Wine

Exploring the World of Lebanese Wine—Beyond Chateau Musar

New energy, a return to indigenous grape varieties, and experimental techniques make it high time to explore the full spectrum of Lebanon’s wines

Lebanese Wine
Lebanese wines on ilili’s wine list. Photo courtesy of ilili.

Among industry-favorite wine producers like Champagne Jacques Selosse, López de Heredia, and Giuseppe Rinaldi, all from famous wine regions, there is often one outlier: Chateau Musar, a Lebanese wine producer that has amassed a cult-like following among U.S. wine professionals. But while Chateau Musar’s popularity within the wine trade has put Lebanon on the U.S. radar as a winemaking country, it has also barred many American wine professionals from getting to know the whole of Lebanon’s winemaking culture.

The reality is that Lebanon is home to a dynamic wine industry, one that has grown exponentially—in both size and style—in recent years. “A lot of what wine lovers want in their wines today are readily presented in this postage-sized country,” says May Matta-Aliah, a Lebanon native and New York-based wine educator, ambassador, and consultant who runs In the Grape. “High altitude cultivation, dry farming, organic farming, hand harvesting, and native grape varieties are all hallmarks of what Lebanese wines represent.”

As intrepid and traditional winemakers explore the whole of Lebanon’s varied terroir, experiment with viticulture and vinification techniques, and resurrect the country’s indigenous varieties, it’s high time to explore the full spectrum of Lebanese wines—beyond Chateau Musar.

Rewriting the ‘One-Winery Story’

Why did Chateau Musar come to define Lebanon’s wine industry? After all, the country has an ancient history of wine production—the Phoenicians were making wine in Lebanon thousands of years ago—and several other quality producers have histories that equal, if not predate, Chateau Musar’s first vineyard plantings in 1930. Both Château Ksara, Lebanon’s largest producer, and Domaine des Tourelles date back to the mid-1800s.

It’s somewhat ironic that Chateau Musar is the best-known Lebanese producer in the U.S. because in Lebanon itself, it’s not very well-known. “It’s mostly international people who know Musar because locally, they aren’t as popular,” says Farrah Berrou, a Lebanese wine writer behind the B for Bacchus platform and podcast and Aanab Newspaper.

But there’s a good reason for this: During Lebanon’s Civil War, Chateau Musar’s winemaker Serge Hochar decided to focus on exporting wine to the U.K., leading to early recognition in the 1970s. Hochar continued to focus his efforts on export markets until his death in 2014, his charismatic nature—as well as the winery’s quality and slew of back-vintages—earning Chateau Musar many supporters throughout the years. The winery also featured a compelling story of perseverance in a war-torn country—a narrative that has stuck around and, according to some Lebanese wine champions and producers, now does Lebanon a disservice in being recognized as a quality wine country.

“We have remained for too long a ‘one-winery-story’ and it really is high time we revisit the narrative,” says Matta-Aliah. “It’s fine for Musar to be synonymous with Lebanon,” adds Chris Struck, the New York-based beverage director for ilili restaurants, “but it’s another thing for it to define Lebanon.”

But Chateau Musar is far from the only quality wine producer in Lebanon. Just five Lebanese wineries were still in operation by the end of the Lebanese Civil War in the early 1990s; today, that number has increased tenfold—at least.

May Matta Aliah
May Matta-Aliah. Photo by Piccadilly Posh Photography.

It’s difficult to pinpoint the total number of wineries currently operating in Lebanon, as there is no official, regulatory body for the country’s wine industry. (The closest thing would be the Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL), which currently lists 24 members on its website, but many small producers are not members.) Matta-Aliah estimates the country to have around 50 producers, while Berrou estimated around 80 in a piece she wrote about the country’s wines last year. Matta-Aliah cited the country’s wine production as being around 10 million bottles per year.

Many of these new entrants are boutique wineries and upstart producers who stepped foot onto Lebanon’s wine scene over the past 10 to 20 years. But it can be difficult to find these smaller producers in the U.S. market because many simply aren’t available stateside. Confusing, state-specific U.S. distribution laws are difficult for small producers—who already have smaller quantities of wines to export—to understand, and without the support of the government or an official collective, the logistical and financial challenges of exporting from Lebanon can be a barrier as well.

