You may have to go to Beirut to try it, but you should not miss the experienceby Barry Smith / July 17, 2014 / Leave a comment
A vineyard in Bekaa Valley, Lebanon. © Rabih If you fly into Beirut, you will be met at border control by polite but serious young men in uniform who will ask about the purpose of your visit. They are members of Hezbollah, who control the area around the airport. But for those engaged in wine tourism, you won’t have a problem. This is Lebanon: an Arabic country with a small but thriving wine industry that specialises in the production of high-quality wines in small volumes. Many people attribute the rise of winemaking in Lebanon to the efforts of the Jesuits in the 19th century who made wines for communion and produced, as a by-product, wines for everyday consumption. The French also contributed to a surge in wine production during their mandate between the First and Second World Wars. The soldiers wanted their quota of red wines and it was more economical to grow it locally than import it from France. These were strong influences but the roots of winemaking in the region lie deeper. The Phoenicians were the first to make wines here around 3000 BC, and they exported their powerful, rich wines throughout the Mediterranean. Much later, an alleged miracle took place at the Wedding at Cana (a village possibly within the borders of present day Lebanon) at which water was turned into wine. More traditional methods of winemaking were practiced by the Romans. This endured until the collapse of the last crusade at the end of the 13th century and the start of Ottoman rule, when wine production shifted into Christian hands. However, it declined markedly as the drinking of arak, a distilled spirit, took over. It was not until the Jesuit missionaries appeared in the Levant in the 19th centuries that wine production revived, although by 1975 there were still only three major wine producers in Lebanon: Château Ksara, Château Kefraya and Château Musar. The last is perhaps the best known outside Lebanon, even though it is not a typical Lebanese wine. It is the unique creation of the Hochar family—father Gaston and son Serge. Despite its lighter colour, it is a dense, brooding wine for long keeping, released only when it is sufficiently mature and always distinctive for its high volatile acidity, pushed to the limits by Gaston Hochar. The savoury 2007 is a southern Mediterranean blend of Cinsaut, Grenache, Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon. You will taste fig, cherry and spice. More characteristic of Lebanese reds, with their kirsch-like flavour, are the blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah (often with a little Merlot) made by Château Ka, Château Khoury and Domaine des Tourelles. More exotic and intriguing is the blend of Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Syrah produced by Château Ksara, which is at once spicy and dense, while showing the slight green notes of Loire Cabernet Francs. A Lebanese producer that will soon make a wider mark on the wine world is Ixsir. This state of the art winery—the result of significant investment—turns out well-crafted wines from vineyards across the country. The real find is the white Grande Réserve. Made from Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay, and barrel-aged, it is creamy and lime-edged with a slight bitter note in the finish—great to accompany Lebanese food. You may have to go to Beirut to try this “El Ixsir,” as some of the bottles are light-heartedly labeled, but you should not miss the experience. Despite the turbulence, it is an Arabic city that is always happy to promote its vibrant wine culture—a remarkable achievement, and worth celebrating.