Lebanon is a Middle Eastern country with an ancient wine culture that has undergone a renaissance lately. As of 2011, nearly six million Lebanese bottles of wine came from 2000 hectares (5000 acres) of vineyards, making the wines of Lebanon worthy of further exploration.
Modern viniculture moved away from the historical Phoenician port cities, going inland to the rich soil of Bekaa Valley.
Also, there is a smattering of vineyards near Jezzine, which is a few miles past the southern end of the valley and inland of Sidon.
History of Lebanon Wines
Winemaking in Lebanon dates back more than five millennia, starting with the Phoenicians. This ancient civilization traveled and traded significantly, which influenced the advancement of ancient Mediterranean society.
During this time, wine played an important role as an export for the Phoenicians, who took it to Egypt in large quantities to trade for gold.
For over 1000 years, Phoenicians extended their influence from their native land, which includes modern-day Lebanon, northern Israel, and western Syria.
The cultural impact continued to grow the length of the north coast of Africa and up into southern Europe, notably Turkey, Greece, southern Italy, Sicily, and Sardinia.
Besides trading wine, they also sold dyes, gold, glass, metalwork, and ceramics. We have to appreciate the Phoenicians’ enthusiastic gift for trade and technology for most of Europe’s historical winemaking, involving the propagation of different vine species that became vitis vinifera.
Byblos, the ancient port north of Beirut, the capital of Lebanon, is the oldest and continuously inhabited city in the world. It was renowned during classical antiquity as a vibrant wine center for producing and trading wine.
Wine continued to flow out of Byblos for centuries through the Mediterranean. Phoenicia’s key ports south of Byblos, Tyre, and Sidon remained important wine centers for a long time until the 16th century.
During this time, the Ottoman armies moved southward, covering the eastern Mediterranean. As a result, Ottoman rulers prohibited production and consumption under Sharia law. The once-thriving winemaking region surrounding Byblos, Tyre, and Sidon ended.
Lebanon’s modern wine industry traces back to the 19th century. As non-Muslims, Christians living in Lebanon, the Muslim state of the Ottoman Empire since the 1500s, allowed certain freedoms.
One such freedom was the privilege of making wine for religious purposes. Therefore, in 1857, Jesuit priests established a winery in Ksara, a village in the center of Bekaa Valley, the country’s oldest winery.
Grapes of Lebanon
Chateau Ksara plays a considerable part in Lebanese wine history. Thanks to the Christians establishing the original winery, they also launched the modern wine industry in the country.
All their efforts and hardships have resulted in the success of the chateau being Lebanon’s largest wine producer.
Even now, one in three bottles in the country comes from Ksara. The winery makes Arak, an anise-flavored spirit, the country’s most prevalent alcoholic beverage.
Other notable and long-established wineries are Chateau Kefraya and Chateau Musar.
Cinsaut was the original grapevine planted in the vineyards of Ksara. Slowly, other French vine varieties joined the region. The first variety came from France, brought by the French Colonies in Algeria.
In fact, the knowledge of French winemaking also influenced the area. Along with the French rule in the early 20th century, the winemaking in Lebanon resembles its French counterpart.
Hence, the vineyards and wineries are chateaux, and the national authority is Union Vinicole d Liban (UVL).
Civil War in Lebanon
The chateaux and wine industry had to contend with the turbulent civil war from 1975 to 1990. Serge Hochar of Chateau Musar, a significant figure in the global wine trade, withstood these stormy times.
His determination to produce and promote his wine while shells fell around the vineyard and winery with execution squads handling roadblocks did not go unnoticed. He prevailed and received the inaugural Decanter Magazine Man of the Year in 1984.
Nowadays, the wines of Lebanon continue to flourish with the continued influence of the French and indigenous grapes, particularly the white native grapes, Merwah and Obaideh.
With a production of 600,000 cases annually, let’s look at some of their most notable wines of late.
The Top Wines of Lebanon
- Chateau Musar Red – Cabernet Sauvignon and Cinsault
- Chateau Musar Blanc – Rare White Blend
- Chateau Musar “Hochar Pere et Fils” Red – Rare Red Blend
- Chateau Kefraya Red – Cabernet Sauvignon, Mourvedre and Syrah
- Chateau Kefraya Come de M – Rare Red Blend
- Chateau Musar Rose – Obaideh and Merwah
- Chateau Ksara Le Prieure – Red Blend
From the Bekaa Valley, Chateau Musar delivers a delicious, classic red wine from organic grapes. Many critics consider this one of the best wines of Lebanon, ranking fifth among the region’s wines. Starting with vintage 1980 to 2008, the wine has won nine awards.
This red has undergone long fermentation in cement vats at temperatures of 84° Fahrenheit (30° Celsius). Six months after the harvest, the winery transfers them to French barrels for one year.
They bring the varietals together two years after the harvest, and the blend goes back into the cement tanks. Twelve months later, the winery bottles the wine, then matures it for four years. Hence, the release of the finished wine happens seven years after the harvest.
