Lebanon – an ancient land, modern wines

Vineyards in the Bekaa Valley – photo courtesy of Château Kefraya.

Lebanon caught my imagination as a wine country a long time ago. We tend to think of it as a new wine producer, but the Phoenicians – the ancient people of Lebanon – were among the world’s first maritime traders and exported wines from Tyre and Sidon all over the Mediterranean world and so helped to spread wine and viticulture to western Europe.

Château Musar is of course world famous and it’s wines widely available, so you could be forgiven for thinking that it is the only Lebanese wine producer. That is not the case though and Musar isn’t even the oldest wine estate in Lebanon either. However good Musar’s wines are – and they are – there is a lot more on offer from this fascinating country

The Mohammad Al-Amin Mosque in downtown Beirut.

I know that technically Lebanon is in Asia, but when you are there it doesn’t feel so very different from the European countries of the southern Mediterranean. In fact apart from the Arabic script on the signs, Lebanon often reminded me of Spain, Greece or Sicily. Beirut and the other towns I saw seemed chaotic and boisterous in much the same way as Seville or Catania. The landscape too was very similar to these places and of course the food has a lot in common with Greek cuisine and I even noticed some similarities to Sicilian cooking as well.

The main road through Chatura in the Bekaa Valley – photo by Quentin Sadler.

I suspect this European feel is partly because Lebanon has a mixed population of Muslims and Christians and enjoys a complex system of power sharing to ensure that no single part of the community dominates the other. As a consequence the place seems very free and easy to the casual observer with alcohol being readily available. Lively restaurants and street life with attractive bars are everywhere. In order to preserve this balance no official census has been taken since 1932, in case they discover there is a higher proportion of Muslims or Christians than they had thought.

I found it very interesting that despite France only governing the country for a little over 20 years, 1920 – 1943, French is widely spoken and the French influence lives on in almost every aspect of life. One of the most obvious examples is the wine names. All the wine producers are Domaine this or Château that and the wine styles often have a very French feel to them too.

Lebanon’s civil war ended in 1990, so the country has enjoyed almost 30 years of relative stability punctuated by sporadic turmoil caused by their neighbours. I was told many times that Lebanon is fortunate in everything, except its neighbours. As Lebanon borders Syria and Israel, you can see their point.

Map of Lebanon showing the wine regions and the major wineries. Click for a magnified view.

This stability has been enough for wine making to really start to flourish and for the longer established producers to consolidate the markets for their wines. If Lebanese wines were a novelty thirty years ago, they are much more normal today. Indeed the number of wineries has grown from just five in 1990 to over 50 today.

The oldest wine producer in the country is Château Ksara which was founded in 1857 by Jesuit monks who quickly recognised that the Bekaa Valley was a suitable place to grow grapes and brought in a trained viticulturist monk to create and tend their vineyards. His plantings of Cinsault, together with those at the nearby Domaine des Tourelles in 1868, started the Lebanese wine revival which is still with us to this day.

Everything changed in Lebanon after the First World War. The Ottoman Empire was broken up and Lebanon was awarded to the French as a League of Nations Mandate. French soldiers and administrators came to the country and brought their thirst with them. The country’s two wine producers just weren’t enough to cope with demand and so other wineries – together with breweries and distilleries – were created throughout the 1920s and thirties.

Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek, Bekaa Valley.

All the early vineyards were planted in the Bekaa Valley in the east of the country and although there are now some other regions, it remains the major centre of production. This was partly because it was already established as the principal agricultural area of Lebanon and also because it’s so suitable. It is an exciting place to visit. The road winds steeply upwards out of Beirut and you quickly realise just how mountainous Lebanon is. The whole country is pretty small and within 20 kilometres you are already approaching 1000 metres above sea level. It is that height which makes fine winemaking possible as the air gets cooler the higher you go. There is of course plenty of sun and heat – Beirut lies at 34˚ north, as do Los Angeles and Santa Barbara in California and Rabat in Morocco – so grapes can ripen no problem, in fact you can sometimes detect an over-ripe, raisiny character in the more rustic wines. The Bekaa Valley has no coastal influence to temper the heat and give elegance, as it sits between the Mount Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges, instead it has altitude.

The Bekaa Valley is very fertile and every where you look you can see produce being grown – wine of course suits the rockier, less vigorous and better drained soils. The region enjoys a Mediterranean climate with cold winters and hot dry summers. That heat is tempered by cool breezes because of the valley’s altitude and big temperature drops between day and night, often around 20 degrees, also help to retain freshness and elegance in the wines.

