While most people associate fine wine production with western Europe, the truth is that Lebanon is one of the oldest wine producing sites in the entire world. Winemaking in the region dates as far back as 5000 B.C. which, when you consider its ideal Mediterranean climate and welcoming terrain, shouldn’t be all that surprising. Add to the mix the early cultural influences that impacted Lebanon due to the ancient Phoenician sea trade and you have a landscape ripe for not only wine production but wine consumption as well.
The Phoenicians, some of the earliest inhabitants of Lebanon and its surrounding areas, are credited with bringing the earliest Lebanese wines to its neighbors, including Greece, Turkey, Spain and Italy as well as the islands of Sicily and Sardinia. Bybline, a wine named after the wine-centric port of Byblos, was one of the first that was commercially transported by using a thin
By the early 20th century, Lebanon had become a protectorate of France, and for the next 25 years, its wine production grew to accommodate the new French political and military residents that came with the arrangement. Special attention was paid to expanding the growth of French varietals: joining the Jesuit Cinsault plantings was Cabernet Sauvignon, with smaller vineyards dedicated to Merlot, Pinot Noir, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Viognier and Sémillon among other European grapes such as Grenache and Tempranillo. Today, Lebanon’s native grapes, Merwah and Obaideh, continue to be cultivated for producing white wine as well as Arak, a popular anise flavored liquor, but most of the country’s nearly 2,500 hectares are now planted primarily with French varietals. France’s influence on Lebanon’s winemaking philosophy extend to the country’s current châteaux, which employ French or French-trained oenologists, consultants and estate managers to ensure the quality and character of the wines produced. Even the fact that the country’s wineries are called châteaux is a nod to France’s indelible impact.
For a relatively small country – it sits a bit over 10,000 square kilometers – Lebanon enjoys a considerably diverse terrain. Two north to south mountain ranges lie to the west and frame the Bekaa Valley, long considered the apex of Lebanese winemaking regions. The country’s Mediterranean climate is equally varied, featuring long, dry and sometimes hot summers and cool, wet winters. If there is one problem that exists, however, it is irrigation. It has improved over the years, but during particularly dry, arid seasons, harvests can fall short of expectations. Thankfully, some of the country’s higher elevations temper these conditions and provide more favorable environments for the grapes to flourish.
Given its diversity, wine producers have tried to optimally utilize various sections of the country. Grapes grow near the northwest coastal city of Batroun as well southcentral Jezzine, but the Bakaa Valley remains Lebanon’s top wine producing region. Most of the country’s major wineries are found in the Valley, which produces around 90% of Lebanon’s total of more than 7 million bottles per annum. Highly fertile, the land is ideally complex: limestone, clay, stone and gravel are all present, with certain areas blessed with the Mediterranean’s signature red soil, or terra rossa, known for its clay characteristics that are so favorable for both grape and olive cultivation. Most vines are found in the southern sections of the Valley, although some older ones remain in Baalbek, an eastern city close to the Syria-Lebanon border.
Despite its history of political unrest, Lebanon has managed to secure its wine industry’s presence. Ever the survivor, the country kept its five existing wineries afloat during the last civil war – which ended in 1990 after 15 years of strife. By the time the war ceased, its total number of viable wineries had grown to over 30. Additional châteaux have popped up as well over subsequent years, with many focused on bespoke products. The Big 5 – Château Ksara, Château Kefraya, Domaine des Tourelles, Château Nakad, and perhaps the most widely recognized, Château Musar, were joined by the now notable Château St. Thomas, Château Heritage, Massaya, Château Ka and Domaine Wardy, with all maintaining a steady following and being awarded not only for their wines but for innovative arak production as well.
Lebanon’s wine production future appears bright. While consistency in quality is still slightly problematic, it can be forgiven. The country’s winemakers are still refining their techniques and taking a cue from the French masters by focusing their attention on the expression of terroir. It has been said that Lebanese wines showcase the heat and passion of the Mediterranean with the finesse and sophistication of Bordeaux. It will be interesting to watch the wines come into their own, and find their place among the greats.