Wine in Lebanon has a very old tradition, being traded by the Phoenicians as far back as 1200 BC. From 1916 to 1943, Lebanon was a French protectorate and this greatly influenced viticulture. In Lebanon there are about 5,000 hectares of vineyards producing about 78,500 hectolitres of wine, most of which is Lebanese red wine (over 70%). Just to put the size of Lebanese production in context, to speak of 78,500 hectolitres is to speak of about 10.5 million standard 75 cl bottles, i.e. a few million fewer bottles than a single large private Italian winery like Marchesi Frescobaldi produces.
Lebanese wine: a bit of history
The history of viticulture in Lebanon is intimately linked with that of a great people who inhabited these lands in antiquity: the Phoenicians.
In 3000 B.C., the first evidence of Phoenician civilisation appeared, but it was not until around 1100 B.C. that this people acquired, thanks to trade in the Mediterranean, the power necessary to transform it into a flourishing civilisation. This wealth was reflected in their diet, which was particularly abundant and varied compared to the other peoples with whom they came into contact. And such a careful diet required a beverage capable of accompanying and enhancing it: wine.
Lebanese wine: a journey that began with the Phoenicians
The Phoenicians ate grapes both as fresh and dried fruit. From the Bible and other (mainly Egyptian) evidence, one can imagine the land of Canaan as a fertile land with a happy climate for vines. In Phoenician culture, wine was elevated to offerings and was produced to be traded or exchanged with other Mediterranean peoples. The city of Ugarit was home to extensive terraced vineyards that not only ensured a secure supply of wine to the royal storehouses, but also made it the largest and most important wine warehouse of the time. Thousands of jars were ready to set sail for all the Mediterranean civilisations.
Phoenician wines were considered of great quality, so much so that the minor prophet Hosea (Kingdom of Israel, 8th century BC), in verse 14.8 of the Old Testament, writes 'They will return to sit in my shadow, they will revive the wheat, they will cultivate the vines, famous as the wine of Lebanon'.
Recently discovered in Lebanon was the most ancient Phoenician wine pressa work of great Phoenician craftsmanship dating back 2600 years. The plant, in an extraordinary state of preservation, had a capacity of 1200 gallons of must (4542.5 litres).
Unfortunately, when Lebanon became part of the Caliphate, wine growing suffered a terrible decline. The Caliphate is the absolute Islamic monarchy that, among other things, does not tolerate the consumption of alcohol. Viticulture did not disappear just because it was tolerated for the religious purposes of that part of the Christian population.
Since then, in order to rediscover a focus on viticulture, one has to go back in time to 1868, when French engineer Eugène Brun founded the Domaine des Tourelles, and to 1930, when Gaston Hochar founded the famous Chateau Musar.
Lebanese wine: from grapes to wine
Lebanese wine: the grape varieties
The grape varieties grown in Lebanon are mainly international varieties from France such as chardonnay, sauvignon blanc, sémillon and ugni blanc among the white berry varieties and cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cinsaut, carignan, grenache, syrah, and mourvèdre among the black berry varieties.
Two very interesting native white grape varieties are also present: theobaideh and the merwah. The origins of obaideh are unknown, but some hypotheses - never confirmed - believe it to be a local clone of chardonnay. Merwah is an ancient vine of Phoenician origin related to sémillon.
Lebanese Wine: Viticulture
Today, viticulture in Lebanon is geared towards quality, achieved through punctual work in the vineyard and low yields per hectare. Quality wine growing, however, is only possible in the Bekaa Valley plateau and surrounding slopes as the climate in the plains is too hot. Vineyards are mostly located around 1,000 m above sea level where temperatures never exceed 25 °C and there is a good daily temperature range that favours the development of aromas in the grapes. This Lebanese viticulture "mountain' takes place on terraced vineyards sometimes developed on steep slopes. Here, during the vine's growing cycle, it practically never rains and the drought conditions are only mitigated by the melting snow of the highest mountains. Another factor that helps the vines are the rocky, clay and gravel-rich soils, which have good water retention without triggering stagnation.
Lebanese wine: oenology
Oenological techniques and production styles are very varied: there are companies that follow a traditional philosophy and the use of large barrels, producing wines of less than excellent quality, other companies apply more modern strategies with passage in barriques.
In 1997, when the Lebanese Wine Union was founded, there were eight wine cellars. In 2020, the number of wine cellars has risen to 50, which shows how Lebanese wine is growing, also helped by international success. More than half of the bottles produced, in fact, are exported. In the meantime, in 2013, the National Institute of Lebanese Vine and Wine was born and, although there is still no equivalent of European PDOs, the foundations are being laid for a codification and regulation of a quality system.
Lebanese wine: Chateau Musar and the most important wines
Lebanese wine rhymes with Chateau Musarthe company founded in 1930 by Gaston Hochar, then just 20 years old. Later his eldest son, Serge Hocharalready a civil engineer, enrolled in the Faculty of Oenology in Bordeaux to take over the family business, which was already enjoying considerable success. In 1959, Gaston Hochar left the helm to his son, who became the oenologist of Chateau Musar. Ambitious, it was Serge Hochar who created the myth of Chateau Musar in the world.
