Part salesman, part winemaker, part impresario, Serge Hochar is standing on the steps of Château Musar, arms extended in greeting. Hochar gives “good quote”, as we journalists like to say, saluting everyone with a flurry of words and that familiar, gap-toothed smile. “Out motto is to be happy,” he says by way of introduction. “Wine is not serious. If you take it seriously, you must leave now.”
Hochar’s run down, cobwebbed winery in Ghazir, 15 miles north of Beirut, is an appropriate place to begin our overview of the Lebanese wine scene. Not just because Hochar makes one of the world’s most controversial reds, but because he is also Lebanon’s best-known wine personality. If Rafik Hariri, the prime minister who was assassinated in 2005, was “Mr Lebanon”, then Hochar is surely “Mr Lebanese Wine”, internationally recognized, discussed and fêted. How many winemakers can you think of who have been celebrated in a Guardian editorial, as Hochar was in 2006 during Lebanon’s most recent war with Israel?
He has told his story a thousand times, but Hochar still welcomes new listeners. “I started making wine in 1959 without a clue, thinking that wine makes itself,” he says. Two years studying oenology in Bordeaux and his first acquaintance with the wines of St Julien changed all that. “I decided that was the style of wine I wanted to make.” Whether he has succeeded is open to question. Château Musar is a blend of Cinsault, Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon and bears about as much resemblance to the wines of the Médoc as Pinot Noir does to Pinotage. Nor is Hochar, a man who believes that “wine is emotion”, overly bothered about cellar hygiene or wine faults. His reds are sometimes dismissed as being too high in volatile acidity or full of brettanomyces, but he welcomes the criticism. “I like brett,” he laughs, “and I believe that volatile acidity helps my wines to age”.
Whatever you think of Château Musar’s wines – and there’s no denying that they are at once idiosyncratic, occasionally brilliant and generally popular with wine drinkers – they are capable of bottle development. The 1961 and 1974 reds are both very complex, closer to Pinot Noir than claret perhaps, while his white wine can age like a top white Rioja. Anyone who has been lucky enough to drink the 1993 or the 1989, will agree. “What I do,” Hochar insists, “I do it my way.”
The problem with the bright lights of the Serge show is that they tend to overshadow the rest of the Lebanese wine industry. Outside Lebanon, many wine drinkers have heard of Château Musar; very few have heard of Ixsir, Domaine des Tourelles or Massaya, all of whom are just as good. Even Lebanese enthusiasts such as Michael Karam, a Beirut-based wine journalist and author of The Wines of Lebanon, describes Musar as a “double-edged sword”. At the most recent count, there were 39 other wineries in Lebanon.
Part of Musar’s appeal, overstated by some, is that it has been intermittently produced in a war zone. It’s a plucky tale. During the country’s 15-year civil war between 1975 and 1990, only one harvest (the 1976) wasn’t picked. In 1984, it took two trucks of grapes six days to make the 35-mile journey from the Bekaa Valley to the winery, but they were still crushed, fermented and turned into wine. That 2006 Guardian editorial praised Hochar’s “triumph over adversity”.
Château Musar isn’t the only winery that has to cope with the endemically unstable politics of the Middle East. Lebanon is more or less peaceful for the time being, but a Hezbollah backed coup is still a possibility, while the conflict in neighbouring Syria, not to mention a wave of refugees, have had an impact, too. As recently as May this year, there was fighting in Beirut after two anti-Syrian Sunni Muslim clerics were killed at an army checkpoint near Tripoli. Relations between the Sunni and Shiite Muslim communities, which each make up around a third of Lebanon’s population, are very strained.
Even at the best of times, Lebanon is a tinderbox primed with high explosive. This is an article about wine, rather than politics, but the two are entwined like a vine around a trellis wire. The former is always made in the long, looming shadow of the latter. Since the country gained independence in 1943, it has endured many years of conflict, war and political unrest, as well as invasion and occupation by Israel and what is euphemistically called a three-decade Syrian “presence”. That is unlikely to be the last of it. As David Hirst argues in his excellent book, “Beware of small states: Lebanon, Battleground of the Middle East”, Lebanon was “almost designed to be the everlasting battleground for others’ political, strategic and ideological conflicts, conflicts which sometimes escalate into their proxy wars”. Its internal composition – there are 19 different religious communities – makes Lebanon “the sectarian state par excellence”.
