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Nectar of the Gods

Despite a bloody past, Lebanon’s wine industry takes off

When Michel de Bustros began making wine in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley in 1979, many questioned his timing. Four years earlier, war had erupted in Lebanon, a war that would last until 1990 and claim more than 100,000 lives. Within three years, Israeli tanks were trammeling his vineyards. “It was a disaster,” recalled Mr. de Bustros, a silver-haired man in his 60’s. “It wasn’t like a tractor. These were 70-ton tanks crushing the vines and the pipes. Everyday we were repairing them.”

It would get worse.

Mr. de Bustros’s French winemaker, Yves Morard, was arrested by Israeli soldiers for looking suspicious during Israel’s 1982 invasion. He had to take a wine exam in Tel Aviv to prove his identity. Later, two fighter planes crashed into Mr. de Bustros’s fields. Despite these obstacles, the de Bustros estate, Kefraya, prospered.

In the past 50 years, the number of commercial wineries in Lebanon has leaped from three to 15, said Serge Hochar, president of the Union of Lebanese Winemakers (Union Vinicole du Liban). Since 1995, production has grown 50 percent, from 4 million bottles to more than 6 million.

“Lebanese wines are gaining an [international] reputation, winning in almost every competition where they are presented,” said Elie Maamari, the export manager of Ksara, Lebanon’s largest vineyard, which produces 2 million bottles a year. Lebanese wines benefit from an exceptional topography, climate and terroire, the word used to indicate the soil of the vineyards.

Almost all of the major wineries share the vast and picturesque Bekaa Valley as their growing grounds. Flanked by Mount Lebanon on the east and the Anti-Lebanon mountain range to the west, the valley is perfect for grape growing. At 3,000 feet above sea level, the region basks in nearly 300 days of sun a year. Its summers are dry and its winters rainy, ensuring predictable cultivation patterns. The clay and limestone in the soil give Lebanon’s wines a unique Mediterranean spice that distinguishes its cabernets and merlots from other regions’.

Compared to large wine-producing nations like France, however, Lebanese wine production remains a small industry. The country of 4 million people would have to produce 80 million bottles of wine annually to achieve just 1 percent of French production. Still, Lebanon’s $25 million wine industry, which is mostly geared toward export, is one of the few bright spots in an otherwise struggling economy.

“The Lebanese started wine,” said Mr. Maamari. “Noah lived in this region. Winemaking is part of our history.”

Historians agree that wine production in Lebanon dates back at least 4,000 years. The seafaring Phoenicians, based in what is now known as Lebanon, traded wine made from Lebanese vines, dubbed “nectar of the gods” by the Romans. Sometime around A.D. 150, the Romans dedicated a temple to their wine god Bacchus in the ancient city of Baalbek. (Today, this temple is the world’s best preserved Roman temple of its size.)

Lebanon’s Christians, who today make up 30 percent of the population, have been indispensable to the country’s wine production. In 1857, Jesuits took over the Ksara estate, a Crusader fortress in Bekaa, turning a series of Roman tunnels into wine cellars.

Under Ottoman Muslim rule, Lebanon’s Christians were allowed to make and use wine for their liturgies, and today many of the country’s churches continue to produce their own eucharistic wine.

During the French mandate after World War I, Lebanon’s mom-and-pop wine industry expanded to meet the demand of the French soldiers and the international jet setters who took to visiting Beirut, called “the Paris of the Middle East.” But when the French left in 1946, demand plummeted.

“Overnight the market had gone,” said Michael Karam, a wine writer in Beirut who is finishing a book on Lebanese wine. But for the efforts of one passionate Lebanese oenophile, the burgeoning industry might have collapsed.

Serge Hochar, 65, is the eccentric co-owner of Chateau Musar. “Without Serge, there would be no story to tell about Lebanese wine,” said Mr. Karam.

Mr. Hochar and his brother, Roland, inherited a winery from their father in 1950. At the time, the only thing regal about Chateau Musar was its name. The brothers steadily built up the winery, based on the coast, and its vineyards in the Bekaa Valley.

When civil war erupted in 1975, the Hochar brothers crossed the frontlines for their harvest, picking shrapnel from the grapes and taking elaborate detours to avoid militia checkpoints. The Hochar brothers were savvy enough to recognize that the country’s civil war brought a cachet to their product.

“The wine is full of fabulous images,” said Mr. Karam. “Winemaking continued during the war so there are good war stories to tell. For people outside Lebanon this gives Lebanese wine an edge.”

