Lebanon’s wine country, the oldest in the world, is being
revived by a new generation
t the end of a sinuous alley, beyond the labyrinth of Batroun, Lebanon, with its old town and laundry lines, stands Chez Maguy, a ramshackle fish shack overlooking the Mediterranean. On a radiant February day, I sit in the gentle sun, staring out at the sea, a feast of fresh shellfish before me. I wash it all down with the refreshing and citrusy Ixsir Altitudes Blanc wine, made from muscat grapes grown not too far away on the hillsides of northern Lebanon, among the olive and almond trees.
Ixsir is one of a bevy of new wineries that have recently emerged throughout Lebanon, utilizing the country’s rich geography and soils and experimenting with diverse varietals and blends. Vines are grown along the sunny Mediterranean coast, on the steep hills of Jezzine, a city in the south, and on the dry plains of the Bekaa Valley. Syrah, cabernet sauvignon and sauvignon blanc grapes are common, as are tempranillo and petite verdot. Winemakers, most of whom were trained in France, increasingly experiment with organic growing techniques, local white grapes, such as merwah and obaideh (traditionally used to make arak, a Lebanese anise-flavored liquor), and original blends. Even dessert wines and liqueurs are produced here.
“Our climate is a blessing,” says Hady Kahale, cofounder and general manager of Ixsir winery, who started the business with several partners in 2009. Kahale and I are touring the winery, located near the northern city of Batroun, where grapes from its scattered vineyards are brought together and turned into wine. From a wealth of French varietals, Ixsir’s enologists strive to create typically Lebanese blends such as El, its new star wine, which is a fresh and spicy mix of syrah, cabernet sauvignon and merlot grapes. Hubert de Boüard, co-owner of the Château Angélus winery in France and an adviser to Ixsir, says, “[Lebanon has] lots of sun and very little humidity. The grapes are ideally matured, and the vines are healthy.”
It is, after all, this climate that produced some of the world’s first wines thousands of years ago near the port of Byblos, just a few miles from Batroun. The Phoenicians, who settled in the area around 3,000 B.C., were notorious for trading the wines of Lebanon and spreading the prized vintages throughout the Mediterranean and Europe. The Bible is replete with references to the grapes from this area; in fact, Jesus is said to have transformed water into wine in the country’s southern village of Cana 2,000 years ago.
oday, small boutique wine producers, such as Iris Domain, Chateau Khoury, Atibaia and Chateau Belle-Vue, have emerged around the country, creating blends that reflect the dynamism of a young and cosmopolitan generation of Lebanese. A sweeping artisanal movement, provoked mostly by slow-food activist Kamal Mouzawak and his agricultural cooperative, Souk el Tayeb, has prompted a rediscovery of the local heritage and landscapes. When Mouzawak launched his initiative in 2004 to support local farmers and revive Lebanese culinary traditions, the younger generation was losing touch with its heritage. Mouzawak’s campaigning, local farmer’s market and restaurants in Beirut and the small village of Ammiq have fueled a true cultural revolution in the country, bringing back awareness of the land. Unlike those who grew up in the shadow of the French Mandate, for whom French cuisine was the epitome of class, the members of the younger generation are reviving their indigenous culture and cuisine. They shop at Souk el Tayeb’s popular farmer’s market, eat at traditional Lebanese restaurants and drink excellent local beers and, of course, wines.
“Our generation is seeking a new identity,” says enologist Diana Salameh Khalil. “We are going back to the earth and exploring
our roots. The creation of boutique wineries strengthens
our identity as a country.”
“Our various wines are expressions of the rich, diverse terroir of Lebanon,” says Mouzawak. We are having lunch at his restaurant, Tawlet, in the country’s capital, Beirut, a city perched at almost the exact center of Lebanon’s Mediterranean Sea coastline. Accompanying our buffet of wild greens, tangy couscous salads, kibbeh (cooked ground lamb meat), stuffed vine leaves and chicken soup is Chateau Belle-Vue’s La Renaissance 2006, a dense blend of merlot and cabernet sauvignon that is produced on the terraces of the Bhamdoun Valley, about 15 miles east of the capital. The wine has a deep cherry hue and notes of black fruits, cassis and figs. Each month, Tawlet highlights one of these local bottles, and more than 100 different wines are sold at the restaurant’s boutique.