It might seem remarkable that wine is produced here at all, in a state that is predominantly made up of theoretically teetotal Muslims, but Lebanon is the most liberal of the Arab nations, with a capital city (Beirut) that is extremely cosmopolitan: more Mediterranean than Middle Eastern. Significantly, wine consumption halves during Ramadan, the Islamic month of fasting, suggesting that some Muslims are happy to drink wine the rest of the year.
But let’s step back from the present for now and examine a few key moments in Lebanon’s past. Wine has been made here since at least 5000BC, although it was the Phoenicians, the great sea traders of the Mediterranean, who first introduced “Lebanese” wines to a wider public. They shipped something called Bybline (named after the port of Byblos) as far as Gibraltar, using a film of olive oil to protect it from oxidation. The Romans made wine here, too: a fact that is attested by the beautiful Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek.
Lebanon continued to be a significant wine-producing country until 1516, when, as part of Greater Syria, the Principality of Lebanon was incorporated into the Ottoman Empire. Viticulture all but died out until 1857, when a group of Jesuit monks founded Château Ksara in the Bekaa Valley, importing Cinsault cuttings from Algeria. They probably weren’t aware of it at the time, but those monks had just founded the modern Lebanese wine industry, developing a winery that still exists today, receiving 70,000 visitors a year.
At the end of the First World War, Lebanon became a French protectorate and remained so until independence in 1943. Lebanese wine production increased to satisfy the thirst of the locals as well as the 30,000 French soldiers and officials who were running the country. Lebanon remains distinctly Francophone, if not always Francophile. Many Lebanese speak French as a second language and Beirut is still known, somewhat optimistically, as the Paris of the Middle East.
In wine terms, too, the French connection is strong. Several of the leading winemakers, from Faouzi Issa at Domaine des Tourelles to Joe Touma at Château St Thomas, studied in France, while there are number of French oenologists either working or consulting for Lebanese wineries: Fabrice Guiberteau at Château Kefraya, James Palgé at Château Ksara, Jean-Michel Ferrandez at Domaine Wardy, Hubert de Boüard at Ixsir and Stéphane Derononcourt at Château Marsyas. In addition, the Brunier family from Châteauneuf du Pape and the Hébrard family from St Emilion part own Massaya.
Lebanon’s grape varieties also reflect the French influence. There are patches of two native grapes, Merwah and Obaideh, used to make Château Musar white as well as arak, but the overwhelming majority of Lebanon’s 2,500 hectares are planted with French varieties. Exact statistics don’t exist – there hasn’t been a census since 1932 – but the dominant varieties are Cinsault, Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon, with lesser amounts of Merlot, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Grenache, Tempranillo, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Viognier, Muscat, Riesling and Clairette. Ever the maverick, Habib Karam of Karam Winery, a leading pilot with Middle Eastern Airlines, has even planted Graciano and Touriga Nacional in the southern region of Jezzine.
Lebanon is not a large country – think Wales in size, if in no other respect – at 150 miles long and 60 wide, but it is remarkably varied in terms of altitude and topography. Driving around the country takes time, partly because of poor roads and checkpoints, but also because of two north-south mountain ranges, Mount Lebanon in the west and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains to the east. Between the two lies the famous Bekaa Valley.
The Lebanese climate is Mediterranean, with long, dry and often very hot summers, 3,200 hours of sunshine and cooler, wetter winters, with snow in some places. But everything is relative. When I visited in late November, it was still 28°C during the day, while in summer the diurnal swings can be even more dramatic. With so little rain and sparse irrigation water, yields are often low.
