Did you know that Lebanon is among the oldest sites of wine production in the world?
Old wine bottles in the cellars dating back to the early 1900s that were cemented together by years of dirt.
Every year, we are thrilled to see our nation’s established wineries grow and the emergence of newer vineyards.
Touring and Tasting in the Bekaa Valley
Bekaa Valley, Lebanon
Lebanon’s wine production dates back to biblical times, but its modern winemaking is only starting to attract attention — impressing foreign visitors with everything from bold Cabernet-Syrah blends to crisp white Sauvignon Blancs and Chardonnays.
Myst de Château Kefraya 2008, $8.50
This salmon-colored rosé, one of Château Kefraya’s most popular labels, is a mix of Cinsault, Tempranillo, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. It reveals subtle notes of exotic fruits dominated by hints of mango mixed with those of red fruits, such as red currant, strawberry and black currant. The wine is well-balanced and full-bodied.
Domaine de Baal Red 2006, $24
Lebanon’s only organic wine. Made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah grapes, this is a premium full-bodied wine, rich in color, full of red fruit and balsamic aromas, aged in French oak. This age-worthy wine is best until 2019.
Massaya Gold Reserve Red 2004, $20
This garnet-colored wine is made from 50% Cabernet Sauvignon, 40% Mourvèdre, 10% Syrah. It has a clear and powerful aroma of sandalwood and incense. It is a full bodied, pulpy wine.
Ksara Blanc de Blancs 2005, $12
Made from Sauvignon Blanc, Sémillon and Chardonnay grapes, this light, fresh and subtle dry white wine from Château Ksara is aged four months in oak.
Château Musar Hochar Père et Fils 2001, $12
This full-bodied wine tastes of wild berries and toasted wood. Aged in oak vats for six to nine months, it is made from Carignan, Cinsault and Cabernet Sauivgnon.
The country’s wine industry struggled during the 15-year Lebanese civil war, from 1975-1990, but in recent years it has been growing at an impressive rate. Some 30 winemakers operate in Lebanon, more than double the number that were producing in 2005. Now, hoping to capitalize on the success of their wines in the Middle East as well as in foreign markets like the U.K. and France, Lebanon’s vintners are building a fledgling wine tourism industry around their picturesque vineyards in the Bekaa Valley.
“The idea is catching on. In the next five years, at least 10 more producers will set themselves up,” says Michael Karam, author of the book “Wines of Lebanon.” “There are enough small plots of land for people to set themselves up as small producers. It fits in with Lebanon as a boutique destination.”
Lebanese wineries are ramping up their efforts to boost tourism, appearing frequently at wine fairs and festivals and encouraging visits through their Web sites. The autumn, during harvest season, is the most popular time of year to visit Lebanon’s wineries. But the country’s vineyards, located close to stunning Roman and Byzantine ruins and day-trip distance from cosmopolitan Beirut, are an appealing destination all year round.
“Travel agencies are now organizing bus tours of wineries,” says Rania Chammas of Château Ksara, the country’s largest winery. “This is new to Lebanon.”
John Buchanan, a London-based film producer, visited several wineries in the Bekaa Valley — Kefraya, Clos St. Thomas and Ksara — last spring. “I’ve discovered Lebanese wine on my trips there so was curious to see the wineries in action,” Mr. Buchanan says. “The Lebanese producers understand, are very hospitable and professional and know how to lay on tastings. They don’t rush you and are very knowledgable. They all speak English and French.”
For Ramzi Ghosn, winemaker at Massaya, a vineyard in the Bekaa that produces 300,000 bottles per year, learning about Lebanese wine is essential for the wine connoisseur. “If you want to learn about the history of wine, at some point you have to come here,” Mr. Ghosn says.
The Lebanese claim to be the world’s first winemakers. More than 5,000 years ago, the Phoenicians — the ancient inhabitants of present-day Lebanon — became the world’s first wine exporters, shipping their product to Egypt, Rome, Greece and Carthage. Modern-day visitors to Lebanon can experience a bit of that era in the ancient city of Baalbek in eastern Lebanon, with its temple of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine.
Winemaking’s biblical roots can also be traced to Lebanon. The tomb of Noah, considered the first winemaker in the bible, is said to be located near Zahle, in eastern Lebanon. Cana, a city in south Lebanon, is where many Lebanese Christians believe Jesus turned water to wine. “In the Bible, when they had all of those references to wine, they weren’t talking about Italian wine,” Mr. Ghosn says.
Lebanese winemakers take pride in their dedication to their craft, despite the country’s sporadic political instability. It was Serge Hochar, from Château Musar winery, who went to the Bristol (U.K.) Wine Fair in 1979 in the midst of his country’s civil war and put Lebanese wine on the international map. Mr. Hochar still makes wine in Ghazir, just north of Beirut.
The country’s other winemakers are similarly determined. “We’ve had hard times at Kefraya, but nothing ever stopped,” says Emile Majdalani of Château Kefraya, one of Lebanon’s larger wineries. Some of the fighting in the July 2006 war occurred near the winery’s vineyards, which produce the Bekaa Valley’s main grape varietals: Grenache, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cinsault. “The war ended right before harvest. Otherwise, we couldn’t have picked the grapes.”
