When Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, chose Lebanon to build his temple, it was for a fine reason. He carefully chose this mythic land of cedar and pine, peace and war, love and blood, all because he knew that this small yet epic patch of earth could produce a wine worthy of the gods and goddesses, emperors and heroes. A wine from the ancient past to the endless eternity.
THROUGHOUT THE TIME
In the beginning, Bacchus smiled upon the Phoenicians, who were the initial traders and first merchants of the narrow Lebanese coastal land around 3000 BC, where they cultivated grapes and produced wines. These seafarers dominated the Mediterranean Sea with their ships, loaded with wine and fabrics dyed in Tyrian purple, spreading their culture from Byblos port to other areas. Thus, they conveyed a new regime that permeated a myriad of rising societies and civilizations.
When the Romans spread their empire and invaded the Levant, they chose Baalbeck, the megalithic city of the sun in the Bekaa valley, to build a temple for Bacchus, the largest sanctuary of the wine god ever built. It lies near the large hewn stones dedicated to his father Zeus. The Romans classified Levantine wines slightly below the first rank of wines of the Empire, but they cherished them as a blessing of Bacchus.
In the Byzantine period, 5th and 6th centuries, the wines of the Levant enthused new religious heights of popularity. As old rites gave way to new mysteries of Christ’s transubstantiation, the ties of death and rebirth, blood, and wine grew even more substantial. Different types of Levantine wines produced during the Byzantine reign ranging from sweet to very dry were consumed young or aged. During this era, vines benefited from a favorable environment, both in terms of natural conditions and political and religious systems that supported the industry. The resulting wines enjoyed international fame, as mosaic art that bore testimony to the life of a winegrower and winemaker, and captured the festivities related to the production of the sacred beverage.
A long shadow cast over Bacchus in the rise of Islamic rule, which lasted mainly through the Mamluk reign (13th – 15th century). As Levantine winegrowing activities declined, winemaking sank into near oblivion. However, winemaking seems not to have died out completely due to geographic and religious aspects. The Maronite Christian monks who occupied the north part of Mount Lebanon continued producing sweet wines for their religious rituals. Winegrowing was also thriving in the Bekaa Valley, between two gigantic mountains: The Mount Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon.
During the Ottoman Empire (1516 to 1918), wine production continued to drop off. Muslims confined themselves to the production of fresh grape juices. At the same time, Christians, mainly established in the mountain regions in places like Qadisha, Keserwan, and Antoura, continued growing vines to produce wine for religious orders. By the 16th and 17th centuries, the largest proportion of production was for white wines described as high in alcohol, relatively smooth, and often sweet. From the 18th century onwards, red wine production started to thrive, and areas like Keserwan emerged as a premium wine producer. By the first half of the 19th century, wine production disappointed gods and man alike due to the high tannins and the many flaws. Viticulture at this time favored creeping vines, gobelet vines, vines on stakes in parallel rows, and vines combined with trees.
When Jesuit priests came to Lebanon in 1857, they renewed vigor for wine, fresh thinking and techniques, and foreign vines. The ancient lands’ newest priests planted their first vineyard in Ksara to produce Lebanon’s first dry red wine in the Bekaa Valley. The Jesuits modernized wine production on their estates, helping wine production regain its former glory, and imported new varieties like Cinsault and Grenache. Around this period, in 1896, the first Lebanese commercial winery, Domaine des Tourelles, was founded in Chtaura, in the Bekaa Valley.
When the French occupied Lebanon in the 1920s, a new epoch of Bacchus’s fervor began with the establishment of Vin Nakad in Jdeita in 1923 and Musar in 1930 with a 30-hectare vineyard planted with mostly Rhône varieties. Ksara planted new cultivars such as Carignan, Muscat, and Ugni Blanc. During the French mandate, the term “Château” started to be used to name the wineries.
After Lebanon’s independence in 1943, the wine industry continued to develop. In the mid-60s, Château Musar planted over 100 hectares of vineyards in Kefraya, Amiq, and Aana. In 1973, the legacy of Château Ksara, continued by adapting new winemaking techniques. Château Ksara now includes 482 hectares of vineyards spread in the Bekaa Valley, making it the largest property in Lebanon. Till these days, Ksara is established above a grotto dating back to the Roman era used for wine aging and storage.
Between 1975 and 1990, Mars brought blasts of civil war upon the man and Bacchus alike. During the 15 years of turmoil, wine sales dropped by up to 90 percent, forcing wineries to rely on export to survive. Although an environment of uncertainty ruled after the civil war, Lebanese winemakers continued to work and thrive. Amid the restructuring, Château Ksara introduced new varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Merlot and the famous Château Kefraya opened its door in 1978 in the Western Bekaa Valley. New producers and new wine regions emerged in the northern district of Batroun. In addition to producing excellent wines, these estates have succeeded in building wine tourism worthy of the greatest wine-growing countries.
Lebanon is considered a boutique winemaking country since it produces about 10 million bottles from about 50 wineries with a terroir-driven mindset. 50% of this production is intended for export mainly to the United States, the United Kingdom, France, and Canada.
When speaking of terroir that offers a sense of a place to wine, it is imperative to mention the climate, the soil, the cultivar, and the viticulture practices of that place.
The climate in Lebanon is Mediterranean with hot, dry summer days and cool nights combined with cold and wet winters. These characteristics allow the berries to develop their sweetness and acidity under the best conditions. Most of the vineyards are in the Bekaa Valley, located between the two mountain ranges of Mount Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon. These vineyards are planted on poor clay limestone soils at an altitude up to 900 meters. They are flourishing under this ideal dry and fresh microclimate and producing premium quality grapes. These limestone-rich clay soils are ideal for growing grapes. This well-drained soil type with a moderate water holding capacity allows for ideal vine development.
The vineyards of Mount Lebanon in Batroun face the sea and Jezzine to the south, offer different climatic and geological conditions allowing the production of different types of wines.
Today, the Lebanese vineyard covers 14,000 hectares, of which only 3,000 are for wine production.
Until about ten years ago, Lebanese white wines were secondary to red wines. Common white varieties are Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat, Semillon, and Chardonnay. These varieties are, in general, planted at higher altitudes providing fresh and balanced wines. Recently, two indigenous white varieties, Obeideh, the backbone of Arak and Merweh, captured the attention of winemakers. Wines from these cultivars are promising and reflect the Lebanese terroir. The common red varieties are Carignan, Cinsault, Grenache, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Syrah.
With such dramatic ups and downs, only people with perseverance and dedication can tolerate this country’s rich history. These people, representing the fourth factor of the terroir notion, are carving out their stories by producing fine wines that reflect their visions and perspectives.
As Michael Karam cited in his book Tears of Bacchus: “[…] the Middle East’s wine industry – […] sits outside the rules of the modern market. It was born with early man, cultivated by the Phoenicians, and celebrated in Baalbek by the cult of Bacchus. It can be found in monasteries and vineyards of Mount Lebanon [and among the nation’s bubbling arak stills]. It is a story, woven from threads of myth and reality, tying a glorious past to a hopeful present […].”
Viticulture is something that lives in the DNA of Lebanese people, as expressed by the great poet Gibran Kahlil Gibran: “I too am a vineyard, and my fruit shall be gathered for the winepress, And like new wine I shall be kept in eternal vessels.”
From the land of cedars to the world, Lebanese wine is deemed as a message of hope and civilization from a region of war, smoke, and blood. Let’s raise our glasses to a country of resilience, to a country of faith, to a country of love. To my Lebanon