Tuesday, June 1, 2021

Wines of Lebanon

 From Eater:

Today’s Lebanese wine industry is small — its total production would barely match the output of one boutique winery in Italy — but mighty. Its growth really hit its stride in the early 2000s after the end of the 15-year civil war, and the country’s numerous vineyards now produce grapes for close to 80 official and unofficial local wineries. With Syria to the east and Israel/Palestine to the south, Lebanon’s limited square footage for wine production is often split into four or five distinct appellations and further segmented into varying microclimates clustered across the Bekaa Valley, where the majority of grapes are harvested.

Contrary to the grainy, yellow filter deployed by Hollywood, Lebanon is not made up of sand dunes. What it does have are mountain ranges cresting at nearly 10,000 feet above sea level, a valley floor at 3,000 feet, a natural water table, predominantly limestone soils, and 300 days of sunshine each year. The overall weather and topography are ideal for the kind of diverse, low-intervention grape-growing that makes for truly great wine. The irony in this overview is the enduring need for it to be included here in the first place — or in any piece of writing on the subject of Lebanese wine.

But there is more to the story than just the natural blessings granted to Lebanon’s winemakers. They are counterbalanced by the country’s curses. From the steel tanks that store the juice to the glass bottles that hug it, so much of what goes into creating Lebanese wine depends on managing costly imports and dodging fastballs. Aside from the country’s recent fiscal collapse, decades of corruption and theft within Lebanon’s mismanaged ministries means that basic utilities are not guaranteed. Backup generators and alternative water sources are a must. Land is expensive, and infrastructure is poorly maintained or still in disrepair from the 34-day war between Israel and Lebanon in 2006. Manual labor is often left to underpaid refugees escaping human rights catastrophes in neighboring Syria and Palestine. Winemakers are forced to push through the rot on their own dime to invent a style that’s distinctly Lebanese.

As a Lebanese-American wine writer, podcaster, and researcher, I am hyperaware of Lebanon’s depiction in international wine media today. Despite having been around for millennia, Lebanon as a wine-producing country is still a revelation for most readers. This is in part because of a huge gap in wine education, which remains Eurocentric and generally dismissive of the ancient world’s contributions. All things wine typically begin and end in France and Italy, while the burgeoning comeback of lands whose winemaking histories date back millennia is reduced to a paragraph, if mentioned at all.

Lebanon has for decades had to battle an outdated narrative. It goes like this: Lebanon is first and foremost a land of war where the people’s resilience, despite it all, makes their beauty — in this case, their wine — worthy of your attention. The legendary Serge Hochar of Lebanon’s Chateau Musar was the driving force behind this narrative in the 1970s. After 400 years of Ottoman rule pushed it into dormancy, Lebanon’s wine scene was revived during the French Mandate of the 1920s, but it still comprised less than half a dozen players when the civil war broke out in 1975. Hochar made it his mission to show the world what Lebanon could do, even while foreign and internal forces split the country into pieces. His vines grew on through the chaos as he went abroad and charismatically pitched his funky Bordeaux-style blends to British drinkers. In the midst of intermittent invasions and raids, the duality in this story made sense. It was, at the time, reality. But here we are, 45 years later, still waxing poetic about this juxtaposition. While Lebanon’s politics remain stuck in the ’70s, so do its stories and the people who write and read them. (Read more.)

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