Nectar of the Gods

The explosion of Lebanon’s wine industry

by Amal Bouhabib

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When Michel de Bustros began making wine in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in 1979, many questioned his timing. Four years earlier, war had erupted in Lebanon, a war that would last until 1990 and claim more than 100,000 lives. Within three years, Israeli tanks were trammeling his vineyards. “It was a disaster,” recalled Mr. de Bustros, a silver-haired man in his 60’s. “It wasn’t like a tractor. These were 70-ton tanks crushing the vines and the pipes. Everyday we were repairing them.”

It would get worse.

Mr. de Bustros’s French winemaker, Yves Morard, was arrested by Israeli soldiers for looking suspicious during Israel’s 1982 invasion. He had to take a wine exam in Tel Aviv to prove his identity. Later, two fighter planes crashed into Mr. de Bustros’s fields. Despite these obstacles, the de Bustros estate, Kefraya, prospered.

In the past 50 years, the number of commercial wineries in Lebanon has leaped from three to 15, said Serge Hochar, president of the Union of Lebanese Winemakers (Union Vinicole du Liban). Since 1995, production has grown 50 percent, from 4 million bottles to more than 6 million.

“Lebanese wines are gaining an [international] reputation, winning in almost every competition where they are presented,” said Elie Maamari, the export manager of Ksara, Lebanon’s largest vineyard, which produces 2 million bottles a year. Lebanese wines benefit from an exceptional topography, climate and terroire, the word used to indicate the soil of the vineyards.

Almost all of the major wineries share the vast and picturesque Bekaa Valley as their growing grounds. Flanked by Mount Lebanon on the east and the Anti-Lebanon mountain range to the west, the valley is perfect for grape growing. At 3,000 feet above sea level, the region basks in nearly 300 days of sun a year. Its summers are dry and its winters rainy, ensuring predictable cultivation patterns. The clay and limestone in the soil give Lebanon’s wines a unique Mediterranean spice that distinguishes its cabernets and merlots from other regions’.

Compared to large wine-producing nations like France, however, Lebanese wine production remains a small industry. The country of 4 million people would have to produce 80 million bottles of wine annually to achieve just 1 percent of French production. Still, Lebanon’s $25 million wine industry, which is mostly geared toward export, is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise struggling economy.

“The Lebanese started wine,” said Mr. Maamari. “Noah lived in this region. Winemaking is part of our history.”

Historians agree that wine production in Lebanon dates back at least 4,000 years. The seafaring Phoenicians, based in what is now known as Lebanon, traded wine made from Lebanese vines, dubbed “nectar of the gods” by the Romans. Sometime around A.D. 150, the Romans dedicated a temple to their wine god Bacchus in the ancient city of Baalbek. (Today, this temple is the world’s best preserved Roman temple of its size.)

Lebanon’s Christians, who today make up 30 percent of the population, have been indispensable to the country’s wine production. In 1857, Jesuits took over the Ksara estate, a Crusader fortress in Bekaa, turning a series of Roman tunnels into wine cellars.

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Tags: Lebanon Farming/Agriculture