Driving into Bekaa is a war of emotions. The heart of Lebanon’s agricultural acres and home to her millennia-old wine tradition is astonishingly varied—rural, severely beautiful, occasionally relaxing, but spackled with reminders that even here, surrounded by lush countryside, violence is never far from the surface.
Bekaa has been on the receiving end of Hizb’allah and Israeli temper tantrums for more than twenty years, and Israeli missiles have devastated much of the eastern and southern valley, where the hub of Hizb’allah military strength is concentrated.
The damage I witnessed on the road between Beirut and Syria took the form of downed bridges, battered factories and buildings under re-construction from funds being received, at least in part, from Iran. The human cost was less visible, mostly squirreled away inside tent cities thrown up between ruined structures and remained eerily out of sight until we arrived at the gates of Chateau Ksara, the oldest operating winery in the valley.
Out front, a legless gentlemen in wheelchair confronted us with the perpetual plea of the pauper’s: Something for nothing. The human response, of course, is to imagine he’d given up enough already, whatever the cause.
Actually, at Chateau Ksara at least, the past couple of years haven’t been half bad. In 2007, the winery celebrated 150 years of operation with a blowout party at Beirut’s opulent Bristol Hotel and another in London at the Temple Place. England is now Ksara’s biggest customer and the pre-sumptuous-dinner vertical tasting included a 1957 Clos St. Alphonse, which, reports have it, was a bit long in the tooth. In 2008, Ksara’s Chardonnay Cuvee du Pape 2007 took a gold medal at Vinagora, the International Wine Challenge in Budapest. (No truth to the rumor that the du Pape was served in a pop glass). ’08, like ’07 was a stellar vintage, but as Ksara’s Château-Prieuré-Lichine-trained winemaker James Palgé maintains: “There are no bad vintages in Lebanon: only good ones and better ones.”
There are, however, bad IAF helicopter raids, and when the scuds start sailing, you could do worse than have a set of Roman-era caverns snaking through your cellar. The Caves de Ksara have long offered safe haven for winery employees and neighbors during particularly nasty times.
According to managing director Charles Ghostine, it’s usually the migrant workers who hear about such attacks far enough in advance to flee, and it’s always a toss-up to see if they’ll come back in time to pick the harvest.
So, in a nutshell (inside a nut house), that’s the downside of Lebanese wine. As a rule, they’re not widely distributed nor understood in the United States; currently, the country produces only about 6 million bottles a year, roughly on par with New Jersey. It’s logistics (Lebanon is, in fact, only half the size of New Jersey) and not for want of tradition—the Phoenicians began fermenting grape juice here nearly six thousand years ago, a full millennium ahead of Greece. By the time the Romans built their still-standing temple to wine god Bacchus in northern Bekaa, Lebanese winemaking was already an ancient art. Chrysippus, the Phoenician philosopher, is said to have died of laughter after getting his donkey drunk on Lebanese wine, and Cana (near Tyre) is the site of Jesus’ water-into-wine miracle.
Throughout the Middle Ages, Bekaa wines were among the most expensive in the world, due in part to a terroir that’s almost mystically suited to the stuff. Soggy winters, arid summers, cool nights and misty mornings enrich brick-red clays and chalky soils—a situation which keeps winemakers like Cave Kouroum’s Yves Morard committed to Lebanon despite the occasional inconvenience of being kidnapped by enemies. “They thought I was a spy,” Morard says of his two-week ordeal at the hands of Israeli soldiers in 1982. “I had to explain intricate details of winemaking to prove who I was.”
Morard, like most Bekaa producers, favors Bordeaux and Rhone varietals in producing age-worthy red wines, particularly cabernet sauvignon, carignan, grenache, cinsault. For westerners, chardonnay is perhaps the most recognizable of Bekaa’s whites, and fittingly so: it was born here, an ancestral clone of the much-planted obaideh. Marweh is another native, semillon-like and a favorite blending varietal at Chateau Musar, arguably Lebanon’s best known winery. Established by Gaston Hochar in 1930, Musar is renowned for its grand vin blend of concrete-fermented reds which require a minimum of ten years aging.
Nobody in Bekaa knows if they’ve got ten minutes let alone ten years, but optimism and resilience are the strongest suite among the Lebanese: backbone is their backbone. According to Chateau Ksara chairman Zafer Chaoui, “Bekaa is kind to those who have faith, and it is through this faith, both in our wines and in Lebanon, we seek to perpetuate and build on the legacy of our forebears.”
Massaya Classic Red, Bekaa Valley, 2006, about $12: Rhone-like rusticity; meaty and charged with wood smoke, graphite, tart plum and mint. A dynamite choice for barbecues.
Château Kefraya Blanc de Blanc, Bekaa Valley, 2008, about $21: Explodes on the tongue with pineapple, pear, peach and white rose petal; quick finish.
Château Musar Proprietary Blend, Bekaa Valley, 1991, about $90: Slightly oxidized, leading to a mahogany brown color, but still booming with leather (brett?), tobacco and earth scents (more brett?); velvety in the mouth and sweet on the finish, which goes on longer than a NATO peace summit.
‘Ksarak,’ Arak, about $ 22: A classic anise-flavored liquor primarily associated with the Middle East, kissing cousins to ouzo and raki. This one is more refined than most, distilled in pot stills then matured for two years in clay jars to soften it up a bit. Good try, but it’s still a rocket-fuel kick to the solar plexus—an experimental sip for most Americans; probably the only cocktail it can be used for is a Molotov.