The La Renaissance blend was created by Diana Salameh Khalil, an enologist and agricultural engineer trained in Dijon, France. “Our generation is seeking a new identity,” she says. “We are going back to the earth and exploring our roots.” Salameh Khalil also works as a consultant for several other small wineries and is thrilled by the possibilities that Lebanon offers. “The creation of boutique wineries strengthens our identity as a country,” she adds. While Lebanon’s diverse soils—nonhomogeneous chalk, clay and limestone—and landscapes allow for the creation of vastly different wines, Salameh Khalil says the common theme is that they are “sun-drenched, full of sugar and alcohol, aromatic and tannic.”
Workers harvest grapes at Chateau Musar winery in Ghazir, Lebanon, located about 18 miles north of Beirut
ebanon’s traditional wine-making region is the aforementioned Bekaa Valley, once a major agricultural source for the Romans. It was here in the city of Baalbek, one of the largest settlements in the Roman empire, that Emperor Antoninus Pius erected the Temple of Bacchus in A.D. 150, adorning its columns with vine carvings in honor of Bacchus’ greatest contribution to us mere mortals. Many vines are planted on the slopes of the hills and in the valley, where cool nights offset scorching summer days.
A perfect tour of the Bekaa Valley’s wineries begins with a drive through the fields and leads to the tiny town of Ammiq, where Mouzawak has opened an outpost of Tawlet, his eco-friendly restaurant in Beirut. Using only organic ingredients grown by local farmers, Mouzawak’s country kitchen serves regional delicacies, such as dishes made from bulgar and kibbeh, and wine from nearby producer Reserve Ammiq on its terrace overlooking the golden plain. After lunch, a brisk walk in the reserve refreshes and regenerates.
(Left) This red is a favorite blend produced by Chateau Musar in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley; (right) Chateau Musar produces approximately 700,000 bottles in the Bekaa Valley
Tastings resume at nearby wineries, such as Massaya, Cave Kouroum and Domaine Wardy, ending as the sun sets over the horizon. The scents of pine trees and earth fill the air, while buzzing crickets provide the soundtrack. The words of Serge Hochar, the winemaker for Lebanese winery Chateau Musar, come to mind: “For us, wine is a message for humanity. When we dialogue, we don’t make war. Wine expresses a message of peace.”
THE LEBANESE WINE TRAIL
Winery: Chateau Musar
Location: Ghazir, a village located 17 miles north of Beirut, between the Mediterranean coast and the Lebanon Mountains
Annual production: 700,000 bottles
Interesting fact: One of the oldest wineries in the country, Musar is celebrated by critics for producing reds with a signature oxidized flavor.
REGION: NORTH LEBANON
Location: Batroun, on the northern Mediterranean coast, about 34 miles north of Beirut
Annual production: 300,000 bottles
Interesting fact: One of the country’s exciting new wineries, Ixsir grows grapes across the country to make its signature Altitudes white and red and its Grande Réserve.
Location: Smar Jbeil, in the mountains overlooking Batroun, 34 miles north of Beirut
Annual production: 10,000 bottles
Interesting fact: This micro-winery is named after a Brazilian village and offers Atibaia 2009, a blend of syrah, cabernet sauvignon and petit verdot grapes that is aged in Limousin oak barrels.
Location: Kfifane, 5 miles east of Batroun in the hills of northern Lebanon and about 36 miles north of Beirut
Annual production: Unknown
Interesting fact: Owned and run by the Maronite Church, Adyar makes certified organic wines from grapes grown in three different regions of the country.
REGION: BEKAA VALLEY
Location: Taanayel, east of the Bhamdoun Valley and about 31 miles from Beirut
Annual production: 300,000 bottles
Interesting fact: The winery is famous for its golden and floral Massaya Blanc wine, which features indigenous obaideh grapes.
Winery: Domaine Wardy
Location: Zahlé, in east-central Lebanon, at the junction of the Lebanon Mountains and the Bekaa Valley plateau
Annual production: 650,000 bottles
Interesting fact: Since 1891, the Wardy family has been making wine from grapes grown on the iron-filled lands of the Lebanon Mountains. Vintages include Private Selection, an elegant blend of syrah and cabernet sauvignon.
REGION: MOUNT LEBANON
Winery: Chateau Belle-Vue
Location: Bhamdoun village, in central Lebanon, approximately 15 miles east of Beirut
Annual production: 18,000 bottles
Interesting fact: Founders Naji Boutros and his wife, Jill, planted their principal vines on the snowy hills and cool terraces of the Bhamdoun Valley, Boutros’ birthplace.
Winery: Iris Domain
Location: Btalloun, in central Lebanon, approximately 17 miles east of Beirut
Annual production: 3,000 bottles
Interesting fact: Iris Domain is one of the newest boutique wineries in the country and produces organic reds using merlot, cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and syrah grapes.