When preparing for a trip to Lebanon it pays not to spend too much time lingering on the history section of your guide book, unless of course you are looking for a reason not to go.
There are few countries whose past doesn’t include a fair amount of conflict, yet it seems with Lebanon there have been scant periods without it. Until a few months ago my limited knowledge of the country was largely informed by the Nine O’clock News coverage through the eighties, its name usually accompanied by the words bombing, invasion, or news of Terry Waite. Yet I have been aware of this troubled land’s potential for wine for a while. Working for an importer in the early 90s I would often slip a bottle of Chateau Musar (see below) into blind tastings against top Bordeaux wines and invariably end up with an order. I expect that being able to describe scenes of winemaking through adversity no doubt helped: townsfolk sheltering in wine cellars, vineyard workers avoiding shelling, grape trucks running checkpoints - all unembellished.
But history is no barometer of the current situation, and most winemakers in Lebanon are tired of being considered as plucky mavericks making wine under fire. There were in fact only 15 of the 35 wineries in Lebanon now making wine in existence during the last conflict - between Hezbollah and Israel in 2006 (and those wineries were largely unaffected) - and there were even fewer than that making wine through the country’s civil war (1975 – 1990). They wish to move on and let the story be about their wine.
And what a story it is. There are a few places in the world that are blessed with all of the factors needed for great natural winemaking (i.e. not having to compensate for a deficiency that has to be overcome by irrigation, chemical treatment in the vineyard or additives to the wine) and Lebanon is one of them. Via the Phoenicians, Lebanon was the vinous starting point for many of Europe’s wine regions and the conquering Romans thought highly enough of the area to build the largest temple they ever dedicated to Bacchus (their wine god) there.
The key to all this is topography. This tiny country, which could easily fit into Kent and Sussex (I had looked to compare the country with Wales, the natural benchmark for such things, but that was far too large!), is flanked by two high mountain ranges, between which nestles the Bekaa Valley. Vineyards in the Bekaa are at between 900 and 1200 metres in altitude (a key factor in warm climate winemaking, providing the cooler temperatures necessary for finer wine), mountain breezes help prevent disease, and snow-melt provides a year round water table beneath the rich and diverse soils – all conditions that would have some French winemakers turning a shade of vine-leaf.
The recent political stability has encouraged much long-term planning in wine producing circles and the insuppressible optimism of the Lebanese winemaking community seems to know no bounds. There are eco-friendly state-of-the-art wineries being built into the hillsides, where minimum environmental impact is as important as the wines’ quality; the finest sites are being planted with a view to producing wines to rival the world’s very best, and by people with the highest winemaking credentials, who’ve long been aware of the area’s great potential that until recently was only hinted at.
All of this is good news to the wine lover looking for something different, but if that’s you, you’ll need to venture further than your regular supermarket aisle, since the country as a whole produces less volume than that of some supermarket special offer wines!
Here are a few I heartily recommend and in most cases if you do choose to buy some you’ll probably be speaking to someone with a real knowledge of the wine who can give you a little more of the story behind the bottle - so why go for the Mills and Boon of a mass-produced Koala Creek Shiraz when you can have a rare classic!