The winery recommends using prongs after 15 years of age. The bottles must be upright overnight, allowing the sediments to settle before opening.
There are notes of spice and dried fruit, though complex and warm, with tight tannins and peppery, smooth acidity.
The wine has won many awards, from The TEXSOM International Wine Awards, Judges Selection Medal for the 2012 Vintage to International Wine Challenge Bronze for the 1993 and 2001 Vintages. The bottle prices are in the top 20 percent for white wines of Bekaa Valley.
The color is yellow-gold, with subtle oak notes and creamy texture, tasting rich though dry and intensely citrusy and honeyed nuances. As the white wine ages, it develops tawny colors and soft spicy characters. The cellars hold bottles of this wine dating from 1954.
Here, you have a blend of ancient grapes: Obaideh and Merwah, native to the Lebanese mountains, relating to a Chardonnay and Semillon. This rare white blend takes seven years to make, fermenting in the French oak barriques for nine months, blended and bottled after the first year.
Allow the wine to breathe for several hours after opening and serve at 59° Fahrenheit (15° Celsius).
The second wine of Chateau Musar is like the flagship wine, but the vineyards, blend, and aging places are different.
First, it’s four years in production with a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, and Grenache. The source is a single vineyard in Aana, with rich soils over limestone.
The three varietals ferment in cement vats and age before blending for six to nine months in French oak barrels. Winery bottles the wine as unfiltered and unfined. You can serve it between 61° to 65° Fahrenheit (16° to 18° Celsius) for best results.
Winner of several awards, the Hochar Pere et Fils has honors from The TEXSOM International Wine Awards to the International Wine Challenge. The 2012 vintage won The TEXSOM International Wine Awards, Judges’ Selection Other European Red Wine in 2017.
According to one critic, the 2005 vintage is slightly volatile, lifted with chunky fruit, including a charming cherry baked well character on the palate, ending somewhat hot.
Here the Chateau Kefraya offers organic and vegan certified wine. This red blend uses 30-year-old vines of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Mourvedre.
The blend ages 18 to 24 months, combining elegance and power with silky tannins, subtle notes of spices, cherry, vanilla, and leather. You can enjoy this rare red blend young, or it ages favorably for ten years or more.
The red wine has won many awards, from Mundus Vini Gold to International Wine & Spirit Competition Silver. One of the most expensive wines made with this blend of reds in the Bekaa Valley.
According to one reviewer, guessing, a touch of Brettanomyces with a slight animal edge to ripe fruit. A creamy palate, dry tannins, and if it has Brett, it’s not apparent. Tannins seem chalky in the finish with softness and warm spice.
The winery handpicks Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah grapes grown at 1100 meters altitude (over 3600 feet).
The winemakers age Comte de M up to 2 years in French oak barrels, creating a dark purple wine with a complex bouquet of cedar wood and black fruits.
It has a smooth palate with sophisticated and melted tannins. A subtle balance between inherent fruit and oak, Robert Parker was the first to notice the wine, rating it at 91 points, and then the 2012 vintage. He gave 93 points.
Some say it’s one of the top ten Bekaa Valley wines as a savory, classic red. It’s the third highest-priced wine as a rare red blend from the area.
You’ll enjoy the still and soft-oaked tribute to the blended roses of Champagne, though they don’t make it every year.
Winemakers require a specific quality of grapes, ensuring the varieties deliver a sophisticated form. Young, the wines have a salmon pink hue, well-balanced, smooth, and soft texture.
The aromas and flavors offer pears, peaches, grapefruit, oranges, wild herbs, almonds, and citrus leaves. As the wine ages, you’ll notice spicy and mellow notes and tawny colors.
Obaideh and Merwah, native to the Lebanese mountains, are the principal components relating to Semillon and Chardonnay.
The wine ferments and ages for six to nine months in French oak barrels, and they bottle it a year after the harvest with its release two years later.
The 2017 vintage won the Judges’ Selection Medal at The TEXSOM International Wine Awards in 2021. Some consider this rose one of the top wines of Bekaa Valley. It pairs nicely with turkey and chicken.
Though Musar’s roses and white have less attention than their reds, give them a chance and give them your attention. You’ll be glad you sipped the superb and unusual wines.
Chateau Ksara brings you a heritage red blend, harking back to the founding Jesuit priests in 1857. Jesuits made the wine in the same concrete tanks, which the grapes still ferment.
The varieties include Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvèdre, giving it a Bourdeaux quality. The vineyard uses hand-picked grapes, and the blend rests for 14 to 18 months in the tanks before blending.
The wine offers a ruby color, with aromas and flavors of red and black fruit, licorice, spice, and garrigue, known as wild hillside vegetation. Try to drink the wine within two years of vintage, though waiting three to four years works if stored correctly.
Ksara wine has won many awards, from Berlin Wine Trophy to International Wine Challenge.