Under the absolute charm of the Lebanese vineyard

From the ruins of Byblos (one of the oldest cities in the world continuously inhabited), through the enigmatic cedar forest, Beirut’s thrilling nightlife, or the picturesque charm of mountain villages. Not to mention the vineyards, from north to south, lovingly shaped by the hand of man, I literally fell in love with Lebanon.

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Discovery of one of the oldest vineyard cultures, with indisputable terroirs and many native grape varieties. A country that has proudly risen after many wars and now produces 8.5 million bottles a year from 2,000 hectares. A “small” but recognized vineyard, 90% of which is concentrated in the Bekaa Valley. And in addition, one of the most beautiful ones in the Mediterranean… or even in the world.

The indigenous grape varieties, the future of the Lebanese vineyard

Thanks to the vine cultivation in Lebanon for ages (since around 7000 BC), indigenous grape varieties are innumerable in the country.

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Legend has it that Noah, whose tomb is in the mosque of Kerak (Bekaa), stopped on Mount Sannine and planted vines there. However, due to a lack of preservation of these grape varieties, “we are still experimenting with wine”, Fabrice Guiberteau, from Château Kefraya, who is actively working to revive many missing grape varieties, said.

Two white grape varieties, however, Merwah and Obeidi, traditionally used in the production of arak (an aniseed wine brandy), seem to play their part.

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“These grapes have incredible aromatic profiles and deserve to be vinified. They represent the identity and the future of the Lebanese vineyard”, Maher Harb, from Sept Winery explained.

These delicious grapes, can be found for example in the top white wine cuvée of Château Musar. “Here, the wines spend up to 7 years in bottles before going on the market for our top cuvées”, Gaston Hochar, one of the two sons of Serge Hochar, who took over the torch, confided us.

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The visit of the cellar, dug in the rock under the domain, was a real spectacle in itself. Long alleys, as far as the eye can see, filled with wine treasures!

Sept Winery : never stop dreaming…

One Sunday, last October, I discovered with happiness Sept Winery, the estate of my friend Maher Harb, a young winemaker on the Lebanese scene and already so talented.

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With one hectare of vines at the moment, planted by Maher in the village of Nehla, in northern Lebanon (Batroun region), to reconnect with his roots. Portrait of a self-taught man who struggles to breathe new life into Lebanese viticulture – and who, objectively speaking, all friendship and emotional judgment put aside – most certainly represents the future of wine in Lebanon.

In 2009, while he was a consultant in Paris in the banking sector, he saw himself in the reflection of the window of the metro line 13, clumped by the crowd, in his suit, like a sardine trapped in a box.

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The electroshock. He left everything and returned to his country: with the desire to reconnect with nature. At the end of 2011, he planted 1 hectare of vines (mainly Grenache, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon) in extreme winter weather conditions.

No choice at the time : he just received his vines and had to plant them before leaving for two years to Saudi Arabia, in order to save some money to realize his dream of becoming a winemaker. In 2014, he traveled around the world of wine with the OIV MSc (the master of the OIV(1)) and returned in 2016, full of ideas with a lighter spirit, for his first vintage.

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I tasted his wines. Incredible. Full of fruit, freshness (remarkable for Lebanon) and already very promissing… It just shows you must never stop dreaming.

Château Kefraya, on the Yammouneh seismic fault

For many years, I have been waiting impatiently to visit Château Kefraya. Why? Because it is one of the major wine estates of Lebanon. Because its 300 hectares of terraced vineyards, 1000 meters above the Mediterranean Sea, on the foothills of Mount Barouk, in the Bekaa Valley, have always made me dream.

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Because I had the opportunity to taste the wines of the estate several times in the past. And I must admit that vintage after vintage, the wines become more and more elegant.

But as you know, tasting a wine at home and understanding it deeply by visiting the estate itself are two very different things. And I was even more impressed to discover, feel and touch this large mosaic of soils : clay-limestone, sandy and gravelly soils, combined with an exceptional solar exposure, all without any irrigation.

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“The vineyards of Château Kefraya are located on the Yammouneh fault (the Great African Break in Lebanon), in the extreme south of the Bekaa, resulting in unique weather in Lebanon, with 1000mm of rain a year and more moderate temperatures than elsewhere in the country”, Fabrice Guiberteau, the winemaker of the estate explained. Probably one of the most beautiful terroirs in the world. Everything to make great wines.

The Bekaa, a breathtaking panorama

Looking for the “best view of the Bekaa Valley”?! We found it for you! At the top of the Château Qanafar, a property of 17 hectares planted at 1200m altitude, you can admire the beauty of the Bekaa Valley as a whole.

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An incredible landscape and a beautiful way to understand the uniqueness of this wine region. Eddy Naim, the oenologist, who took over the work from his father in 2011, explained how the construction of the current winery (still in progress) had begun.

“We invested everything we had for the construction of this place, because we wanted the best for our production. We started small. In a garage in the city center.

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Then we had to extend, because we got a little bigger. We rented a second small garage next to the first one. Then production increased again and we had to rent a third one… Then a fourth!

Finally, it was a critical size and we decided to create our own winery“. We stopped at the old cellar. Amazing to see the evolution of the estate in just a few years. Conclusion: if you ever create your winery, never start too big. Be patient, like Eddy, otherwise you could burn your wings.

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And best of all, the wines of Château Qanafar are delicious. Like the 2013 Syrah… An explosion of gluttony!

Conclusion with Château Marsyas

We ended our stay in Lebanon by visiting the Château Marsyas. Quoted by Pliny the Elder, “Marsyas” is the ancient name of the Bekaa valley, located on the foothills of Mount Lebanon.

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Perched at an altitude of 900m, the domain is the initiative of the Johnny R. Saadé family, also owner of Bargylus, in Syria (which we hope to have the pleasure to visit one day!).

The red soils that we see here show the presence of iron and white stones forming a very nice clay-limestone profile, favorable to the vine, on which Cabernet sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot in red, as well as Sauvignon blanc and Chardonnay in white are planted.

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The cuvée Château Marsyas Blanc 2014 (Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay), a wine full of freshness, with citrus and ripe white fruit aromas was a nice discovery.

It is impossible to close this Lebanese chapter without mentioning Vinifest, the annual Lebanese wine fair, held at the Beirut racecourse every year at the end of October. Three evenings of festivities around wine, where each guest has the possibility, for a very reasonable entrance ticket (<$ 30), to be able to taste all the Lebanese wines present ; a vast majority of wineries.

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An incredible organization, a large and conquered public, talented winemakers and the testimony of a real craze for wine in Lebanon! A question now animates me : when will I be able to return to Lebanon? I already miss the country…

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Château Musar, Sept Winery, Château Kefraya, Château Qanafar and Château Marsyas for their warm welcome. Special thanks to Fabrice Guiberteau from Château Kefraya, for his invaluable help during our stay. Finally, a huge thank you to Maher Harb, from Sept Winery, for having accompanied us throughout this trip and for having shared so deeply the love that he has for his country.

(1) OIV : International Organisation of Vine and Wine

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