The average wine drinker, probably nothing. The connoisseur will have heard about, and possibly tasted, Chateau Musar. But thanks to Lebanese-born wine expert Michael Karam, who gave a presentation on the subject at the Emerging Regions tasting in September 2014, now we know there’s more to Lebanon than the oxidized Musar bottles that turn up at tastings as exotic examples of wines of the 70s.
Lebanon today produces around 7 million bottles of wine per year. This is very little indeed – any commercial producer will put out more than this. For example, to take a neighbouring country, Israel’s Carmel winery (and Israel is also a small producer) alone makes 15 million bottles annually. So we could call Lebanon a boutique, or even garage, wine country.
The majority of Lebanese wines come from the Bekaa Valley, mainly from its western parts and to some extent the eastern areas. The Bekaa Valley, Karam told us, is part of the historic triangle where wine originated thousands of years ago. The Phoenicians here may have been the first wine merchants. But the modern history of wine in Lebanon starts with the Jesuits, in the 19th century. Some monks were making their own wine from grapes brought from Algeria – mainly Cinsaut and Carignan. Then Domaine des Tourelles was established in 1868 by a Frenchman, and the French influence continued after the First World War, when Lebanon became French territory. Winemaking then got another push, and Chateau Musar was established in 1930, 50 miles north of Beirut, to supply the French with wine.
Lebanon gained independence in 1943 but the French wine culture was continued. It was only from the 1990s on that international varieties were beginning to be planted, and more and more new wineries established. Today there are 42 producers in the country, including such new names as Chateau Florentine, Chateau Ka, and Chateau Ksara. According to Karam, it is the Mediterranean red varieties, such as Cinsaut, Carignan, Mourvedre and Grenache, that best express Lebanese terroir and identity.
What future for the wines of Lebanon? With such a small number of producers and bottles, the aim clearly won’t be to conquer the international market, but Lebanese wines can be an exotic, interesting addition to the palette. The whites I have tasted were a bit too obviously oaky and the reds sometimes very tannic but the wines have a lot of spice, which I like. Some are now readily available in the UK (Ixsir, Ksara, Tourelles, and of course Musar) at a reasonable (though not inexpensive) price if you fancy serving local wines with your Lebanese-inspired dishes.