Wine has been an integral part of the cultural development of Europe. As far back as 2700 B.C. the Phoenicians began trading wine across the Mediterranean. Wine became a staple of Greek and Roman trade and while wine would have reached all parts of the Mediterranean through this trade, it wasn't until French monks planted Cinsault vines in the late 1850s that grape growing really accelerated in Lebanon, with the first wineries opening in the 1860s. However there are artefacts to wines history throughout the Lebanon - the most famous being the striking second-century Temple to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine located in the Bekaa Valley.
Siting at the confluence of East and West Lebanon has always been well placed to reflect both cultures, with influences seen in everything from food to architecture. Emerging from French colonial rule, Lebanon and Beirut in particular were able to capitalise on western influence and modernity while remaining true to the traditions and cultures of the East, this fusion earning Beirut the title 'Paris of the Middle East'.
The French influence is undeniable, particularly in the food and wine of the country. There is an elegance to Lebanese food which eludes to the fine dinning culture of central Europe, but with the flavours and spices of the Middle East. This same parallel is reflected in their wines. Bordeaux blends dominate but the spices are that of cinnamon, allspice and clove.
The majority of wine growing in Lebanon occurs in the Bekaa Valley. Here vineyards are nestled in the mountain side, with some sites at 3,000ft, elevation. This altitude is important to the style of wine Lebanon aims to achieve. With temperatures reaching the high 20s in the summer months and little rain fall, the cooling influence is vital.
In terms of whites, Obaideh and Merwah are the primary local varieties. The wines can be complex and rich with long aging potential. Obaideh is used to make an aniseed flavoured liquor called Arak. When used in wine Obaideh is creamy with honeyed lemon notes. Famously blended with Merwah (closely related to Semillon), Obaideh makes one part of the Chateau Musar white. These whites are extremely popular on the international market and capable of long cellar ageing - the best vintages can be very hard to get hold of. Historically, Cinsault is one of the oldest varieties grown in Lebanon and extremely well suited to the climate.
Chateau Musar also produces a Bordeaux blend style red. This is probably the most internationally recognised wine to come out of the Lebanon. A rich and full bodied blend, the wine is only released after at least 7 years of ageing. Much like their white wines Musar reds have a cult following and the best vintages are snapped up very quickly. Usually made in almost equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Cinsault. There is lots of vintage variation but usually the wines are rustic and tannic, with intense aromas. Most have a degree of acidity and power, which allows the wine to be aged for long periods of time.
Like many of the great wine regions of the world Lebanese food and wine are bound together, both influencing each other, adapting and growing around one another. The spiced aromas of Lebanese reds complement those found in traditional cuisine such as kebabs, kafta and roasted lamb. Flourishes of sweetness from pomegranate and refreshing notes of mint, lift otherwise quite aggressive tannins. The two recipes below are ideal company for a Musar white and red respectively:
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The last 18-months have been challenging for many businesses, but the challenges facing Lebanese business is two or even three-fold. A handful of Lebanon's wineries managed to remain operating during a long and tragically violent civil war - none more famous than Chateau Musar. Now those wineries and other new vineyards are having to cope with a global pandemic which decimated the European export market, coupled with more political unrest, domestic economic malaise and in 2020 the explosion at the Port of Beirut which heavily damaged the offices of several prominent wineries. Now more than ever Lebanese wine needs supporting, so go and discover the greatest wine country you've never tried before.