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Bekaa Valley is the center of the Lebanese wine industry, with the majority of the country’s vineyards. Most of Lebanon is too hot and dry for quality viticulture, however the cooling effects from the Mediterranean and elevated slopes with water runoff from Mount Lebanon create a microclimate in which grapes can thrive and ripen with good balance.
Lebanon itself has a long history of wine production dating back 5000 years to the ancient Phoenicians who successfully traded wine with other countries in exchange for gold and other precious commodities. Through the centuries, other empires occupied the land. In the 16th century, when the Ottomans arrived, alcohol production and consumption was limited to only the residual Christians who stayed after the Crusades and were allowed to produce sacramental wines.
In 1857, with this loophole in place, Jesuit missionaries created Ksara, the country’s first commercial winery and now its largest wine producer. They also produce Arak, a popular Middle Eastern fruit-based distillate with added anise seed. This success paved the way for others that have continued into the modern era such as Chateau Kefraya, and Massaya. Lebanon has a significant French influence from occupation after World War I, Algerian immigration, and French Christians who settled during the Crusades. The descendants of one such family, the Hochars, established Chateau Musar in Ghazir in 1930. Aside from the above mentioned commercial wineries that have found success overseas, boutique operations continue to crop up.
The French varietal Cinsault was the first grape planted in the Christian era. Others followed such as Carignan, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Gamay, Chardonnay, Ugni Blanc, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Chasselas, Clairette, and Muscat, and native Lebanese grapes such as Merwah and Obaideh. Styles range from red, white, pink, sparkling, and sweet. Many of the dry wines are produced as blends.
Lebanese vignerons need a tough skin. Not only do they have to deal with the usual calamities that befall viticulture, such as vine diseases, drought, and frost, but also frequent periods of political instability and violent clashes with neighboring countries. However, many have learned to just go with the flow and persevere under these tough conditions.
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