In recent years some new wine regions have begun producing wines and most of these are even higher than the Bekaa Valley.

Lebanon’s French influence is very apparent in the varieties they grow. Grapes from the French Mediterranean dominate the country’s vineyards, with most traditional reds being blends that include Cinsault, Carignan, Mourvèdre and Grenache, together with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and increasingly some Syrah too. In recent years Tempranillo has become a popular grape as well, but almost always in blends.

The white wines, sadly overlooked, but very impressive, are often blends including Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Clairette and Viognier, but I also came across some astonishingly good wines made from Obeidi and Merwah. These are indigenous white grapes that were traditionally used for Arak in the past.

Quite a few Lebanese wineries now export their wines to the UK. Here is a selection that are worth seeking out:

Château Ksara

An aerial view of Château Ksara – photo courtesy of Château Ksara.

Founded in 1857 by Jesuit monks, this is the oldest and biggest winery in the country. In 1898 they discovered a two kilometre Roman cave system beneath the winery that ever since has been used as the estate’s cellar. It remains at a constant 11˚C and houses thousands of bottles, many going back to the nineteenth century.

The ancient cave system below Château Ksara – photo courtesy of Château Ksara.

The Wines

Ksara makes a wide range including a fine Chardonnay, two white blends, Blanc de Blancs (Chardonnay, Sauvignon & Sémillon) and Blanc de L’Observatotre (Obadei, Sauvignon, Muscat & Clairette). My favourite though is their new pure Merwah made from 80 year old, dry farmed Merwah vines. It’s a lovely herbal dry white with a rich, pithy citrus zestiness.

Wine maturing in barrels in the ancient cave system below Château Ksara – photo courtesy of Château Ksara.

The heart of their range though is their red wines. They have two everyday drinking reds, Le Prieuré – a fresh, juicy and lightly spicy Mediterranean style blend of Cinsault, Grenache, Carignan and Mourvèdre – and Réserve du Couvent, a soft, brambley and bright blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc with ripe, supple tannins and generous fruit.

Their most famous wine is Château Ksara itself, which is a complex and cedary, Médoc inspired blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Petit Verdot, barrel aged for 12 months. The wine has supple tannins and that classic dry, but ripe fruit and leafy character that will delight claret lovers. The wine ages very well and mature vintages are available.

Château Ksara wines are distributed in the UK by Hallgarten.

Château Kefraya 

A panoramic view of the beautiful vineyards at Château Kefraya – photo courtesy of Château Kefraya.

Kefraya has been owned by the de Bustros family for generations, but the vineyard was not planted until 1946. At first they sold their grapes to other Bekaa Valley producers before eventually releasing their first vintage in 1979.

The 430 hectares of vines are interspersed with rocky outcrops that contain an ancient cave system that was used for tombs in biblical times. Outside the tombs seats were carved into the rock to allow mourners to sit and weep in comfort. They still turn up Roman finds while tending the fields and have a small museum of coins and artefacts in the Château. The current wine maker, Fabrice Guiberteau, is one of the most engaging and inspiring I have ever met and he’s brimming over with energy and enthusiasm for this place and the wines he makes here.

Fabrice sitting on the mourner’s seat carved into the rock of the ancient tomb.

The Wines 

Château Kefraya Blanc de Blancs is a beautifully textured and deliciously creamy dry white with good acidity. It’s made from an unlikely blend of Viognier, Clairette, Muscat, Bourboulenc, Ugni Blanc, Chardonnay and Verdejo.

Château Kafraya Rouge is an oak aged blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvèdre. It’s a lovely wine with spice notes as well as rich black fruit and some earthiness too. The drying tannins give some nice structure to the sweet, ripe fruit.

The ‘flagship’ wine here is Comte de M, an intense, concentrated and fine blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with Syrah that spend 18 months in new French oak barrels.

The traditional Lebanese Amphorae used to mature some wines at Château Kefraya – photo courtesy of Château Kefraya.

In recent years Fabrice has turned his attention to using clay amphorae for maturing wines. Such vessels have long been used in Lebanon for ageing Arak and the project has resulted in two top cuvées that aim to capture the terroir of the country. The red, simply called Chateau Kefraya Amphora is an aromatic and floral blend of Cinsault, Grenache, Syrah and Tempranillo. Lots of red fruit, herbs and spice vie with each other round the palate, while there is a lively freshness, enticing minerality and suave tannins. 