Chateau Musar produces, among others, two wines that can be described as emblems of Lebanese wine quality: the Chateau Musar Red from a blend of cabernet sauvignon, carignan and cinsault and the Chateau Musar White from a blend of obaideh and merwah, both selling at around €50 for the standard bottle.
Lebanese wine and local gastronomy
Lebanese wine does not offer a very wide choice, but makes for pleasant pairings with the land-based cuisine of inland areas and with seafood on the coast.
Lebanese cuisine is characterised by a perfect fusion of Turkish and Arabic elements, with cumin, coriander and ginger on a strong French base. The main ingredients are vegetables, the fruit, i cereals, the hazelnuts and the pulses, all enhanced by an abundance of spices and herbs. Some of these dishes are world-famous: for example, chickpea hummus is now a staple of vegetarian and vegan cuisine also in Europe. These dishes are always accompanied by lavash, a kind of piadina made of water, flour and salt, which was declared an intangible heritage of humanity by Unesco in 2014. Desserts include the knafehthin layers of semolina dough soaked in a sweet syrup made from rose extract and sugar and filled with kaymak (a cheese of Turkish origin popular throughout the Middle East and the Balkans), walnuts, pistachios and almonds forming a kind of tile covered with phyllo dough.
Vegan Knafeh, © Zena (زينة), Zen and Zaatar blog
Pairing Lebanese wine and Lebanese cuisine
The kibbeh (mint-scented beef and lamb meatballs) can be paired with the fine red Chateau Musar. The siyyadiyeh (shellfish au gratin, roasted fish, rice and spices with spicy sauces) goes well with a soft Chardonnay from the Bekaa Valley. The shish taouk (white meat marinated in oil, parsley and sumac cooked on the grill) is paired with an archaic wine made from the indigenous obaideh and merwah grape varieties. The tabouleh (a salad based on burghul, a kind of cous cous with cucumbers, onions and peppers with mint, lemon and pink pepper) is paired with a delicate sauvignon, also from the Bekaa Valley.
Kibbeh, courtesy image from Unilever Food Solution Arabia
Habits and customs related to the ritual of food
Le Lebanese meze are small bites of food reminiscent of Spanish tapas... and it is no coincidence, since from Lebanon they first conquered the Balkans and then the entire Mediterranean. They are not to be considered just an appetiser, but a complete meal that is shared in social groups, especially on informal occasions and in case of unexpected guests due to their ease of preparation. Meze are composed of several services, each containing 4 or 5 different dishes that can be meat, fish or vegetarian. The order in which they are served is also pre-determined: in the first service there are yoghurt and olive dishes, in the second service egg and vegetable dishes and finally in the following services fish and meat dishes. They are served with wine or a aniseed distillate (Arak).
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Key concepts for studying together
A summary of things to know about Lebanese wine organised for convenient study.
The climate in Lebanon
Very hot climate (negatively affects quality wine growing, which only becomes possible on the slopes of the Bekaa Valley even above 1000 m characterised by cool nights and sufficient rainfall).
Land in Lebanon
The soils are rocky and rich in gravel with high water retention. In some areas, however, they are rich in limestone and iron.
Viticulture in Lebanon
The most common breeding system is the gobelet (potted sapling with 20 cm stump and 3/4 branches each carrying several spurs, an optimal system for exploiting slopes).
Grapes in Lebanon
- White grape varieties: chardonnay, obaideh, merwah, sauvignon blanc, sémillon, ugni blanc.
- Black grape varieties: cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cinsaut, carignan, grenache, syrah, mourvédre.
Wines & key areas in Lebanon
- Bekaa Valley (about 10 wineries). Chateau Musar north of Beirut (founded in 1930 by Gaston Hochar) producing important wines of international style whose 80% of production is exported. Cabernet sauvignon and cinsaut give blends that require long bottle ageing to develop great evolutionary potential and express aromas of cherry jam, humus, game and sandalwood. Chateau Musar white (with native obaideh and merwah vines) famous wine with hints of butter, resin, lemon, soft and very persistent wax.
Lebanese wine is certainly something little known in Italy, yet it has such an ancient tradition that it deserves to be explored in depth. With its strategic position in the Mediterranean, straddling three continents, Lebanon has been home to different cultures that have in turn influenced the history of vines and cuisine. The result is a fascinating encounter of aromas, techniques and results.
A final curiosity? Cana, the ancient city in Galilee where Jesus' first miracle took place according to John's Gospel is actually in Lebanon, possibly near the southern port of Tyre. Here Jesus had six stone jars filled with water and turned it into wine of great quality... just as a Lebanese wine was supposed to be!
Courtesy image of Giotto's fresco depicting the Wedding at Cana, Scrovegni Chapel (Padua, Italy)
The cover photo is from Getty Images.