The key to growing grapes in such a warm place is altitude (up to 1400m) in Batroun, close to the coast, and altitude again (up to 1200m) and the moderating influence of Mount Lebanon in the Bekaa. It’s a long way from France, as Fabrice Guiberteau of Château Kefraya points out: “I worked in Morocco before I came here and that definitely helped. You have to lose all your French ideas overnight.”
Grapes are grown in other parts of the country – Mount Lebanon in the west (Metn and Aley), Jezzine in the south and, most exciting of all, Batroun in the north – but the Bekaa Valley is by far the leading viticultural area. It produces 6 million of Lebanon’s 7.2 million bottles and is home to many of the established wineries. Here on this high plateau, whose floor lies at 900m, most of the country’s grapes, as well as a fair bit of wheat and hashish are grown. The soils are suitably diverse: limestone, clay/loam, stones, gravel and even, in places, blood red terra rossa. No wonder this fertile valley has been prized for agriculture since Roman times. Today, the majority of the grapes are grown in the southern part of the valley, although there are some vineyards close to Baalbek, a Hezbollah stronghold that have somehow survived. The so-called Party of God has almost as little time for alcohol as it does for the Israelis.
For all its historical roots, the modern Lebanese wine industry is a very recent creation. When the civil war ended in 1990, there were only five wineries: Châteaux Ksara and Kefraya, Domaine des Tourelles, Nakad and, naturally, Château Musar. To add another 35 in 22 years, especially given Lebanon’s geopolitical instability, is remarkable. Every time you look, another two or three wineries have sprung up. To start with, they were often arak or fruit juice producers that moved into (or back into) wine, such as Château St Thomas, Heritage, Massaya, Château Ka and Domaine Wardy, but more recently they have tended to be bespoke, wine-focused operations.
The largest producers are Châteaux Ksara, Kefraya and Musar, which make around two-thirds of Lebanese wine. The others wineries are mostly medium or (more often) small operations, although Ixsir, a US $10m project launched in 2008 by the automobile magnate, Carlos Ghosn, looks as if it has the ambition to join the big three, buying grapes from growers all over the country to maximise production as well as make the most of the country’s different wine regions.
And what of the wines? Can they be termed fine? The answer is yes and no. The average quality of Lebanese wine is good to very good, but, as yet, there are few superstars. My top five would be Massaya, Domaine des Tourelles, Ixsir, Château Ka and Domaine Wardy, although they are being challenged by a number of other wineries and Château Musar remains defiantly, even gloriously sui generis. It’s worth remembering that Lebanon is a very young wine producing country in some respects, still learning how to blend, use oak and express their terroirs.
Akram Kassalty, the owner of Château Ka, says that: “Lebanon is just starting to get a good image as a wine-producing country. Most of the winemakers are moving away from Cinsault, which is our traditional red grape, to noble varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. This is a climate in which you can grow extraordinary grapes.” Not everyone agree with him about Cinsault. Serge Hochar thinks it’s the most interesting grape in Lebanon, contributing “silkiness” to blends and the irrepressible Dargham Touma (Dr D to his friends) of Vin Héritage says it “counteracts the tannins in Cabernet and Syrah”.
Lebanon’s white wines are not as interesting as its reds, although it’s worth keeping an eye out for both the Riesling and Chardonnay from Batroun Mountains, made by UC-Davis trained winemaker Assaad Hark, as well as Source Blanche from Château Ka, Karam Winery’s Cloud Nine and especially Ixsir’s Blanc Altitudes, a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon and Viognier.
For all that, Lebanon’s future as a fine wine producer will be based on its reds, particularly its blends. There are one or two good varietal wines around (including a Pinot Noir from Château St Thomas and Domaine des Tourelles Syrah du Liban Grande Cuvée), but nearly all of my favourite reds are assemblages using two or more of the following grapes: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Cinsault, Carignan, Grenache and Mourvèdre. Combining something of Bordeaux’s sophistication with the heat and spice of the Mediterranean is what Lebanon does best. Let’s hope that politics, which has a habit of interfering unexpectedly in these parts, allows it to continue to do so.
Originally published in the World of Fine Wine