Monday, October 03, 2011

Wine in Lebanon: the grapes of wrath

In search of a glass in a country where the wine industry dates back 5,000 years and has survived wars and intolerant religions

"When we started planting the vineyard, we found a cluster bomb on the ground that had been dropped on the village in 1983. The army said it would take two weeks to get here, but I had 1,000 vines that had to be in the ground immediately or else they'd die. So with a couple of brave young men, we decided to plant the vines. Thank God nobody got hurt." This isn't the kind of commentary you get on most wine tours. But this is a vineyard in Lebanon, not the Loire. On a visit to Chateau Belle-Vue, high above the heat and hustle of Beirut on the top of Mount Lebanon, its irrepressible owner Naji Boutros gives us not only a lesson in viticulture but a first-hand account of his country's troubled history, too. Boutros grew up in the village of Bhamdoun but left when it became engulfed in heavy fighting during the early 1980s. After a career as an investment banker, he returned in 2000 with his family to set up the winery in what was left of his village, naming it Chateau Belle-Vue after the hotel his grandfather ran there. My wife and I scramble to keep up with him as he shows us around the vertiginous terraces now planted with merlot and cabernet sauvignon vines. "The more hurdles you overcome, the better the result," he says, laughing off his close shave with a cluster bomb and opening a bottle whose label could not be more apt for his endeavours with Belle-Vue and the Lebanese wine industry as a whole – La Renaissance. Two decades of relative peace since Lebanon's civil war ended have allowed a wine industry that dates back more than 5,000 years to flourish. There are now 35 wineries in business, and most are more than willing to open their doors to visitors wanting to discover another side of Lebanese culture. The journey to Lebanon's extraordinary vineyards, however, requires strong nerves. The main wine region is reached by the Beirut to Damascus highway, a thunderous road that is five terrifying lanes across – two going up the mountain, two coming down, and one in the middle fought over by a simple game of chicken. Our taxi driver holds his own while we cower in the back. Just after Bhamdoun, the Bekaa Valley opens up before us. 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. Our next stop is the exquisitely tasteful Massaya winery. After a tour, the enigmatic co-owner Ramzi Ghosn ushers us down through the vines to a beautiful hidden garden. Eating cherries picked from the orchard, we sip on a delightful 2010 rosé and watch the setting sun turn the eastern slopes of the valley the exact shade of pink as the wine. "In Lebanon the wine is produced to complement our food," says Ghosn. "Ask yourself where the Romans built the Temple of Bacchus, the god of wine. It's not in Tuscany, it's not in Rioja, it's not in Bordeaux. It's in Baalbek, in the Bekaa Valley, just half an hour from here." It is to this world-famous temple that we head the following morning. As we drive along the valley floor, calls to prayer from numerous mosques drift across the vineyards, and as we approach Baalbek, billboards of Shia clerics and martyrs begin to line the road.
Baalbek is the headquarters of Hezbollah, the Islamic political party whose military wing is regarded as a terrorist organisation by many countries, including Britain. You might think Islam and vineyards make uneasy bedfellows, but they seem to coexist peacefully in the Bekaa, with winemaking accepted as part of the culture of the land. 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. Our highlight is the Palmyra Hotel, another example of Baalbek's faded grandeur. Not much has changed since the 1920s, and walking into the lobby, with ornate Ottoman furniture and arabesque tiles, is like stepping into an Agatha Christie novel. We half expect to hear murderous shrieks in the night and Hercule Poirot to appear at breakfast. The next winery on our list is another name now impressing international wine circles. Domaine des Tourelles was founded by a French engineer in 1868 and is being revived by descendants of the founding family. Here we tasted some of the best wines of our visit. "Every bottle we produce is touched by the hands of every employee. It's a personal, human business," says Faouzi Issa, one of the co-owners. "We want to keep it that way, so we keep the passion in our winemaking." She believes that Lebanon's troubled past can have a positive impact on business. "When people hear about wars in Lebanon, that there's a very bad political situation here, and then they taste a wonderful Lebanese wine, they appreciate it all the more." This has worked for Chateau Musar, the last winery we visit and perhaps 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. Chateau Musar's vineyards in the Bekaa are stunning, the soil is terracotta red, and the vines – a luscious, almost lime green – are framed by snow-capped mountains. The winery, however, is the other side of the mountain near Beirut. So getting the grapes to the winery every year, across what was often the frontline of warring factions, was a dangerous undertaking. We meet the twinkly-eyed septugenarian Hochar, who walks us through the Musar cellar, thick with cobwebs and rows of dusty bottles. He plumps for a bottle of 1977 red. On first taste it is vinegary and sharp. He watches our grimacing faces with amusement. "If you were given that in a restaurant, you would send it back, am I right?" he says with a knowing smile. "But leave it for a few minutes and then taste it again." After 10 minutes its smell and taste had changed completely into something light and fresh that lingers deliciously on the tongue. Hochar says this lasting taste is the wine "talking" to you. "A wine that has the ability to age is like a man who ages," Hochar explains. "As you get older, you have more experience and you have more to say. A young wine can talk to you for maybe only a second or a minute, but a wine that has aged, a wine with experience, can talk to you for hours." After five days immersed in this extraordinary industry and landscape, wine has come to represent the magic of Lebanon itself. With its connection to the soil, the climate, the past – surviving conflict and religious divides – a conversation with Lebanese wine is one worth having again and again.

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