The Lebanese Wine Renaissance
Lebanon's new generation of winemakers is cultivating an emphatic sense of place.
Even if you're not an aficionado of Middle Eastern wines, you may have heard of Chateau Musar. Renowned for its opulent, Bordeaux-style red blends, this winery (and its charismatic owner Serge Hochar) put Lebanese wine on the map in the 1970s. For a long time, Musar was a lone success. However, since the mid-2000s, new winemakers have started to emerge who are set on creating a style they feel is more “Lebanese,” less driven by a European-influenced sensibility. By using different grape varieties, techniques, and, in some ways, a lighter stylistic touch, they are creating wines with an emphatic sense of place.
Many of these new talents are based in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Wide and rugged, with a horizon that disappears in a blue haze, this vast plateau was first planted with vines more than 5,000 years ago. One rising star here is Faouzi Issa, the 35-year-old boss of Domaine des Tourelles. Outspoken, mischievous, and smart, this Château Margaux–trained winemaker believes the future of Lebanese wine lies not with Cabernet, but with the more workaday grape Cinsaut.
“The French call it piss en vin!” he says gleefully. “But here it is proving that the Bekaa Valley is diamond terroir!” His 60-year-old bush vines sprawl messily over the rocks, but the wines they produce are precise: Their floral, slightly spicy Cinsauts taste like Pinot Noir reimagined for the Middle East.
Other producers are championing native varietals, such as Merwah and Obaideh. Château Ksara launched its first 100 percent Merwah in 2017, a single-vineyard white with gentle notes of citrus and melon. Château Kefraya has gone further, testing a dozen native grapes including Assali el Arous, Inab el Mir, and Assouad Karech, as well as aging the wines in amphorae in a nod to the grapes’ Phoenician heritage.
In the north of the country, the proudly Lebanese IXSIR (named after the Arabic for “elixir”) is also making its mark. Housed in a beautifully restored, 400-year-old limestone dwelling, this state-of-the-art winery riffs on terroirs from all over Lebanon. (They also have an excellent restaurant.)
It’s hard to discuss wine in Lebanon without eventually talking about war—everyone you meet has some kind of hair-raising tale to tell, and the conflict in Syria, which borders the country to the north and east, looms large. For every field planted with vines or vegetables in the Bekaa Valley, there is another dotted with refugee camps.
Brothers Sandro and Karim Saadé are the duo behind the Bekaa Valley’s Château Marsyas, but they also own Syria’s only working winery, Domaine Bargylus, which they’ve continued to run, remotely, straight through the conflict.
And despite Lebanon’s volatility, people still choose to return. Twenty years ago, Naji and Jill Boutros swapped their comfortable setup in London, where Naji was an investment banker, for a new life making wine in Bhamdoun, the small mountain village where he grew up. Today, Chateau Belle-Vue supplies its sensual reds to Michelin-starred restaurants in London and Chicago. And it has breathed new life into a community decimated by war.
“It’s a massive responsibility,” says Jill. “We’re well aware that our success represents the viability of the village, though honestly, we’d be doing this even if the wines were just OK.” Fortunately for all of us, they are a great deal better than that.
5 New Lebanese Wines to Look For
2017 Ixsir Altitudes Rosé ($13)
One of Lebanon’s strongest hands is rosé, and this blend of Cinsaut, Syrah, and Caladoc is particularly classy: citrusy and fresh with a touch of saltiness on the finish.
2017 Château Ksara Merwah ($17)
Made from a single plot of 66-year-old Merwah vines, this easy-drinking white is bright, fruity, and soft. It’s one to stick in the ice bucket on a hot summer’s day (or even a frosty winter evening).
2016 Domaine Des Tourelles Vieilles Vignes Cinsault ($22)
Rosewater, fig, and tart damsons define this exotic wine. It just gets better with every vintage.
2015 Château Marsyas ($43
This big, luxurious Cabernet blend is designed to go the distance in terms of aging. Marsyas’ second wine, B-Q¯a, is a more approachable take on the same idea.
2010 Chateau Belle-Vue Le Chateau ($60)
Cold nights and hot days give the tannins wonderful polish in this aromatic, intense Cabernet Franc–Syrah blend from the Mount Lebanon appellation.