Wine from Lebanon: History, Varietals, and Producers

When one thinks of wine producing regions, seldom is Lebanon at the top of the list.  Yet, few places in the world have a longer tradition of winemaking.  Wine has been made in Lebanon for at least 5,000 years since the Phoenicians domesticated grapes.  Lebanon was, of course, part of the biblical land of Canaan.  Jesus changed water into wine there at the wedding of Cana. 

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The term wine is derived from a Phoenician word describing the fermentation of grapes.  While the Phoenicians may not have invented wine, they perfected viticulture in the ancient world and it was a source of not only pride, but revenue.  Interestingly, Robert Ballard, the underwater explorer famous for his discovery of the Titanic wreck, discovered two Phoenician ships that date back to 750BC, with a cargo of wine still intact.  It appears the Phoenicians stored their wine in amphorae and then protected it from oxidation with a layer of olive oil and then a seal of pine and resin.  The Egyptians were unable to make wines of competing quality and became a leading consumer of their wines.  The Greeks learned to make wine from the Phoenicians before spreading the knowledge around Europe. 

Once Lebanon became part of the Arabic realm, alcohol production was eliminated except wine produced for Christian religious purposes.  Modern Lebanese winemaking dates back to 1857, when Jesuit Monks planted grape vines at Chateau Ksara in the Bekaa Valley.  These were Cinsault grapes brought over from Algeria.  A decade later Domaine des Tourelles was created by a French Engineer, Eugene Brun.  Thru World War I, Lebanon was under the control of the Ottoman Empire after which time it was placed under French mandate.  In 1930, Gaston Huchar founded Chateau Musar, Lebanon’s most famous winery.  By the end of World War II, Beirut had obtained the reputation of an international city with a strong French influence.  This was very helpful to the Lebanese wine industry and likewise, the wines produced tended to be French (Bordeaux or Rhone) in style. 

Although the wine industry is now well established, the political situation in Lebanon has made wine production difficult at best.  The wars with Israel and the attacks both from Israel and from terrorists have often made wine production a life risking endeavor.  Yves Morard from Chateau Kefraya was arrested as a spy by the Israelis who allegedly only let him go once he proved he knew how to make wine.  Chateau Ksara lost most of their harvest due to the inability to hire workers during the 2006 Israeli bombing. 

Lebanon has 300 days of sunshine a year which provides a long growing season.  All of the wineries have vineyards in the Bekaa Valley.  Today’s wine industry in Lebanon is still influenced by the French.  The most heavily planted varietals include Cinsault, Carignon, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Mourvedre.  There are also some indigenous grapes being used, most notably Obaideh and Merwah, both white grapes.  Lebanon produces around 600,000 cases of wine per year. 

The largest winery in Lebanon is Chateau Ksara.  It got its name from the word Ksar, which was a fortress used during the Crusades.  It was acquired in 1857 by the Jesuits as a vineyard.  Their wine cellar was originally a Roman grotto.  In an effort similar to the WPA, the Jesuits expanded the caves during World War I to create employment for the people.  The winery was eventually sold to private investors in 1972.  The Civil Wars and other conflicts almost put this winery out of business but further outside investments in the 1990’s have this winery making good wine again. 

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.