The extraordinary story of winemaking in the Lebanon

Posted on: 9th February, 2015

Category: The Wine Buff

Contributor: Tony Eklof

Tony Eklof, originally from New England, has settled in Clonakilty after a career as a librarian at University College Dublin. His knowledge and passion for wine has been inspired by frequent visits to the wine growing regions of the continent, particularly Italy and France.

The story of winemaking in the Lebanon has been told many times in articles, magazines and online wine blogs, but always deserves a re-telling because it is so inspiring.

It is not a new story. The ancient Phoenicians who had a seabourne empire for around a thousand years, were instrumental in spreading viticulture throughout the Mediterranean area. The Romans considered this area so important for wine making that they built their Temple of Bacchus, (God of wine) in former Heliopolis, now ironically, the Hezbollah stronghold of Baalbek. For centuries, under strict Arab Caliphate rule, wine production ceased, and only revived in the mid nineteenth century with the Jesuits planting vines in the Beqaa Valley and French influence in the broader area fuelling interest in wine culture.

Lebanese vineyards were for many years located exclusively in the Beqaa (or Bekaa) Valley, a high plateau with long warm summers and cool wet winters, surrounded by mountains. Chateau Musar, perhaps the most famous of all Lebanese wineries, was founded in 1930, but really came to prominence under the guidance of the charismatic Serge Hochar, who passed away recently while on holiday. The wine magazine Decanter, in paying tribute, described Hochar as ‘single-handedly putting Lebanese wine on the map’. That the estate could function at all, let alone produce top quality and much sought after wine during the period 1975-1990 when civil war raged throughout the Lebanon, is the most remarkable aspect of this story. The fact that his vineyards were on one side of a mountain and the winery on the other, meant many perilous journeys to get the grapes to Ghazir for processing. Stories abound of shells flying over the grape-pickers and cluster bombs found in the vineyards, but the only year when no wine was made was 1984 because the grapes fermented before they made it to the winery. Serge Hochar was well known in wine circles because he travelled the world tirelessly to wine events and fairs to promote his wine which won many prizes. Two of his estates wines are available in Ireland, the flagship ‘Chateau Musar’ and the more modest ‘Hochar Pere et Fils’, both made with the typical Lebanese combination of Bordeaux and Rhone grape varieties, giving the wine its typical warm, fruity, spicy characteristic.

Other Lebanese wineries to take note of are Ksara, founded by the Jesuits and the largest in the area with some 70 per cent of production, available in Marks and Spencer’s, and Chateau Massaya, backed by powerful French wine dynasties and an example of the new boutique wineries in the Lebanon. Chateau Musar is available in many outlets including O’Briens of Douglas in Cork, and it is also worth checking the online sites for M and S and the excellent JNWine who carry both the highly-rated Chateaux Kefraya and Massaya. Prices for these wines range from €8 euro to €34 and more, depending on the maker and the vintage. If you have never tried Lebanese wine I urge you to do so, not just because the courage and determination of their winemakers deserves support, but also because the wines are unusual and delicious.

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