Lebanon is a Mediterranean country that has had a tumultuous history that stretches back thousands of years. The history of wine in the country begins with the domestication of vines by the Phoenicians around 5,000 years ago, the civilisation who created the basis of our alphabet spread wine culture across the Mediterranean and formed the building block of wine drinking that spread to the Greeks, the Romans and vicariously to the rest of the world. Lebanese wine has been mentioned in the bible, (though it was Canaan back then), hosted the wedding in which Jesus ostensibly turned water into wine, and has the largest temple to Bacchus built by the Romans. When they spread their trade language and alphabet, they took with them their knowledge of viticulture and winemaking. The strain of plant “vitis vinifera” promulgated due to their influence, though evolution and artificial selection has created a very different beast today from the one that they tamed. For hundreds of years the Phoenicians spread culture and winemaking, as well as trade of their own wines, until they were conquered by the Romans.
As mentioned, the Romans could think of nothing more befitting of the country than building a complex which included the still-surviving Temple of Bacchus, in celebration of the god of wine and revelry. The area in which they built it receives over 300 days of sunshine each year, and is now celebrated as an area of dry-farming (minimal intervention, little disease, few pests and a rich biodiversity) which make it still a fantastic area to grow wine. When the Roman Empire receded and the country changed hands, this wine culture remained up until the Ottoman Empire’s control, during which wine production declined.
It wasn’t until Chateau Ksara was founded in 1857, to create communion wine for Coptic Christians, that winemaking in the country began again. This was followed by a few more wineries, such as Domaine des Tourelles in 1868 and Domaine Wardy in 1891 along with others. They tended to grow French grapes of Bordeaux and Rhone varietals, due to connections with France, but none held any international repute until Chateau Musar was founded in 1930, and it took many years for this winery to build its personality and fame, accelerating after Serge Hochar (the son of founder Gaston) had studied under the great oenologists Emile Peynaud and Pacale Ribéreau-Gayon. Eventually, British wine expert Michael Broadbent discovered and championed the wine, began introducing it to the UK and thereafter European markets, and Serge no longer had to rely on domestic markets that had been impacted by the Lebanese civil war.
After the conflict subsided, the 1990’s accelerated Lebanon’s growth as a wine country, with a total of 5 wineries becoming around 50 today, mostly (though not all) based in the Bekaa Valley. A conflict in the 00’s did not do too much to dampen the trade, strong links with the UK market instead meaning that the two countries stood in solidarity. Lebanon now produces over 600,000 cases of wine a year, and frequently wins international awards and acclaim; it’s a fascinating country that represents both the ancient and the new, and its’ wines are truly unique thanks to its topography and the culture of those who make it!
Pairings hosted ‘A Taste of Lebanon’ on Thursday 19th of July 2018, the wines that were tasted were:
- Chateau Musar White, Chateau Musar, 2007 – Bekaa Valley
50% merwah, 50% obaideh – paired with Delice de Cremier
- Les Gourmets Rouge, Clos St. Thomas, 2014 – Bekaa Valley
25% cabernet sauvignon, 25% cinsault, 25% grenache, 25% syrah – paired with Iberico Salchichon
- Les Bretèches, Chateau Kefraya, 2013 – Bekaa Valley
40% syrah, 35% cinsault, 15% cabernet sauvignon, 5% carignan, 5% tempranillo - paired with Bresaola
- Reserve du Couvent, Chateau Ksara, 2016 – Bekaa Valley
40% syrah, 30% cabernet sauvignon, 30% cabernet franc – paired with Just Jane smoked cheddar
- Chateau les Cèdres, Domaine Wardy, 2013 – Bekaa Valley
50% cabernet sauvignon, 25% merlot, 25% syrah – paired with pork pie & red onion chutney
- Chateau Musar Red, Chateau Musar, 2004 – Bekaa Valley
34% cabernet sauvignon, 3% carignan, 33% cinsault – paired with Yorkshire Blue Cheese
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Written by James Hallam