Nothing's Virgin Here

Lebanese Wine History Drinking

The modern nation of Lebanon might be only 100 years old, but the wine trade here has been around for more than 5,000 years, thanks to a longitudinal coastline that runs the entire length of the country. Ancient Phoenicians shared amphorae with bustling port cities across the Mediterranean and shipped wine and other goods to the rest of the stops on their route, from Alexandria, Egypt, to Cádiz, Spain.

Today’s Lebanese wine industry is small — its total production would barely match the output of one boutique winery in Italy — but mighty. Its growth really hit its stride in the early 2000s after the end of the 15-year civil war, and the country’s numerous vineyards now produce grapes for close to 80 official and unofficial local wineries. With Syria to the east and Israel/Palestine to the south, Lebanon’s limited square footage for wine production is often split into four or five distinct appellations and further segmented into varying microclimates clustered across the Bekaa Valley, where the majority of grapes are harvested.

Contrary to the grainy, yellow filter deployed by Hollywood, Lebanon is not made up of sand dunes. What it does have are mountain ranges cresting at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, a valley floor at 3,000 feet, a natural water table, predominantly limestone soils, and 300 days of sunshine each year. The overall weather and topography are ideal for the kind of diverse, low-intervention grape-growing that makes for truly great wine. The irony in this overview is the enduring need for it to be included here in the first place — or in any piece of writing on the subject of Lebanese wine.

But there is more to the story than just the natural blessings granted to Lebanon’s winemakers. They are counterbalanced by the country’s curses. From the steel tanks that store the juice to the glass bottles that hug it, so much of what goes into creating Lebanese wine depends on managing costly imports and dodging fastballs. Aside from the country’s recent fiscal collapse, decades of corruption and theft within Lebanon’s mismanaged ministries means that basic utilities are not guaranteed. Backup generators and alternative water sources are a must. Land is expensive, and infrastructure is poorly maintained or still in disrepair from the 34-day war between Israel and Lebanon in 2006. Manual labor is often left to underpaid refugees escaping human rights catastrophes in neighboring Syria and Palestine. Winemakers are forced to push through the rot on their own dime to invent a style that’s distinctly Lebanese.

As a Lebanese-American wine writer, podcaster, and researcher, I am hyperaware of Lebanon’s depiction in international wine media today. Despite having been around for millennia, Lebanon as a wine-producing country is still a revelation for most readers. This is in part because of a huge gap in wine education, which remains Eurocentric and generally dismissive of the ancient world’s contributions. All things wine typically begin and end in France and Italy, while the burgeoning comeback of lands whose winemaking histories date back millennia is reduced to a paragraph, if mentioned at all.

Lebanon has for decades had to battle an outdated narrative. It goes like this: Lebanon is first and foremost a land of war where the people’s resilience, despite it all, makes their beauty — in this case, their wine — worthy of your attention. The legendary Serge Hochar of Lebanon’s Chateau Musar was the driving force behind this narrative in the 1970s. After 400 years of Ottoman rule pushed it into dormancy, Lebanon’s wine scene was revived during the French Mandate of the 1920s, but it still comprised less than half a dozen players when the civil war broke out in 1975. Hochar made it his mission to show the world what Lebanon could do, even while foreign and internal forces split the country into pieces. His vines grew on through the chaos as he went abroad and charismatically pitched his funky Bordeaux-style blends to British drinkers. In the midst of intermittent invasions and raids, the duality in this story made sense. It was, at the time, reality. But here we are, 45 years later, still waxing poetic about this juxtaposition. While Lebanon’s politics remain stuck in the ’70s, so do its stories and the people who write and read them. Despite having been around for millennia, Lebanon as a wine-producing country is still a revelation for most readers.

There is no chance for new generations to shake the aftershocks of instability if the media consistently portrays the country in extremes alone. We Lebanese shouldn’t shy away from what we have been through, either; it’s just one bitter note in an otherwise complex bottle that has a lot more to say.