Coteaux de Botrys, a winery near the northern Lebanese coastal town of Boutran, is one of many boutique wineries that have sprung up in recent years. The owner, Neila El Bitar, is continuing a family tradition her father started in 1998, when he planted 5,000 vines.
The hilltop winery includes an old shepherd’s house, a single family dwelling with two bedrooms. Ms. Bitar is putting the final touches on the historic home she has renovated to welcome guests who stay overnight while visiting the vineyard. In the main living area, she treats visitors to her home cooking, accompanied by the wine, made just footsteps away.
Château Ksara, Lebanon’s oldest wine producer, was started by Jesuit priests in 1857. It is also Lebanon’s most visited winery, attracting some 40,000 visitors per year. Guests are welcomed with a glass of wine and shown a short documentary on the winery’s history. They are then taken on a one-hour guided tour of the caves and vineyards. The tours, conducted in French, English and Arabic, take visitors through Ksara’s famous caves, which were discovered by the Romans and eventually used by Jesuit monks for wine storage.
Carlos Khachan, who founded Club Grappe in 2002, is taking Lebanese enotourism a step further. His wine tasting group offers two-day tours of three different wine regions of Lebanon as well as a 10-day tour of vineyards around the country. “It’s done by experts,” says Mr. Khachan, who studied winemaking in France. “Tour companies have done guided tours of wineries, but it works better when it’s done by people with a background in wine.”
Meanwhile, the Saadé Group, a family of Syrian-Lebanese entrepreneurs whose ventures include shipping, tourism and real estate, is embarking on a series of projects relating to wine and wine tourism in Lebanon. It plans to open a 45-room boutique hotel and wine museum in the Bekaa Valley by 2011.
Most hotels now in the Bekaa Valley are in cities like Baalbek and Zahle, within easy driving distance of the vineyards.
The wine museum will also be the first of its kind in the Arab world, where the history of alcoholic beverages is often ignored for religious reasons.
“The only way to preserve wine heritage is to spread wine culture,” says Sandro Saadé, noting that many of the artifacts at the Lebanese National Museum sit in storage because there is not enough room to display all of the objects.
In November, the Saadé Group announced the opening of two new wineries — one called Bargylus in the Syrian coastal province of Latakkia and the other Marsyas in the Bekaa Valley. The group was originally going to build the wineries in France, where they already had experience in the wine industry. But they settled on their home countries, Lebanon and Syria, where they see growth potential in the wine and tourism industries.
The region’s political stability is still an issue. But many in the Levant believe the situation in the region is improving — heralding a new golden age for Lebanese winemaking.
“The wines of South Africa didn’t become international until the end of apartheid, Chilean wine didn’t take off until the end of the Pinochet regime,” says Mr. Ghosn of Massaya winery. “The region should be related to good food and a sound environment. The message from a glass of Lebanese wine should be tolerance and openness between civilizations. It’s more than fermented grape juice.”
Where to stay: There are no hotels at the Bekaa Valley wineries, but you can find decent places to stay within a 20-minute drive.
The Palmyra Hotel in Baalbek combines history and character. Housed in a once-grand building that is a relic from the colonial days, the hotel’s rooms have direct views of the city’s ancient ruins. Rooms range from $40 to $66 for a double room. 961-8-376-101.
The Massabki Hotel in Chtaura is one of the few luxury accommodations in the area. It’s also a relic from the colonial era, but has more modern amenities than the Palmyra. Standard rooms start at $125 for a double room, and a luxury suite is $250. 961-8-544-644; www.massabkihotel.com.
The Grand Hotel Kadri in Zahle, with an outdoor pooland its own restaurant and bar, is probably the most luxurious place to stay in the Bekaa Valley. A double room is $150 and the royal suite is $450. 961-8-813-920;www.grandhotelkadri.com.
The West Bekaa Country Club is near Kefraya and Cave Kouroum. It features a pool, spa and tennis courts, with great views of the mountains. Double rooms are $100 a night ($130 on weekends); 961-8-645-601/2/3; www.wbccbekaa.com.
Where to eat: Most restaurants in Lebanon offer a traditonal mezze, or appetizer assortment, including hummos, baba ghanoush, spinach pastries, tabouleh (parsley salad), yogurt and olives.
Two restaurants in the area with especially good mezze are the Akl restaurant, on the main road in Chtaura, and the restaurant at the Arabi Hotel, located on the Berdawni River in Zahle.
Two of the wineries also have good restaurants. Château Kefraya’s menu is a combination of traditional Lebanese (like the mezze pictured above) and French cuisine. Massaya’s restaurant hires housewives from the nearby villages to cook homestyle traditional Arab dishes.
What to see: The ruins of Baalbek are a stunning relic of Imperial Rome. Plan on a half-day to see the temples and mosaics, and visit the impressive museum. Also in the Bekaa Valley is the town of Aanjar, home to the well-preserved ancient ruins of Umayyad City, with strong influence of pre-Islamic cultures, including Greek and Byzantine.