in attacks. However, since the founding of the republic in 1926, there are free elections, a pluralistic party system, and a wide ranging media landscape. 18 religious communities live in Lebanon, and currently over a million Syrian refugees. “We are all in the minority here somehow”, says the resigned Spanish born Rivero.
Their history has made the Lebanese pragmatic. State offices are proportionally assigned according to religious affiliation. The deepest rift is between the Sunnis and Shiites. Today, the head of state is the ex-general and hardliner Michel Aoun, who is not necessarily supported by a large majority, but he keeps things running somehow. “If you think you understand Lebanese politics, then it has not been explained to you properly”, is a much quoted maxim.
The prophet Hosea praises Lebanese wine in the highest terms, even in the 8th Century BC. The Romans built one of the largest temples to Bacchus in the world here. And with good reason. An opulent pool of grape varieties would only be logical here. Yet the Lebanese are lacking autochthonous grape varieties. Even in the middle of the last century, there were reports of more than 20. However, recent attempts to trace vine stocks of older grape varieties have been unsuccessful.
The low acid, slightly herbal white Obaideh is one of the few, although there is evidence that it is a Chardonnay variation. “Above all, the butter notes are reminiscent of this”, explains Diana Salame Khalil, “but without all of the alcohol”. The Lebanese by birth, and oenologist of the Wardy wine estate, studied and worked in Burgundy for many years, where she gained her ideas of white wine. With its finesse, her dense Obaideh shows where the journey can take us. However, many winegrowers are put off by the extensive field work for the sun sensitive variety.
As to be expected, white varieties are not the showpieces of the sector. Chardonnay yields pleasant wines with little primary fruit, and the typical tones of nuts and butter. Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc yield wines with a good concentration. Winegrowers value Muscat due to its floral-aromatic character. Yet, in this climate, many wines tend to become broad and heavy. All the more, there is a lack of adjusted autochthonous varieties for an international profile.
In the country itself, rosés are popular, particularly à la Provençale in the Saignée process. However, until now the core competence of Lebanon has been red wine. Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Cinsault are the main varieties, and linked to the names of the three giants - Châteaux Musar, Kefraya and Ksara. Jesuits planted the first Cinsault here in the mid-19th Century, which dominated for a long time. The southern French variety turned out surprisingly fresh and fruity, and mineral-tasting.
Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah also found their own characteristics. When young, they often have little fruit and moderate tannins. The best wines are dense and mineral-tasting, often with herbal notes. Many are very storable. Thereby, paradoxically, they develop more fresh fruitiness, while the tannins do not mature over the decades.
Cuvées are popular. Even in combinations such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, which are usually known from Australia. “Grape varieties are a perennial issue”, says Hubert de Boüard. The French oenologist advises Ixsir. Apart from the usual range of varieties, the 110-hectare operation has Montepulciano and Touriga Nacional. “Varieties from warm growing regions make sense”, adds Rivero, who has worked for Sociando Mallet for a long time. “But we are still looking.”
In 2003, there were 8 wine estates in Lebanon. Today, there are around 50 divided over approximately 2500 hectares of winegrowing area, and the number is increasing. Thereby, almost everything is a private initiative. “A wine estate is hardly commercially feasible as an investment for a large company”, says Karam. High locations are sought after, and therefore the prices increase.
Wine is hot in Lebanon. Beirut, where almost everyone speaks English and French, is a cosmopolitan metropolis and was seen as a place of refuge for the persecuted for a long time, and later as a clubbing location. Top class German cars are at least as popular here as at Lake Starnberg.
In the evenings, many party people are on the way to clubs and restaurants. In the bar of Hotel Phoenicia is the largest single malt and cognac collection in the Middle East. Even some French restaurants would be envious of the wine menu with its many Burgundy items.
The Lebanese cuisine is rightly seen as the best in the Arabic world. The typical Mezze is prepared meticulously, seasoned and served with great precision. “Amongst other things, this is one reason why we have many tourists from Russia and Saudi Arabia, who like the relaxed atmosphere at the Corniche”, explains Karam. Recently, the wealthy clientele has failed to appear. Syria, where 28 nations are currently involved in the war negotiations, and Israel form Lebanon’s country borders. Both countries are in a state of war.
Trade is only possible by sea, which drives up the cost of living. No, we have not had much luck with the neighbours, says Zafer Chaoui from Château Ksara and smiles thoughtfully. Shining lights such as the late Serge Hochar from Château Musar and Michel de Bustros, founder of Château Kefraya, managed to continue producing through all the political turmoil and wars, since the 1970s. “This pragmatism”, Karam is convinced, “saved the industry.”
70 kilometres from the Syrian border, the vineyards of Château St. Thomas ended up between the front of IS and the Lebanese army, during the last harvest. “We had to wait to pick”, remembers Joe Touma. In the end, it only affected a few Chardonnay vine stocks, “we can get over that”. Many winegrowers have these experiences. There are even vineyards in Syria. However, the brothers Karim and Sandro Saadé are afraid of being abducted from their home. The entrepreneurs manage the operation from Beirut.
Around half of Lebanese wine production is exported, especially to the USA, to Great Britain and France. At the moment, many other winegrowing countries in the eastern Mediterranean are recording sales losses. So, it is not a bad time for Lebanese wine, and ultimately the tax authorities value the income.
Local wines are more highly taxed than imported ones. “Politics are not always helpful”, objects Hady Kahale, Director of Ixsir cautiously. The wine industry makes progress according to the political situation, and more precisely, the religious denomination of the Minister of Agriculture.
Since 1995, Lebanon has been a member of the OIV. The manufacturer’s union - Union Vinicole du Libanon – incorporates 23 producers. Since 2013, the National Wine Institute has been responsible for technical issues such as suitable grape varieties, quality control and legal framework conditions.
An AOC system according to the French model is needed. Due to its heterogeneous geology, Bekaa probably still has lots of space for sub-regions. “The soil is so fragmented that I first of all commissioned a geological expert report”, remembers Guiberteau about when he started at Kefraya.
The soil map, which could be derived from this, was so colourful that the oenologist from Cognac first of all removed the large tanks in the cellar.” We have micro terroirs, so we do micro vinification.” Above all, the wine should not taste like Bordeaux. “That would not work. We want our own terroir.”