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H - 168 : Wines from Lebanon

Writing about the daily life of a Roman sailor made me wonder what goods the Corbita cargo boats actually shipped in their bellies. Every illustration I found shows the space below deck filled with amphorae. By and large, three bulky liquids were traded in the Mare Nostrum. Garum (fish sauce), olive oil and wine. Wine being the most precious of the three.

 

Sun set over the Vineyards on the Slopes of the Anti-Lebanon in the Beqaa Valley


Roman cargo ships returned from Egypt with grain, luxury goods from India and China, copper ingots from Cyprus and wine and olive oil from Judea and Phoenicia, the two regions in the Levant. In Lebanon and Israel, the two successor states, these two products are still exported today. It is a timeless business. Over the last thirty years, the world learned about the wines from Israel, primarily from the Golan Heights and Galilee. Less is known about the wines from Lebanon which also made a comeback after the end of the civil war in the early 1980s. The country's continued political instability and Hezbollah's frontline status to Israel make its export marketing efforts less effective though.


There are about 60 independent wine producers in the Lebanon, mostly in the Beqaa Valley

 

Producing wine in the Levant is a 5’000-year-old tradition. Grapes were growing wild in the upper region of the Tigris and Euphrates and were first cultivated by Armenians and Georgians. We know from Sumer cuneiform tablets that tribes from Anatolia brought wine to Mesopotamia when floating lumber down river. The Sumer elite loved wine. Its cultivation spread quickly and reached Phoenicia, an ideal place for viniculture. Grapes love sandy and limestone soil, the weather during the day was hot, the evenings cool, there was enough precipitation throughout the year. The winters snowy. In Lebanon’s past and present, wine is mostly cultivated in the Beqaa Valley between Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon on an altitude of around 1’000 meters.



Have never been to Lebanon but not for lack of trying. Every time we wanted to visit, a crisis erupted and plans had to be cancelled. Last time in 2018, when we wanted to sail from Iskenderun in Turkey along the Lebanese coast to Israel. Tripoli, Beirut, Sidon and Tyre were on our list. But it was a NO GO. No single yacht owner was willing to lease us a boat for such a trip. Too dangerous – too complicated. We had to sail via Cyprus to Haifa instead. Luckily, there are enough adventurous travelers who document their trips to Lebanon on YouTube. Without them, I could not write this article.


Israeli Defence Force Frigate waiting for us 20 miles outside Haifa on 15 August 2018


Wine production in Lebanon took off with the Phoenicians, who exported it throughout the Mediterranean. When we drink Spanish wine today, we have to toast to them. They brought the grapes to the western Mediterranean. The Romans continued the Phoenician tradition and expanded wine production. One of the most beautiful temples for Bacchus, the Roman Wine God, stands in Baalbek in the Beqaa Valley. Baalbek also is the political center of Hezbollah. One would think that wine making and political Islam clash. But as ever so often in the Middle East, labels don’t tell the entire story. They both co-exist and respect each other.

The largely intact Temple of Bacchus in Baalbek


Wine making in large volumes came to an end with the demise of the Roman Empire (476 AD) and the collapse of the Mediterranean Trading System when Arab armies conquered the Levant (634 AD) and Egypt (639 AD). With a stroke, the wine drinking customers in Rome and Constantinople were cut off. The producers in Lebanon lost their export markets.


Grape Harvest in Lebanon

 

Wine making did not stop though. The area was Christian. Wine was part of the Holy Communion and continued to be produced – just for local consumption though. As in the rest of Europe, the key producers were monks from monasteries. For this reason, two local grape varieties survived to these days and were brought back to large scale wine production. Obeidi and Merwah, both white grapes, have become popular again.

 

The League of Nations gave France in 1922 the Mandate to

govern Syria and the Levant Coast north of Palestine


Modern wine making has its roots in Lebanon’s close relation to France. In the 19th century, France became the protector of the Christian minority living in the Lebanon. When Great Britain and France divided the Arab part of the Ottoman Empire after their victory in World War I, France got Syria and the Lebanon which it formally governed until 1945.


French wine makers from Bordeaux brought the viniculture back in the 1930s. Of course they brought their big grapes like Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc & Chardonnay. They also brought the tradition of putting all the wine in oak for maturing. Something that has not changed much for Lebanese reds.

 

Oak Barrels in the small Vinery of Chateau St. Thomas


Lebanon today has about 60 independent wine makers and produces a good 78'500 hectolitres per year, Most of it is red wine. In comparison, Italy produces 49.8 million hectolitres, France 45.6 million hectolitres per year. Lebanese production is tiny compared to these two giants. Just 0.15% of their annual production!

 

Rather than talking about Lebanese wine in general, I am going to introduce a small wine producer from the Beqaa Valley, called Chateau St. Thomas. On only 65 acres, this small producer makes a fabulous rose, a good white and an excellent red. You find them all on Vivino, my favorite wine app (am not getting any kick-backs for this free commercial).

 

Some of the Wines produces by the Chateau St. Thomas in the Beqaa Valley


The first one to introduce is a Rosé called "Le Diamant", a blend of Carignan (which we know so well from the south of France), Syrah and the local Obeidi. It is made from grapes produced specifically for making Rosé, has a beautiful smell of raspberry and yellow plums and an alcohol content of 13%. Reminds me of Rosé from the Provence.



The next wine is a white made from the surviving local variety of Obeidi. Smells of lemon curdle with some mineral undertones. Almost earthy but still fresh and light with a good balance of acidity. A fabulous alternative to the homogeneous world of Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc we live in today.




 The last wine to introduce today is an oaky merlot, called Le Merlot Alpha - with quite some

 chutzpah. It won a gold medal in France for best international wines. It is made in Saint Emilion Grand Cru style and can hold its place. Probably only possible because of the high altitude it is grown on. Good catch for about EUR 45.- a bottle


This little blog can impossible cover all the good wines from Lebanon. My 4 min reading time are already up. Will have to get some of this wine for this summer's trip to get over the fact that once again we are going to miss out on Lebanon.

 

Vineyards surrounded by Olive Trees in the Beqaa Valley - as 2'000 Years ago

 

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