Many of Lebanon’s family-run micro-wineries that were born after 2000 are now on their second or even third generation. Château Cana, a winery overlooking the Lamartine Valley, was established by Fadi Gerges but is now run by his daughter, Joanna. After taking over, Joanna revamped the brand identity, positioned the winery as a wedding venue, and opened a small guesthouse on the premises. The winery is known for its use of possibly native grapes like the inky sabbaghieh and green apple-tinged meksassi.

The trend of leaning into indigenous varieties began about two decades ago when Bekaa Valley’s Château St. Thomas confirmed the white obaideh grape as 100 percent Lebanese via a DNA test in Montpellier, France. Other supposed natives await further testing to confirm their origins, work that must be privately funded by the individual wineries. Like so much in Lebanon, winemakers are left to figure everything out among themselves without any official state referee.

Chateau Rayak is named in honor of another Bekaa village, Rayak, which was once a hub for travelers passing through the town’s massive train station on the Beirut-Damascus track. Rayak’s winemaker, Elias Maalouf, used to run Train/Train Lebanon, an organization dedicated to the preservation of the now-defunct railway’s legacy. Each of his bottles commemorates a different chapter of Lebanon’s history, like Rayak 43, the first aircraft built and designed for the valley skies. He also produces a lightly perfumed, short-lived red with the native grape maryameh, which visitors themselves can bottle straight from the tank.

New stories like these are absolutely worth telling, but paradoxically it’s the older one that continues to lure writers and readers and, most importantly, compel people to purchase a bottle of Lebanese wine. But the industry’s need for support should not be the sole reason for writing about it. Lebanon’s wine producers need spotlights and profiles, but not only when their vineyards are on fire or their offices have caved in on them. The country isn’t the easiest to find on a map, but it should not be used only as a token location on a restaurant’s vast wine list featuring bottles from far, far away.

To make matters more complicated, the country finds itself once again inching toward collapse even as I type. Our wretched version of 2020, which featured a pandemic, an economic implosion, and a devastating chemical explosion, has left the Lebanese struggling to keep any industry alive, much less one that produces a so-called nonessential product. Obstacles like these continue to make the idea of winemaking in the Middle East seem impressive. And it is. I want to be proud of what Lebanon has accomplished, but applause doesn’t solve anything. As we wear our tenacity like a badge of honor, those responsible for the mess are clapping for us, too. Our undying spirit makes the news and it becomes our trademark, but I don’t want to wow or be wowed by our ability to overcome trauma anymore.

I’m not attempting to proselytize others so they pen dithyrambs about the glorious land of milk and honey. Minimizing the challenges we face would be normalizing the delusion. The media can be fair to the stories and the wines and to those who consume them if it walks the tightrope using nuance and depth as counterweights.

So, to editors and content producers: It’s time to tell stories with fresh angles that unpack the subtleties of this ancient and renewed culture. Continuing to introduce readers to Lebanon’s wine scene via photos of fermentation tanks alongside military ones only further cements this trope of the dangerous yet exotic home of contradictions. Go deeper.

Sommeliers and wine directors: Keep stocking Lebanese wines and revisit the story you’ve been telling as the reason for their inclusion. Get to know your producers beyond the summary on the tech sheet. Ask more questions.

And to all you enthusiastic wine drinkers: It’s time to try more Lebanese wines and talk more about them. Talk about how the pinot noir of Lebanon tastes different from that of Champagne because it’s reflecting the terroir of the Eastern Mediterranean, not inland France. Talk about the experimental skin-contact merwah and the spicy old-vine cinsault. Talk about how all this great wine comes to be, even as the morally and financially bankrupt people in power pass the buck. Talk about it so we can continue to outgrow this reductive synopsis. There is new blood here, not just spilled blood; and there is good wine here, not just wine from the turbulent Middle East.

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