Rich and red and laced with politics
Nina Caplan launches her Drink column for the New Statesman with a tour of that most unlike
In Lebanon, politics flows over everything, seeping into crannies like the contents of a spilt bottle of red and staining like them. Wine itself is no exception. The country has been making the stuff for thousands of years, often very successfully, but the chances are that you've never heard of
a Lebanese winery or you know just one: Château Musar.
The reasons for Château Musar's noise and everybody else's comparative silence are political. I would say that they are also religious, but separating those two things in Lebanon is like trying to distinguish the amount of Merlot in a bottle of Bordeaux.
The ancient Egyptians were so fond of a Lebanese tipple that they took it with them to the afterlife - or at least insisted on being buried next to a few bottles. It was the monks who kept the vineyards going under the Ottomans. But religious Muslims do not get much involved in winemaking and over half of Lebanon is Muslim. So, though consumption is a bottle per Lebanese per year, it seems fair to assume that there are a few people drinking more than their fair share.
The biggest winery, Château Ksara, was a Jesuit property until 1973. Given that the 15-year civil war started two years later, this was a feat of timely selling, akin to offloading your sub-prime mortgages in early 2007.
Ksara has Roman-era cellars, over 400 hectares under vine and some lovely wines: Lebanon is good at rich reds, often Syrah-based. They are available in the UK through Hailsham Cellars, Slurp.co.uk and Corking Wines in Yorkshire. The Wine Society, too, sells one of Ksara's best, the Syrah-based Réserve du Couvent 2008, for a mere £8.95 a bottle.
So, why have you never heard of them? The answer is largely the civil war. The reason you have heard of Château Musar is also the civil war. Confused? Welcome to Lebanon.
The Beqaa Valley, the country's wine region, is located between Beirut and Damascus and was riven with fighting. Syrians, Israelis, even Iranians showed up and messed with the vineyards. Kefraya was occupied by Israel for several years (and was strafed by aircraft as recently as 2006). Musar put flags on its grape trucks to indicate that they were, well, grape trucks - but the planes were pilotless, so that made no difference. Materials and helpers were hard to come by. Yet the handful of wineries then in existence (there are now more than 30) barely missed a vintage.
Musar's co-owner Serge Hochar told me that, during the war, he and his brother agreed that they would not be in Lebanon at the same time, so that one was likely to survive. Yet they looked elsewhere for more than safety: Serge went hunting for an export market. In 1979, he thrilled the Bristol Wine Fair with musky reds and potent war stories.
Thirty-two years later, Serge's signature red, a blend of Cinsault, Carignan and Cabernet Sauvignon, is £18.04 from Waitrose (it varies wildly from one year to the next: I loved 2003 but am less keen on 2004). And the name Musar is familiar everywhere that Lebanese winemaking is recognised as a phenomenon.
Meanwhile, Domaine des Tourelles, a venerable, pretty little vineyard run by enthusiasts who look too young to remember the war but are old enough to feel its reverberations (when I was there, one was just off to Canada to give birth, so that her baby would have citizenship options), is turning out Syrahs and Syrah blends of breathtaking loveliness, full of silk, spice and rich black fruit. Hennings Wine Merchants and Borough Wines in London Bridge stock them. There is politics in the glass but it hasn't harmed the flavour.
Nina Caplan is the New Statesman's drink critic. Next week: Felicity Cloake on food