Only a handful of Lebanon’s wineries have widespread distribution in the U.S.; in addition to Chateau Musar, Berrou points to Château Kefraya, Château Ksara, Domaine des Tourelles, Massaya, and Ixsir as the ones she’s been able to find reliably since arriving in the U.S.

However, more Lebanese producers are seeing the value—and necessity—of exporting. “In the local market … there’s just no purchasing power right now,” says Berrou. “It’s not a priority to purchase or spend a lot on wine.”

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French Influence

Though it’s relatively small—smaller than the state of Connecticut—Lebanon hosts a wide variety of microclimates, with elevation (the central mountain range called Mount Lebanon peaks over 3,000 meters) and proximity to the Mediterranean coastline playing key roles. The Bekaa Valley, with its clay-limestone soils and sunny, high-altitude vineyards, has traditionally been a hub of viticulture, but producers can be found across the country. 

North of Beirut, near the coast and in the mountains that rise from it, Batroun is home to a number of wineries and vineyards, while a handful are popping up in the south as well. Berrou notes that wineries in Bhamdoun, located about a half-hour east of Beirut, are embracing enotourism and taking advantage of the area’s close proximity to the city.

But it’s difficult to categorize and compare styles of Lebanese wine by region, as the country does not have a legal appellation system, and the Bekaa Valley remains a key source of fruit even if producers are located elsewhere in the country. While this can be a good thing—producers aren’t constrained by “the appellation rules and rigidity of European countries, for example,” according to Struck—it also makes it easy to overlook terroir specificities or for newcomers to think of Lebanon as homogenous. Grape varieties and—perhaps even more so—producer philosophy are better indicators of wine style.

Lebanon came under French Mandate after World War I, and this French influence extended to the country’s wine culture. “All of this know-how and enological background of French wine communities came to Lebanon,” says Struck. This manifested in the grapes grown in Lebanese vineyards—Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot and Mediterranean varieties like Syrah, Cinsault, Carignan, and Grenache—as well as the vinification techniques used, like oak aging. Though white wines traditionally took a backseat to powerful reds, Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier, and Chardonnay were planted as well.

Today, blends of these French grape varieties are important in Lebanon, often creating powerful, rich reds balanced with bright acidity. “You can blend Rhône grapes with Bordeaux grapes—that’s the norm, not the exception,” says Struck. “And because they are French grapes, the consumer knows how to pronounce them. It’s something they’ve heard of, but from a new country.” He’s quick to note that there’s a spectrum of styles produced, however; Struck often reaches for old-vine Cinsault as a light- to medium-bodied option.

Many of the producers who have launched over the past two decades are offering their own interpretations on these classic grape varieties as well, often venturing into new areas of production. Chateau Belle-Vue, for instance, has created a following from its home base in Bhamdoun. Jill and Naji Boutros moved to the small town in 1999, planting vines the following year and becoming known for Merlot-Cabernet Sauvignon blends, as well as Syrah and Viognier. In the mountains above Batroun to the north, Atibaia started crafting its super-premium, small-production Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, and Petit Verdot blend in 2007.

Experimentation and Indigenous Varieties

But there’s also a growing contingent of experimental producers looking to reclaim Lebanon’s identity in its wines, both through its terroir and its native grapes. 

“We started to question the whole philosophy of colonizing and monopolization of our industry,” says Eddie Chami, an Australian native and the founder and winemaker of Mersel Wine. “So I started to look for our Lebanese roots in winemaking. Why were our roots and heritage not talked about like other regions, and recognized as being just simply Lebanese?”

Like Chami, many of these small, new-wave producers take a low-intervention approach to winemaking, moving away from heavy extraction and new oak aging—a philosophy that is increasingly attractive to U.S. buyers and consumers. “So many beautiful, natural, organic wines are coming from Lebanon,” says Rose Previte, the owner of Maydan and Compass Rose in Washington, D.C., who is Lebanese-American and is launching a wine company with Chami later this year. “All the things that are trendy to us in the U.S. market are coming out of Lebanon right now.”

Left: Eddie Chami (photo courtesy of Mersel Wine). Right: Chris Struck (photo by Matt Taylor-Gross).

