Lebanon is a paradise for grape growing with its limestone soils, high altitude vineyards and near perfect climatic conditions. But this tiny and strategic country sits in one of the world’s most troubled areas, engulfed by the currently chaotic state of Syria to the north and east and, with huge unease, sharing its southern border with Israel and the Golan Heights. The tensions are focused further by the World Press, that want to keep building up the stories of doom and war. However, most in Lebanon do not follow the press, and whilst they are well aware of their neighbours problems, they continue to build a calm and peaceful life for themselves.
And this is why Lebanon is such a jewel. It is a place to visit and relax, enjoying the culture, the people, the food and of course the wine. The people are positive and enthusiastic, looking to progress and improve themselves, whilst also helping others. For example, in 2006 when not enough grape pickers could be found, help came from office workers, mechanics, cleaners etc who all gave their time freely to ensure their villages wine harvest was made.
Lebanon sits on the shores of the eastern Mediterranean sea, with a population of less than five million people. It is a small and largely agricultural land, unlike its Middle Eastern neighbours. Dominated by two large mountain ranges that run the length of the country, the coastal Lebanon range and interior Anti-Lebanon range, it is the fertile and high Bekaa Valley in between where most farming takes place. The Bekaa floor is at over 900 metres, with most vineyards planted between 1000 and 1200 metres. The summers are hot, but because of the altitude nights are always cool, making it very similar to Argentina. Lets not forget the winters; with the high mountains at an average of 2000 metres snow-capped throughout the winter months, there is some excellent skiing to be had.
Winemaking in Lebanon goes back thousands of years, but the modern era began in 1857 with the arrival of Jesuits from France who established what is now Château Ksara. They planted Cinsault, trained in free-standing ‘gobolet’ bushes, so typical of the Lebanon. This goblet-shape make a canopy leaves which protects the grapes from sun and helps retain moisture. A second wave of other Mediterranean grapes, like Grenache, Carignan and Syrah followed, and in the last 20 years or so a rush to plant more French based vines such asBordeaux, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, as well as recent plantings of Carmenère. For white wines, Chardonnay, Muscat, Sauvignon Blanc and Sémillon are widespread, but now Viognier is increasingly important and this is an area where most future growth is expected to come from. Many vineyards are now trained on wires, although all vineyard work is still done by hand.
Like many wine producing countries, wine play an important part in the social interactions of society, from family meals to gatherings of friends. It is often drunk as easily as Almaza, the major Lebanese Beer, which is a nice refreshing pilsner, ideal for lunchtimes.
One special drink, Arak, the spirit delicately flavoured with green anise that is still a vital part of Lebanon’s culture, is made from the native grapes of Merweh and Obaideh. Almost all wineries distil and bottle Arak as an important part of their business, using hand-made clay jars, produced in the Bekaa village of Beit that can only produce 100 jars per year, each one taking 8 months to complete. This is a long tradition, and although the quantity made is low, each winery competes to have the best Arak.
There are eight large wineries, and many smaller ones, in the Bekaa Valley. Each produce their own wines from their own blends, and also have their owned methods for fermentation and storage. Some use concrete pits to ferment in, other use the latest stainless steel tanks. The common thread is that each winemaker is passionate about what they do and how they do it.
Château Ksara is Lebanon’s oldest winery, founded in 1857. It is a household name in the Lebanon thanks to being the biggest wine producer at three million bottles annually, and as such has a presence in every shop, restaurant and café. It has around 39% of both the domestic and export markets for all Lebanese wines, and is probably the easiest to find in the UK.
I hope to review the wineries soon and see how good the export wines are, as well as match them to more European dishes. I got hold of a great Lebanese Chateau Musar Red 2005 to try from Wine Rack, but the range in stock is still limited unless you go mail-order.
You can buy Lebanese wine in Tescos and Waitrose occasionally, or from more specialised wine sellers.
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