Lebanon is a Middle Eastern country with an ancient wine culture that has experienced a renaissance in the past few decades. In 2011, roughly six million bottles of Lebanese wine were produced from 2000 hectares (5000 acres) of vineyards. Modern Lebanese viniculture has moved away from the ancient Phoenician port cities and inland to the fertile Bekaa Valley. There are also a handful of vineyards near Jezzine, a few miles beyond the southern end of the Bekaa, just inland of Sidon.
The majority of Lebanese wine is exported to the UK, France and the US, where the receptive consumer bases have encouraged healthy growth in Lebanon's modern wine industry. In 1998, there were fewer than 10 wineries in Lebanon; now there are more than 30. Red wines account for most of the output; these are usually made from the classic wine grapes of southern France; Carignan, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. White wines may feature Ugni Blanc, Clairette and Chardonnay.
The modern wine industry here can be traced back to the 19th Century. As non-Muslims living in a Muslim state – part of the Ottoman Empire since the 1500s – Christians living in Lebanon were permitted certain freedoms, one of which was the right to make wine for ceremonial purposes. It was on this basis that, in 1857, a group of Jesuit priests founded a winery in Ksara, a small town in the Bekaa Valley, Lebanon's finest wine terroir.
Chateau Ksara warrants its own chapter in the annals of Lebanese wine history. The Christian community that founded the original winery effectively founded the modern Lebanese wine industry, and their efforts have been rewarded with the château's success as the nation's largest wine producer. Even today one in every three bottles of Lebanese wine is produced at Ksara, which also makes Arak, the anise-flavored spirit that remains Lebanon's most popular alcoholic beverage. Chateau Musar and Chateau Kefraya are among the other notable, long-established wine estates.
The original vineyards at Ksara were planted with Cinsaut, which was subsequently joined by other French vine varieties. The first vines were brought from France via the French colonies in Algeria, and with them came contemporary French winemaking wisdom. This, coupled with the country's period under French rule in the early 20th Century, explains why Lebanon's wine industry is so closely modeled on its counterpart in France. It is also the reason why Lebanese wineries are described as châteaux and why the national wine authority, the UVL, is the Union Vinicole du Liban.
The wine industry also had to cope with a turbulent period of civil war from 1975 to 1990. His efforts to produce and promote his wine during this period – with shells falling around the winery and execution squads setting up road blocks – made legendary winemaker Serge Hochar of Chateau Musar a major figure in the global wine trade. He was celebrated as the inaugural Decanter Magazine Man of The Year in 1984.
The entireity of Lebanese wine history dates back more than five millennia. It begins with the Phoenicians, an ancient civilization whose strong culture of travel and trade was of considerable importance to the development of early Mediterranean civilization. Wine was an important export for this ancient culture, and was taken to Egypt in large volumes and traded for gold.
For more than 1000 years, Phoenician traders consistently extended their influence from their homelands (modern-day Lebanon, western Syria and northern Israel) along the north coast of Africa and up into southern Europe – notably Sardinia, Sicily, southern Italy, Greece and Turkey. They traded gold, dyes (including Tyrian purple), metalwork, glass, ceramics and wine. Along with these wares came the raw materials and technologies used to make them. It was this enthusiastic talent for trade and technology that we have to thank for much of Europe's winemaking history, including the propagation of various members of the Vitis vinifera vine family.
The ancient port of Byblos, just north of the Lebanese capital Beirut, is widely viewed as the world's oldest continuously inhabited city. It was famous in classical antiquity as a wine center, in terms of both production and trading. For centuries a reliable river of wine flowed out from Byblos, metaphorically speaking, and into the Mediterranean. Tyre and Sidon (Phoenicia's other key ports, to the south of Byblos) were also important wine centers. This remained the case until the 16th Century, when the Ottoman armies swept southward around the eastern Mediterranean. Wine production and consumption were prohibited under their Sharia law, so the once-thriving wine industry around Byblos, Tyre and Sidon fell silent.
Enjoy this video interview about Lebanese wine, with Emile Majdalani, Commercial Director of Château Kefraya