In Lebanon, a Wine Renaissance


Photo by tobiastoft/FlickrCC

Last week, I got wind of an opportunity to reacquaint myself with Lebanese wines, which I much enjoyed during my four years living in Beirut from 1998 to 2002. Ilili, a glitzy Lebanese restaurant in the Flatiron neighborhood of Manhattan, is showcasing the offerings from four Lebanese wineries. Chateau Musar, which is visiting on February 8, is the best-known of the bunch, and Chateaus Kefraya (Feb. 1) and Ksara (Feb. 15) are well established, but I was most interested in the Massaya Winery tasting, on January 25. Massaya's a relative upstart, much smaller than the others, and I'd never had its wines.

Pouring was Sami Ghosn, who along with his brother, Ramzi, launched the winery in 1998. Like most Lebanese wineries—Musar is the notable exception—Massaya is in the Bekaa Valley, between two mountain ranges near the breathtaking ancient Roman ruins of Baalbek. ("Massaya" is Arabic for "twilight," and the brothers were inspired by the valley's stunning views.) The Ghosns' father had bought a plot of land to build a vacation home away from Beirut, but those plans changed with the outbreak of Lebanon's bloody civil war in 1975. Militants seized the property, and the Ghosns eventually fled abroad. Ramzi settled in Paris, where he worked in the restaurant industry, and Sami went on the United States, where he worked as an architect.

Lebanon's southern town of Qana is where Jesus is said to have performed his first miracle, turning water to wine.

After the war ended in 1990, Sami returned to reclaim the family land from squatters. "I handed over my green card at JFK airport, because I knew Lebanon was my real home," he says. Sami bought 10 tons of grapes—not to make wine but arak, Lebanon's distinctive aniseed spirit, which is similar to Greek ouzo. Relying on his brother's industry connections, Sami showcased his arak in France, where it sold well. His thoughts turned to wine, and eventually the Ghosns partnered up with two notable French winemakers, Daniel Brunier (of Domaine du Vieux Télégraphe and La Roquète in Châteauneuf-du-Pape) and Dominique Hebrard (former co-owner of Chateau Cheval Blanc, in Bordeaux).

Though casual wine drinkers will not necessarily associate wine with Lebanon—especially given that at least two-thirds of the country is Muslim—the country has a long oenological tradition dating back to at least 4,000 B.C., when Phoenician traders exported local wine to the Egyptian Pharaohs. The 2,000-year-old ruins of Baalbek feature bas-reliefs of grapes and opium poppies (which also continue to be grown, illegally, in the Bekaa). And Lebanon's southern town of Qana is where Jesus is said to have performed his first miracle, turning water to wine.

Lebanon's modern wine tradition dates to 1857, when Jesuit priests began making wine at Ksara. Today, the industry is growing, but in terms of quantity it remains a blip in global production. Lebanon produces about seven million bottles a year—one percent of what France produces, and 25 percent of Israeli production. Massaya produces 80,000 bottles each year—an arak, three reds, a white, and a rosé.

Of the wines, only the reds were on hand last Thursday. Many Lebanese reds make more liberal use of the Cinsaut grape (pronounced "san-so") than is common in other wine regions, such as France's Languedoc-Roussillon, where the hearty, drought-resistant grape is overshadowed in blends by Grenache and Syrah. (South Africans crossed Cinsaut and Pinot Noir to make the country's signature varietal, Pinotage.) Other Lebanese reds I've enjoyed were in the style of lean-bodied Bordeaux, so I was surprised by the more robust Massaya offerings.

The first two reds, the entry-level 2007 Classic (60 percent Cinsaut, 20 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 20 percent Syrah) and the mid-level 2005 Silver Selection (40 percent Cinsaut, 30 percent Granache, 15 percent Cabernet Sauvignon, 15 percent Mourvèdre), had a lingering spice I had not previously found in the country's wines. Perhaps Brunier's experience in Châteauneuf was responsible. The wines were a good accompaniment to the Lebanese meze we sampled and would pair well with heartier meat dishes, such as lamb. Retailing for as little as $9 and $12 respectively in the United States, they're good bargains, too.

I wasn't as impressed with what Massaya bills as its top wine, the Gold Reserve (50 percent Cabernet, 40 percent Mourvèdre, 10 percent Syrah). It reminded me of fruity, jammy New World Cabernets—think Chile—and it lacked both the nuance of a good Bordeaux and the lingering, high-alcohol punch of many high-end California Cabs. It retails for $25.

While the venue for the pouring was a Lebanese restaurant, Sami Ghosn made it clear that he's looking beyond the ethnic market. Other press representatives suggested Lebanon's 18 or so wineries should band together to promote the industry—a rising tide lifts all boats and all that. There is, in fact, such an association, the Union Vinicole du Liban, but it's riven by infighting reminiscent of the country's fractious political scene. "It's difficult for Lebanese to work together," Ghosn said.

I could only agree and share Ghosn's lament. We pushed aside the wine glasses and reached for the arak. When a discussion turns to Lebanese politics, it's time for the hard stuff.