In 2020, Lebanon experienced a popular revolution, a financial crisis, the impact of the novel coronavirus and a massive explosion on August 4, 2020 in Beirut’s port that killed more than 200 people and injured more than 6,000.
Despite recent hardships, Lebanese wines have experienced something of a renaissance. From 1996 to 2020, the number of wineries grew from 40 to nearly 80.
“It’s a really good time for Lebanese wine at the moment,” says Michael Karam, author of Wines of Lebanon and collaborator to the recently released documentary, Wine and War. “It’s just so sad that the Lebanese are having to contend with the double whammy of the pandemic as well as hyperinflation and political instability at home.”
In the beginning…
Lebanon’s winemaking history dates back 7,000 years to biblical times.
In the city of Baalbek, in the Bekaa Valley, an astonishingly intact second-century temple to Bacchus, Roman god of wine, holds a dramatic mirror to wine’s cultural significance in this part of the world.
Between 2700 B.C. and 300 B.C., the Phoenicians spread viticulture throughout the Mediterranean.
Fast forward to 1857, when French Jesuit monks planted Cinsault vines in the Bekaa Valley, at what is now Chateau Ksara. The presence of the French between the World Wars cemented a wine culture in the country.
At the start of Lebanon’s 15-year civil war, which raged from 1975–90, there were just six commercial wineries, which included the now-globally acclaimed Chateau Musar. Musar’s winemaker, the late, legendary Serge Hochar, realized he needed to export his wines. He packed bottles in a suitcase and traveled to the UK, where he educated the British, and then the world, about Lebanese wines.
Hochar’s efforts laid the groundwork for a thriving wine industry.
The lay of the land
Lebanon sits at the eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea, where it borders Syria and Israel. Today, near half a million refugees live in camps along the Beirut-Damascus road in the west Bekaa Valley. This area is the heart of wine country, located about 30 miles east of Beirut.
The country’s dry, sunny climate and landscape is ideal for grape growing. The snow-capped Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountains provide protection for the high-elevation vines of the Bekaa Valley, many grown at more than 3,000 feet.
Elevation also plays a key role in the rugged hills of the Jezzine wine region in the south. In Batroun, a region north of Beirut, the vineyards are cooled by the Mediterranean Sea.
French influence still dominates Lebanese winemaking. Mediterranean red varieties like Syrah, Grenache, Mourvèdre and Carignan are commonplace, along with Bordelais varieties Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot.
These wines are generally powerful, with notes of Middle Eastern spices like cumin and sumac. Their tannins allow the wines to age for years.
The red variety most recently in the spotlight is one of Lebanon’s most historic plantings, Cinsault.
“Cinsault loves Lebanon’s Mediterranean weather and fresh nights during the summer [due to] the altitude of Bekaa Valley,” says Faouzi Issa, winemaker at historic winery Domaine des Tourelles. The winery makes a Cinsault from vines more than 50 years old using native yeast and concrete vats.
“It’s a very round, soft, silky wine, with a lot of fruit from day one,” says Issa. “Tannins are structured and can survive and age well. The evolution is beautiful.”
For white wines, Lebanon produces Chardonnay, Viognier, Sémillon and Sauvignon Blanc. An increasing number of producers focus on the honeyed, floral Merwah and the waxy, textural Obeideh grapes, which are Lebanon’s native varieties.
Traditionally, these grapes are used to produce the nation’s historic anise-flavored spirit, Arak.
“[Lebanon’s] white wines are just going through the roof in terms of quality, [with] freshness, depth and complexity that belie their location,” says Karam. It’s these varieties, he says, that allow winemakers to “[be] more daring, a bit more off-piste, not so wedded to the French school.”
“The Merweh vineyard [at Domaine des Tourelles] is more than 150 years old, growing just next to the cedars in the mountains at [4,921 feet in] altitude,” says Issa. “[It’s] a wild vineyard with no pruning for probably a century.”
As Lebanese winemakers have been building their industry and global footprint, they’ve contended with extreme challenges in their country and region.
Chateau Marsyas’s offices were just 1,600 feet from the August blast. Owners Karim and Sandro Saadé carried their severely injured father, Johnny R. Saadé, through the wreckage and down nine flights of stairs. Two weeks later, Marsyas commenced harvest in the Bekaa.
“During our father’s hospitalization, we had to transform his hospital room into an ‘operations room’ to manage the harvesting process, which started just a few days after the explosion,” says Sandro. “In a normal year, we would go to the Chateau Marsyas vineyard at 5 am to conduct harvest, whereas this year we had to supervise the whole process over the phone.”
The Saadé family also owns Domaine de Bargylus, the only commercially operating winery in Syria.
“At the same time in a normal year, grape samples are sent to us by taxi from Bargylus in Syria, to our offices in Beirut for tasting in order to determine the harvesting date for each parcel,” says Karim. In 2020, that fruit from Bargylus, which despite being shelled many times, has not ceased operating throughout the war, had to be tasted from beside their father’s hospital bed.
To add to the difficulties, the country’s currency, the Lebanese pound, sank 80% last year. Many people are unable to draw money from local banks. It left winemakers in a difficult position. They rely on Europe for winemaking supplies.
“They can’t survive on local sales simply because they can’t use the revenue to buy raw material,” says book author Karam. “For that, they need ‘fresh money,’ hard currency from outside Lebanon, to pay for bottles, corks, labels, yeast, sulfur and so on,”
Lebanon produces around 10.5 million bottles, and exports about 50% of its wines annually.
“It was a situation that made exporting wine a priority, a matter of survival, and it was a challenge to which they were prepared to rise,” says Karam. “But then came the global lockdown and suddenly, with both hands tied, they ran out of moves. Bottom line, the world needs to buy Lebanese wine so this tiny industry can survive.”