The Hochar brothers capitalized on this, and Musar’s exports grew exponentially. Prior to the war, Musar exported 3 percent of its wine; by war’s end, the winery was exporting more than 90 percent.

It helps that the wine is good. Musar wines – particularly the white varieties – consistently wow critics at international competitions. Serge Hochar is a Bordeaux-trained oenologist and insists on purity. He does not allow unnatural additives into his wine-making process. The Mount Lebanon grapes, the obeidi and merweh, come from some of the oldest grapevines in the world. The vines are among the only ones never to encounter the phylloxera virus, which decimated European and North American vineyards in the 19th century.

While Roland Hochar focuses on marketing, Serge Hochar focuses on cultivation and, as important, infusing his own personal charisma into the label. “Wine is the true measure of civilization,” he told me on a recent visit to the winery, spitting a perfect arc of wine into a spittoon. A good wine, he said, is “true, alive and full of memory.” Owing to Mr. Hochar’s exacting palate, Musar caps production at 700,000 bottles a year. And Mr. Hochar has been known to refuse to release a vintage if it falls short of his standards.

While in recent years domestic consumption of Musar has grown to 13 percent of its production, the domestic market is dominated by other vineyards, particularly Kefraya and Ksara. Together, they account for 70 percent of the domestic market, which consumes about 3.5 million bottles – domestic and foreign – each year.

Meanwhile, new wineries are beginning to challenge the old brands. The upstarts have ruffled some feathers in Lebanon’s tight-knit wine industry.

In January 2004 the owners of Massaya,a six-year-old winery, withdrew from the Lebanese wine union.

Established in 2000 to enforce quality-control standards, the UVL seems more like an “old boys’ network” to its critics. Massaya’s owners, Sami and Ramzi Ghosn, claimed the union was not doing enough to promote the country’s new wineries. Since quitting the union, Massaya’s sales have continued to grow, indicating that the demand for Lebanese wine is stronger than the controlling arm of the union.

The Ghosn brothers, both in their 30’s, began cultivating their family’s plot of land in the Bekaa in 1978. Already, workers were producing high-quality arak, the Lebanese national liquor, an anise-flavored spirit similar to Greek ouzo. The brothers brought French partners on board to begin wine production.

If Musar is an “intellectual” wine, born of the generation of jet-setting wine connoisseurs – an image Serge Hochar happily promotes – Massaya represents the new generation, characterized by a down-to-earth approach to wine. During the summer, the winery offers horseback riding and yoga programs as well as hostel accommodations for tourists.

Describing the tastes of Massaya wines, Ramzi Ghosn borrowed the language of the fashion world. “The Classic is a jeans and T-shirt kind of wine; the Single Selection is jeans and a jacket; and the Reserve is a smoking jacket.”

Massaya’s youthful marketing strategy seems to be working. Over the past six years, the winery has seen an increase in production of 20 percent per year, landing its wines in upscale restaurants and hotels in Europe.

“Massaya and others like it are the future of Lebanese wine,” said Mr. Karam.

“In seven years they went from nothing to producing some of the best wine around.”

Other entrepreneurs have taken note.

Indeed, despite the fact that many Muslims abstain from alcohol, as dictated by the Quran, the wine industry is becoming a multiconfessional operation.

A Shiite Muslim owns Cave Kouroum, one of the newer wineries. One of Ksara’s four partners is a Lebanese Muslim. And Druze leader Walid Jumblatt is the majority shareholder of Kefraya. Almost all the major wineries use Muslim grape suppliers, as the Bekaa and its surrounding neighborhoods are predominantly Muslim. “From a business point of view, it’s the only worthwhileventure for farmers – to produce grapes. The return is guaranteed,” said Ramzi Ghosn.

And if visits to the wineries are an indication of success, the wineries have a lot to be optimistic about.

While 9/11 and the ongoing war in Iraq have curbed Western tourism to the region, visits to Lebanon’s wineries have increased. About 30,000 tourists visit Ksara each year, while another 10,000 visit Kefraya.

“We have a saying in our industry that, I think, helps explain the success of Lebanese wine,” said Mr. de Bustros, Kefraya’s owner. “You not only must have the soil, you need the soul.”

More than a decade has passed since the end of Lebanon’s bloody civil war and the country’s soul is very much alive.

Amal Bouhabib, a New York-based journalist, has spent several years reporting from Lebanon.

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