The white partner, Chateau Kefraya Adéenne (French for DNA), is an extraordinary blend of Merwah, Obeidi and Mekssessé, Lebanon’s indigenous white grapes. Fermented and aged in three year old barrels, the wine is intensely herbal and mineral, with soft stone fruit and rich, pithy bergamot citrus. The palate is salty, nutty, delicately creamy and silky by turn and is deliciously savoury and complex.

Domaine des Tourelles

Domaine des Tourelles – photo by Quentin Sadler.

This beautiful estate is the oldest secular wine producer in Lebanon, having been created by Jura-born Frenchman François-Eugène Brun in 1868. Nowadays it is run by the delightful Faouzi Issa who crafts a very fine range of wines and believes in non-interventionist winemaking using spontaneous fermentations in the winery’s nineteenth century concrete fermenting vats. In fact all the equipment is original here, nothing is new. By keeping to traditional methods and using the old equipment from the nineteenth century Faouzi creates wines that are completely in step with the natural wine movement.

Faouzi Issa, the head winemaker at Domaine des Tourelles – photo courtesy of Domaine des Tourelles.

The Wines

His dry Domaine des Tourelles White is an enticing, aromatic blend of Viognier, Chardonnay, Obeidi and Muscat, while his Chardonnay is delicately exotic and creamy. The Domaine des Tourelles Rosé is a beautifully textured, full-flavoured blend of Cinsault, Tempranillo and Syrah that is perfect with the flavours of the Mediterranean.

The Domaine des Tourelles Red is a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Cinsault giving it that very Bekaa Valley combination of the Rhône and Bordeaux making it structured and spicy. It has rich, dark cherry fruit, smooth tannins and wild Mediterranean herbs.

Faouzi also makes a pure Cinsault made from 60 year old vines. It is beautifully bright and spicy with red cherry and plums as well as a touch of dried spices, dried fruit and an earthy, savoury quality. Above all it has a real purity to it that keeps you coming back for more.

Their Marquis des Beys is a stylish, dark brooding and spicy blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. It delivers plenty of concentrated blackcurrant, deep, mocha-like flavours from 18 months in oak, fine tannins and balancing freshness.

All of these are excellent, but the pinnacle of the range is their Syrah du Liban. 100% Syrah, it’s powerful yet balanced, fragrant, floral and spicy with dark fruit vying with fresher raspberry and red cherry on the palate, together with cracked black pepper and those wild Mediterranean herbs.

Domaine des Tourelles wines are distributed in the UK by Boutinot Wines.

Château Musar

An aerial view of some of Musar’s vineyards in the Bekaa Valley – photo courtesy of Château Musar.

The producer that springs to mind for most people when Lebanese wine is mentioned. Musar was founded in 1930 in the cellars of the 18th century Mzar Castle in Ghazir, a village on the coast some 30 kilometres north of Beirut. Mzar means ‘place of beauty’ and was adapted as the name of the wine itself. The French focus became strengthened by a close friendship developing between founder Gaston Hochar and Ronald Barton (of Château Langoa-Barton in Saint-Julien) who was stationed in Lebanon during WWII.

Gaston’s son Serge took over the winemaking in 1959 and set about perfecting the blend and style. It took him nearly twenty years, with the 1977 red – the first vintage I ever tasted – being the vintage that brought Musar international renown as a fine wine.

Some of Musar’s vineyards in the Bekaa Valley, two and a half hours drive from their winery – photo by Quentin Sadler.

In recognition of all this as well as his perseverance and dedication during Lebanon’s civil war in keeping the winery going without losing a single vintage, Serge was chosen as Decanter Magazine’s first ‘Man of the Year’ in 1984.

Today the winery is run by Serge’s son Gaston. It has been officially organic since 2006 makes wines in a non-interventionist, natural way.

The Wines

Musar’s fabulous eighteenth century cellars beneath the Mzar Castle in Ghazir – photo courtesy of Château Musar.

The red Château Musar itself is the grand vin of the estate and is always a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with Cinsault and Carignan. It is fermented and aged in concrete tanks before spending a further year in French oak barrels and another four maturing in bottle. It is always rich, spicy, leathery and earthy and has a sort of beguiling sense of mystery about it which sets it apart.

Château Musar White is a blend of barrel fermented and long aged Obeidi and Merwah. It’s an extraordinary wine reminiscent of an aged white Graves from Bordeaux. An acquired taste perhaps, but one worth acquiring.

Bottles maturing in Château Musar’s cellars – photo courtesy of Château Musar.

Their Hochar Père et Fils red is an approachable blend of Cinsault, Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon, from a single vineyard. It is fermented in concrete tanks, and then aged in barrel and bottle before being released four years after harvest.

