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24 October 2018updated 30 Jun 2021 11:50am

The teetotal Ottoman sultan who gave French monks free rein to plant vines on his land

Only fair, as France’s grapes are partly in debt to the Lebanese.

By Nina Caplan

Lebanon is a beautiful country but its story is complicated and so, therefore, is its wine. It is generally agreed that a French connection is helpful to a wine region while rule by teetotal Islam is not, but if history were that straightforward then war would surely be obsolete by now and so, quite possibly, would drink.

Bordered by the Mediterranean and, more problematically, by Israel, Jordan and Syria, Lebanon was ruled by France for a quarter-century after the First World War, but by the Muslim Ottomans for 300 years before that. The country’s modern wine industry began with Château Ksara in 1857, and there is a story that it was an Ottoman sultan, mortified by the sectarian murder of a couple of monks, who gave their brethren land to plant the vines. It pleases me to picture this beautiful gesture: the Muslim ruler giving Christian subjects the wherewithal to celebrate the Eucharist, a religious ritual that is, to him, as unacceptable as it is incomprehensible.

In the event, these civilised relations were not maintained. Friction between Muslims and Christians erupted into civil war in 1975, and the Israelis have strafed the vineyards with gunfire. But the vines multiply across the Bekaa Valley and the French influence is as rooted as they are. Ksara makes wine from a local grape, Merwah, that may be a form of France’s Sémillon; Domaine des Tourelles highlights the connection (as if the winery’s name didn’t already do so) by calling its stunning red Syrah du Liban. Are the French grateful? Probably not, but they should be, because France owes its own vines, at least in part, to the Lebanese.

Let’s look back, past the complexities of modern freedom, past the Ottomans. Here come the French again, crusading to rescue 11th-century Jerusalem from Islam. Farther back are the Romans, enthusiastic drinkers to a man, but saved the bother of planting vines here as they did in Gaul, because the Phoenician incumbents had already done so. In fact, so adept were they at winemaking that a treatise on viticulture by a writer named Mago, from the Phoenician colony of Carthage, became the Romans’ textbook. They sacked Carthage in 146BC, a century before their conquests of Gaul and Phoenicia, and destroyed every book – except this one.

This strange symbiosis is still visible on wine shelves, where native grapes such as Merwah and Obaideh (which Château Musar, Lebanon’s most famous winery, blends to make a honeyed, spicy white) sit alongside more familiar names. Domaine des Tourelles makes a beautiful Chardonnay as well as that Syrah; there are several good Cabernet Sauvignons, and Cinsault and Grenache, which also go into pleasurable apricot rosés such as Ksara’s lovely Gris de Gris.

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There is another aspect to Lebanon’s gifts to us. The Phoenicians created the ancestor of our alphabet; if I write about wine, I must raise my glass to them twice. Surely these twin talents, for conviviality and communication, should have enabled them to bequeath their descendants peace? Except that nothing is ever that simple: understandings evaporate, wine fires passions, words are mislaid. Mago’s treatise has not come down to us, any more than all those books the Romans burned. And perhaps that consciousness of all we have lost is a reason, among others, to drink.

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This article appears in the 24 Oct 2018 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit crash