In today’s journey down “the road less traveled,” we are off to the ancient land of Lebanon. At first glance, Lebanon is quite an unexpected wine destination, but history indicates that Lebanon is one of the world’s oldest wine regions. In fact, wines of Lebanon are mentioned by the Biblical prophet Hosea (circa mid-7th century BCE), but Lebanon’s wine history dates back to at least 3,500 BCE in the ancient land of Canaan (part of which is now in southern Lebanon).
While it may seem far-flung to most wine lovers today, Lebanon is certainly within the temperate zone for grape growing. Although it’s climate is quite hot and extremely dry, these climatic conditions are beneficial in preventing vine and fruit diseases. Lebanon also benefits from having a remarkable 300 days of sunshine a year, which is certainly a boon to the grapes. The relatively high elevation of most vineyard sites, particularly in the Bekaa Valley (don’t let the name fool you – it’s not quite a valley. . .), lends cool night-time temperatures that help to preserve acidity and freshness in the grapes, keep them from becoming over-ripe, and allow for a remarkably long “hang-time” on the vines.
So with this long history of and favorable conditions for wine, why does Lebanese wine seem like such an oddity to modern wine lovers? There are two answers: religion and war. When Lebanon came under the Ottoman Empire and caliphate rule in 1517, wine fell under prohibition. Production and use of wine was, however, permitted for sacramental use by Christians, mostly Maronites (a Lebanese Catholic rite) and Greek and Armenian Orthodox Christians. Under this provision, Château Ksara (still in operation) was founded by Jesuit monks in the Bekaa Valley in 1857 with the French Rhône varietal cinsault, although the first French wine producer was the secular Château Joseph Spath (no longer in operation). Today, Château Ksara (although no longer owned by the Jesuits) is Lebanon’s largest wine producer. Another secular producer, Dômaine des Tourelles (still in operation) was established in 1868 using Rhône varietals and native varietals. Following the fall of the Ottoman Empire in 1922, Lebanon’s momentum as a wine producing state began gaining speed, bolstered in large part by the French occupation following World War I. You really don’t expect the French to be without wine, do you? Lebanon’s most famous wine producer, Château Musar, was founded in 1930 by Gaston Hochar after his return to Lebanon from Bordeaux, using the Bordeaux grape cabernet sauvignon as well as Rhône varietals already well-established in Lebanon.
Lebanon’s independence from France in 1943 created the excitement to allow Lebanon’s established wine culture to really blossom. War, however, is never kind to culture of any sort. . . In 1975, Lebanon descended in a 15-year civil war that left the country in shambles. Surprisingly, Château Musar only lost two harvests to the war. The winery emerged from the war with the intention of securing business in foreign markets, thereby launching a second revival of Lebanon’s wine industry. In 1979, Château Kefraya was founded after decades of supplying grapes to other producers. Château Kefraya has grown to become Lebanon’s second largest wine producer. In an odd moment of history, Château Kefraya’s French winemaker, Yves Morard, was arrested by the Israeli government as a spy during the 1980s invasion. He was released only after he was able to prove that he knew how to make wine. . . War and conflict has continued to threaten Lebanon’s wine industry, but the country and the industry has shown great resilience. In 1990, there were only four wineries operating in Lebanon (Château Ksara, Dômaine des Tourelles, Château Musar, and Château Kefraya). Today there are nearly 80 wineries in Lebanon. One of those new additions is Adyar (meaning “monastery”), founded in 2003 as a cooperative of eight monastic vineyards of the Maronite order (established in 1695). In addition to its amazingly long heritage, Adyar holds the distinction of being the first certified organic wine producer in Lebanon.
As you explore the wines of Lebanon, know that most red wines are produced from the Bordeaux grapes cabernet sauvignon and merlot or the Rhône grapes syrah, grenache, mourvèdre, cinsault, and carignan. Several French whites, particularly chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, marsanne, and viognier, as well as muscat and several indigenous grapes (including merwah and obeideh) are also grown. Increasingly, sangiovese and tempranillo are also being planted.
As always, thank you for joining me on this wine journey. I continue to be amazed at how wine intersects with history and culture, and today’s journey has been no exception. Be adventurous with your wine selections, explore the road less traveled, and seek out the surprise that may become your new favorite!