The estate’s easiest drinking wines are the Musar Jeune range. There is a red, a white and a rosé and they are fresh and approachable while still having much of the Musar savoury style.

Chateau Musar wines are distributed in the UK by Chateau Musar UK.

Clos St Thomas

This exciting winery is the brainchild of Saïd Touma whose family have been making Arak in the Bekaa Valley for over 130 years. Inspired by that experience and the wineries that came before him he created this estate in 1990 and now farms some sixty five hectares that sits in the Bekaa at 1000 metres above sea level. His son, Joe-Assaad, is now in charge after training as a winemaker in Montpelier and gaining a great deal of experience in Bordeaux – that French link is still alive and well it seems. It is still very much a family concern with the entire family working in the business. Joe-Assaad grows all the normal Bekaa grapes, but like others is also now seeking more of a Lebanese identity. To that end he too has started using the indigenous Obeidi – or Obeidy as he calls it – in their white blends and, since 2012, as a single varietal.

The Wines

Château St Thomas Chardonnay is a nice combination of ripe, tropical fruit, nutty, creamy vanilla and a balancing freshness, while the Clos St Thomas Les Gourmets Blanc is an altogether zestier style made from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier and the local Obeidy. The Château St Thomas Les Emirs Rouge is a richly fruity blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with spicy Grenache and Syrah, while the star must be their Pinot Noir. Grown in a single plot at 1200 metres this is a vibrant, juicy Pinot with big fruit, smooth tannins and lovely smoky, savoury and truffle-like aromas. To make Pinot this good in place this hot is a real triumph.

Clos St Thomas wines are distributed in the UK by Lebanese Fine Wines.

Ixsir

Ixsir’s stunning high altitude vineyards in Batroun – photo courtesy of Ixsir.

Ixsir – named for Al-Iksir or Elixir, a secret potion that grants eternal youth and love – is an exciting winery created in 2008 by a group of successful businessmen together with Gabriel Rivero, the Spanish-born former winemaker of Kefraya. It’s based in a beautiful and brilliantly renovated seventeenth century Ottoman farmhouse in the hills above Batroun. During Byzantine times Batroun was called Botrus, which is Greek for grape and it was an important port for grape and wine exporting.

They have vineyards around the winery, but also source grapes from the Bekaa Valley and Jezzine in the south where the vineyards are planted 1350 metres above sea level and show the vital cooling effect of the altitude.

The beautiful barrel cellar at Ixsir – photo courtesy of Ixsir.

Their entry level wines are the Altitudes Ixsir range. Available in all three colours, the wines are very drinkable. The red is a sappy, lightly oaked, fruit forward blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Caladoc (a cross between Grenache and Malbec) and Tempranillo, while the white is a bright, aromatic, unoaked blend of Obeideh, Muscat, Viognier. 

Their Ixsir Grande Reserve wines are more ambitious, complex and fine. The red is a rich, smoky and spicy barrel aged blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Arinarnoa (a cross between Merlot and Petit Verdot. The white is a succulent, judiciously oaked blend of Viognier, Sauvignon and Chardonnay that balances succulence and freshness really well.

The top of the range is their El Ixsir wines. The red, a blend of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, once again combines Bordeaux structure with the fleshier, spicier characteristics of Southern France. It is dense, concentrated and richly fruity with minty, herbal flavours, black pepper and loads of black fruit – perfect with lamb.

Ixsir wines are distributed in the UK by Enotria & Coe.

I would add that all of these producers also make excellent rosés. When I was in Lebanon I enjoyed them very much, as being that much lighter than the reds I found them perfect with the  lovely Mediterranean mezze

Of course in world terms Lebanon is a tiny producer, just 0.06% of total world production in 2010, but the average quality seems very high. Not even the biggest producers in Lebanon count as bulk producers though, so it is a land of boutique winemakers, people who feel driven to make wine, who strive for quality and do not cut corners. What’s more the wines are incredibly food friendly. So a Lebanese offering would enhance any restaurant wine list as they go superbly with all sorts of food, from haute cuisine to relaxed Mediterranean fare, and offer a wonderful combination of classic French style and vibrant Mediterranean flavours that can be really exciting.

2 thoughts on “Lebanon – an ancient land, modern wines

  1. Quentin, I am used to excellent pieces from you, but this surpasses your best. Well researched, highly informative, and oh so readable. Can’t wait to visit this exciting county’s wineries. Thank you.
    Keith Grainger.

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