Turmoil & Terroir – Lebanese Wine
It’s hard to imagine something like viticulture having a spiritual home in such a changeable landscape as the Levant. Vintners in the West, or the New World, worry about rain, or frost or hail. They strive for continuity in minute details of climate, soil composition and vine management. Wine making in Lebanon, however, can have more immediate and potentially deadly concerns.
Lebanon’s pedigree as a wine producing area is very difficult to beat. Indeed, they argue that it was the Phoenicians, ancient ancestors of the Lebanese, who brought the vine to the Classical World – producing domesticated vines some 2,000 years before the birth of Alexander the Great. They also pioneered many of the techniques to preserve and move wine – including using oil to reduce oxidisation to keep the wine fresh and crisp.
The influence of Lebanese wine throughout history has been profound. On the bank of the Eastern Mediterranean it was from here that ships would sail west, bringing wine to the fledgling ancient civilisations of Greece and, later, Rome. It is argued that some of wine’s ancient mythology also began here, with the common motif of the ‘wine God’ – or Bacchus – depicted in ancient temples.
Following the birth of Islam in the latter part of the first century AD, unsurprisingly the production of wine began to slow. But just as the modern day Levant is made up of a complex population of different religions and ethnicity, so it was in this era. Wine making continued in largely Christian rural areas helping to add weight to the suggestion of historical continuity. Although even in modern day Lebanon the vineyards still employ a large number of Muslims and a growing domestic market suggests that, behind closed doors throughout the Islamic world, wine consumption is on the up.
But widespread vine planting did not return until over a thousands years later, with the arrival of French Jesuit priests in the 19th century. And so began a new era in Lebanese wine. From ancient times the Lebanese brought the vine to the west, now it was the west’s time to have an impact on the Middle East. In an attempt to satisfy the officer class of the Colonial soldiers, local wine producers attempted to create Bordeaux style wines. The result was superb, combining the vegetal, almost farmyard qualities of the local wines with French elegance, barrel ageing and Old World grape varieties. The wines grew with international renown and Chateau Musar, begun in this time to purely serve the billeted soldiers, is still very much worth trying to this day.
Of course the underlying issue with this area of the world is not the terroir – which is excellent, it’s not the historical pedigree for wine production or the excellent skill of the local vintners.
Nor is it the selection of grape varieties available to the modern day Lebanese. The greatest challenge to face the wine producers of Lebanon is the political turmoil which can engulf the region far quicker than any summer storm. The modernisation of the wine industry was nearly brought to an entire standstill during the civil war in 1975. Likewise in 2005 exports were abandoned due to the Israeli blockade of Beirut nearly spelt disaster for even the larger Châteaus.
But you have to acknowledge the weight of history runs in Lebanon’s favour. There have been times of acute adversity from without, not to mention civil strife and religious difference within. Through it all the Lebanese wine industry continues, reaching production levels of around 600,000 cases. For weight of history alone, these wines deserve to reach a global market – not to mention the excellent quality of the wines themselves.
- Lebanese winemakers call for more local support (dailystar.com.lb)