At Mersel Wine, Chami experiments with different styles like pétillant-naturel (dubbed “LebNat”), skin-contact whites, carbonic maceration, and amphora aging. But he isn’t alone—Maher Harb founded Lebanon’s first biodynamic vineyard at Sept Winery, which is based in Batroun and was launched in 2016. Harb also sources grapes from organic vineyards around the country, using experimental techniques to produce terroir-driven wines. Vertical 33, which produced its first vintage in 2014, aims to reclaim the terroir specificities of Lebanon through low-intervention winemaking.

Though many of these producers rely on the same Bordeaux and Mediterranean varieties as the rest of the country’s wineries—albeit using different techniques to create unique wine styles—they are also focused on highlighting the country’s indigenous varieties.

“It wasn’t like this five years back,” says Chami. “Now the [artisanal] winemaking, with [a] focus on our varieties, is catching on thanks to well-traveled Lebanese [winemakers] and consumer awareness.”

Two white varieties, Merwah and Obaideh (also spelled Obeidi or Obeidy) have gained a foothold among Lebanon’s winemakers, though it isn’t just the new guard that is championing them—Chateau Musar blends both grapes into its Chateau Musar White, and Château Ksara launched the first varietal Merwah with their 2017 vintage. “These two grape varieties today are producing some of the most interesting white wines coming out of Lebanon and are being embraced by a range of producers,” says Matta-Aliah.

Both Obaideh and Merwah were historically used to craft the local spirit arak, distilled from grapes and aniseed, and tend towards higher-alcohol, lower-acidity wines. But as producers get to know these native grapes, the results can be fascinating, with Obaideh’s creamy, honeyed characteristics and Merwah’s nutty, floral notes. 

“You have to pick it at just the right time—its sweetness can be too much if you don’t pick it at the right time,” says Previte of the Merwah grape. “But when it’s done right it has beautiful floral notes—I swear I can often taste tamarind and rose water.”

Getting the U.S. Market on Board

The challenge to Lebanon’s wine industry isn’t a matter of quality—it’s a matter of awareness, recognition, and support. “I believe they are already making competitive-quality wines, competitive to the best in the European market,” says Previte, “but without a bigger voice and a platform, and some stability and financial support, the world will never know.”

Regardless of the industry, being a business operator in Lebanon comes with incredible difficulties due to the country’s economic crisis, political corruption, unstable supply chain, damaged infrastructure, and beyond. This makes it both increasingly necessary for producers to export their wines—to bring in cash flow—yet creates barriers to export logistics. Both Jason Bajalia, the owner of Terra Sancta Trading in Jacksonville, Florida (which imports Mersel), and Previte recall times in which restocking Lebanese wines has been slow. 

“We have to 86 wines all the time just because we can’t physically get it in house, though it’s eagerly awaiting us—stuck somewhere in a governmental backlog,” says Previte. One of her solutions? Going all-in on wines she’s passionate about by purchasing the entirety of a SKU’s inventory in the U.S.

Indeed, it’s the passion of the people who sell these wines—whether they are sales reps or buyers—that has helped to give these wines a foothold here in the U.S. “Eventually the efforts of our distributors and sales reps, who were really passionate about the [Mersel] wines, began to pay off and we sold out relatively quickly,” recalls Bajalia. Fueled by her passion for her home country, Berrou has amassed a solid selection of Lebanese wines at Woodland Hills Wine Company—and she works to hand-sell them to consumers.

With a widening spectrum of wines coming to the U.S. from Lebanon, there has never been a better time to explore the full array of this winemaking country—beyond a single, well-known producer. “I think the market really needed to see what other wines can come out of Lebanon, and not just what’s mainstream,” says Chami. “Consumers really need to seek and drink the Lebanese identity.”

“I challenge, I implore other restaurants, retail outlets, and online wine clubs to keep buying, marketing, and preaching the good word of Lebanese wines,” urges Previte. “There is so much going on there and so many people dedicated to this market’s success that I think it’s really exciting to be part of.”

Dispatch

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Courtney Schiessl Magrini is the executive editor for SevenFifty Daily and the Beverage Media Group publications. Based in Brooklyn, she has held sommelier positions at some of New York’s top restaurants, including Marta, Dirty French, and Terroir, and her work has appeared in Wine Enthusiast, GuildSomm, Forbes.com, VinePair, EatingWell Magazine, and more. She holds the WSET Diploma in Wines. Follow her on Instagram at @takeittocourt.

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