The Grapes of Glory

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Sea born mist hangs low, one can almost smell November in the vineyards. The grape leaves curl in fall colors and the sun has no warmth anymore, only last year’s vintage to shake the chill. Summer’s essence is held in a glass. Earths vocation and fruit lay sweetly in a bottle. You can still feel the summer’s Mediterranean sun in the bouquet of last year’s wine. This familiar scent of earth, water, and grapes is the scent of home.

Lebanon’s winemaking tradition dates back more than 5,000 years. It was the Phoenicians who first discovered that the long summers, wet winters and warm temperature made this huge green plateau bordered by mountains perfect for viticulture and they mastered the wine trade in the Mediterranean region. Then came the Roman lovers of this drink, who honored the wine god Bacchus by erecting spectacular temples to the deity- – the remains of the most famous can still be seen in Baalbek in the Bekaa Valley today. The ruins at Baalbek are breathtaking, and carved vine leaves adorning the entrance to the Temple of Bacchus provide us with a direct connection to Lebanon’s past glories in winemaking.

The history of Christendom too testifies to the reputation of Lebanese wine: it was at a wedding reception in Canaa, south Lebanon, that Jesus turned water into wine.

Most wine history books agree that there is no doubt wine was first made in the Middle East. Theories even exist to suggest that a large number of red and white grape varieties were distributed as far as Europe by the Phoenicians from what is now Lebanon, and are ancestors to many of the grape varieties today. The vineyards of the Bekaa Valley have survived conflicts and religious divides.

Just after Bhamdoun, the Bekaa Valley opens up with its plethora of colors. The vineyards in the Bekaa are stunning with their red terracotta soil and luscious, almost lime green vines framed by snow-capped mountains.

Here is a list of the wineries in the Bekaa Valley, all worth a visit:

  • The Massaya winery, the Franco-Lebanese winery that arguably spearheaded the 90s wine revolution in Lebanon. Today, Massaya is still one of Lebanon’s most hi-profile labels.
  • Domaine des Tourelles was founded by a French engineer in 1868 and is being revived by descendants of the founding family.
  • Chateau Musar, the most famous outside Lebanon. It kept producing world-class wines throughout the civil war, earning it legendary status in the wine industry and making its owner, Serge Hochar, Bacchus’s corporeal equivalent in today’s Lebanon.
  • Ksara, Lebanon’s oldest wine producer, which has been making wine since 1857, when the forward thinking Jesuit brothers decided to use French vines to make their wines. Sold in 1973 to the current owners. It is home to the first observatory in the Middle East (set up nearly 100 years ago) and has 2 km of Roman passages, discovered at the turn of the century and which are now used as the winery’s cellars.
  • Domaine Wardy, another new generation producer of no less than 11 different wines. It is owned by the Wardy family of Ghantous Abou Raad arak fame.
  • Chateau St Thomas, located at the far end of Kab Elias, is owned by one branch of the famous arak-making Touma family.
  • Heritage winery, in 1888, the Touma Family established one of the first wineries and distilleries in Lebanon in the small town of Kab-elias to produce wine and Arak Touma, the national Lebanese drink. Continuing in the tradition, the Heritage Winery was established and released its first modern wines in 1997.

A leisurely drive past the beautiful swamps at Amiq and the billowing silver birch that line the crop fields will lead down to:

  • Cave Kouroum. Mr Bassim Rahal started his first step as a negotiator of sales of most of the grape harvest. In 1998 Mr. Rahal made the risky decision to start a new winery. Thus, Cave Kouroum was born and the 1998 vintage (Brut de Cuve) was an especial pride and joy, receiving extensive appraise at Vinexpo Bordeaux in 2001.
  • Kefraya is one of Lebanon’s most celebrated and prestigious producers. The winery has beautiful gardens named after operas and a very popular restaurant and tasting room.
  • Château Ka, The first wines from Chateau Ka in the Lebanese Bekka Valley were bottled in 2005, under the leadership of Akram Kassatly the founder of Kassatly Chtaura. The Chateau Ka wines over the past decade have won a multitude of national wine awards.
  • Château Khoury: The vineyard is a family business born out of Raymond and Brigitte El Khoury’s passion for the vine and wine. The first vines for wine production were planted in 1995 on a land that had been abandoned after the Lebanese civil war.

As you sit watching the setting sun turn the eastern slopes of the valley the exact shade of pink as the wine, immersed in this extraordinary industry and landscape, wine will come to represent the magic of Lebanon itself with its connection to the soil, the climate, the past surviving conflict and religious divides. The grapes of Lebanon are not at all grapes of wrath but grapes of glory.

I sip the clear wine

watch how the sunlight

lends its brilliance

to the half-filled glass

Like grape from the vine,

From the vineyards of passion,

Where the fruits are plump;

Plump and fat,

Growing as the sun glistens on their skin.

No evil can breed in these roots,

For when the lights are dim,

The moonlight is a protector

To my Lebanon and its rich historic soil…

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