Lebanese wine has been on the radar for some time, but it’s only recently that the reputation of this ancient viticultural region has evolved beyond Chateau Musar.
One of the oldest wine-producing countries in the world, with records traceable to 7000 B.C., Lebanon's rich history features the Phoenicians and Romans as well as claims that Qana (Cana) in the south of the country is where Jesus miraculously turned water into wine. Under the Ottoman Empire (1299–1922), winemaking was restricted to church use only and viticulture languished until Catholic priests of the Jesuit order replanted vines in 1857.
In the late 20th century, the Lebanese wine industry was all but killed off by 15 years of civil war. Only the celebrated Chateau Musar continued production amid the fighting and shelling. Its amazing story and acclaimed wines have traveled far, but it is the rapid growth of wine production in the past 10 years – when the number of Lebanese wineries has grown from five to 40 – that is changing the country's vinous reputation.
Predominantly made from red Bordeaux varieties, the wines are recognizable in name but not in taste. And it's that individuality in terms of aroma, flavor and texture which has given them a boost in the fashion stakes.
“It’s an exotic place, and everything exotic is sexy and interesting in the beginning,” says Faouzi Issa, winemaker at Domaine des Tourelles, which was founded in 1857 by Frenchman François-Eugène Brun. Issa believes that Lebanese winemakers have an advantage in being frequently underestimated. However, he thinks their big challenge will be to ensure that the quality of their wines outlive any temporary glamor attached to being trendy.
Making wine in Lebanon is no mean feat. Landmines may no longer ravage vineyards, but the industry's survival in one of the political hotspots of the Middle East is a small miracle, given the country's recent past and its religious tensions. “The fact that wine is being made at all there – where you have 16 different faiths, some of which are against wine – makes it interesting,” says Tim Atkin, a Master of Wine and wine writer who presented a series of masterclasses on Lebanon at the 2012 London International Wine Fair.
Only the stubborn and perhaps the little touched would dare to start a winery in a country where the majority of the population follow the Islamic religion, which forbids alcohol. One winemaker who has stepped up to the mark is Habib Karam, from Karam Winery, which has its vineyards in the Jezzine area of southern Lebanon. This eccentric airplane pilot had always fancied making wine as a hobby, but he says that when he started producing wine commercially, his neighbors thought he was crazy.
“I was buying up land and uprooting the apple trees to plant vines,” Karam recalls. “People thought I was losing my mind. The mentality in Lebanon is that an apple is bigger and weighs more, so it’s worth more than a grape."
Karam adds jokingly: “When I asked my worker to prune the vineyard and cut back the yield, he said, ‘Even if you cut off my hands, I will not do it!’ So I cut the grapes myself – and then I cut his hands off!"
Karam, who was born in England to Lebanese parents, has named his flagship wine "Corpus Christi," after the college at Cambridge University in England that rejected his application to study there. Despite holding a long-standing grudge, he sends the college a bottle of Corpus Christi every Christmas. His neighbors, meanwhile, have grown to accept his methods – and his growing reputation: "Now they see the articles and are very proud and want me to be town councilor."
Another well-known Lebanese winemaker is Akram Kassatly of Château Ka. Kassatly had always wanted to follow his father, Nicolas, into winemaking, and with that in mind studied enology in France. Once back in Lebanon, he bought vineyards in Chtaura in partnership with his brother Nabil and spent five years developing the grapes and a winery. But then their homeland erupted into civil war and militias destroyed their business.
Years later, when peace returned, the brothers rebuilt their facilities, this time producing concentrated syrups and liqueurs – a less risky and less costly venture. Finally, in 2005, Akram Kassatly started making wine again, this time in partnership with his son Nayef, and they're not alone. The country's viticultural potential has attracted a good deal of interest from overseas, and many French winemakers are now working there. It also has a new winery, the Ixsir brand's $11-million facility just outside the northern coastal city of Batroun.
Beirut publishing consultant Michael Karam, a former war and business correspondent, is one observer who has high hopes for Lebanon's viticultural industry. “Wine can be the future for Lebanon in terms of selling a more positive image,” he says. “You’ve seen what wine has done for South Africa and other New World countries. It can do a lot for Lebanon, too."
“I really believe that the seven million bottles they produce can become one of the sexiest wines on Earth,” adds Karam. “There's a lot of intrigue… [Lebanon] can be a bright star in the wine world.”
Certainly, the international boom in Lebanese cuisine and street food has helped the industry's reputation, although true fans of Lebanese wine feel the country has more to offer than just being a passing fancy. “The rise of Lebanese food and wine is important in promoting each other,” says Atkin. “But it’s also a paradox, because it needs to move beyond the ethnic pigeonhole.”