I visited Beirut in 2010, a guest of Wines of Lebanon. The city was fascinating, although it’s still my only experience of a hotel room with a view of a neighbouring building pocked with bullet holes. This sinister welcome was drowned out by hospitality almost overwhelming in its generosity.
I’m used to morning tastings – but only in Lebanon have I had to gently discourage a winemaker from offering glasses of wine with breakfast. The arak, a grape spirit flavoured with fresh aniseed, was delicious, but I didn’t understand its purpose until it was served with what I took to be a capacious lunch of dips, salads and meatballs. When this turned out to be the starter, only that arak, a fine, stomach-relaxing digestif, enabled me to force down the bare minimum of grilled meats that manners required.
And the wines were superb. Most English drinkers associate Lebanese wine with Château Musar – testament to the Hochar brothers’ sheer determination, trudging around the UK with a suitcase of samples, despite the 15-year Lebanese Civil War, which began in 1975. Their rich, spicy reds linger in our collective memory, along with the story of wine made under impossible conditions (in 15 years, they missed just one vintage).
But Lebanon has over 40 other wineries, some equally good. Ixsir, which was just starting out when I was there, blends the Spanish grape Tempranillo with the Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon that are a reminder of France’s long-standing influence in the region. Château Ksara, the country’s oldest winery, combines Grenache Gris and Carignan into a perfumed, apricot-coloured rosé called Gris de Gris. Domaine des Tourelles makes a Syrah so delicious that I’m salivating writing this. And while the two indigenous grapes, Obaideh and Merweh, are used mainly for arak, they also appear in some interesting oxidative white wines.
There has been winemaking in Lebanon since biblical times, and the Bekaa Valley, where the vineyards cluster, still has a magnificent second-century temple to Bacchus, Roman god of wine, its upright pillars more of a miracle than the water Jesus supposedly upgraded at Cana – which may also be located in Lebanon. And wine and politics, here more than elsewhere, are intertwined. I heard stories of Israeli planes strafing vineyards, and met a winemaker’s wife who ensured her baby was born in Canada, for the second passport. Over lunch in a beautiful restaurant overlooking a calm Mediterranean, Serge Hochar (who died in 2014) and his brother Ronald told me of their agreement, during the war, never to be in the country at the same time, so that the survivor could look after their families.
Now Lebanon has endured a terrible explosion that has killed more than 170 people, injured thousands and destroyed Beirut’s port; and wine has a role to play once again. Good wine is a conversation in which the language is land and water, sunshine and grapes, and hope, one way or another, is the subject. Wine is also Lebanon’s principal export – and to buy it now is to continue that conversation, celebrating the resilience of these winemakers, their strength of character and their kindness. It’s a way to drown out the noise of explosions and let generosity, that signature attribute of the Lebanese people and of their wines, have the last word.