An adventure in Lebanese wine: Part One

Having fought through decades of unpalatable history, Lebanon is now producing some outstanding organic wines

Cellars of the famed Château Musar winery
Cellars of the famed Château Musar winery

After clearing customs at Beirut airport late one Friday evening, I was whisked through the city up to Achrafieh to meet Sami Ghosn, my host for what would be an unforgettable few days exploring Lebanon’s wine scene. Sami is one of the founders of the Massaya winery, and our first encounter was at Bread Republic, reputedly Beirut’s best sourdough bakery. Its owner, former architect Walid Ataya, keeps a mean cellar at the adjoining Wine Room, but, able to dine outdoors for the first time in 2017, Sami and I preferred to sit outside and enjoy cheroots in the cool evening air.

Sami, a friend of Walid’s, ordered various dishes on and, I imagine, off the menu, including black ink seafood salad, fennel sausage and artichoke in fukhara, as well as several excellent pizzas, the principal accompaniment to which was Massaya Rosé (£18.50 per bottle for the 2016 vintage, available from Honest Grapes). This deliciously refreshing Cinsault, Syrah and Cabernet blend, with its bright red fruits, peach, floral notes and light spice finish lifted by a touch of bitter almond, was deceptively Provençal in style and hue, so much so that sitting opposite a worn, faded Beirut-style house reminiscent of French colonial architecture and hearing snatches of French around us, one felt more in the Languedoc than the Levant.  

Idyllic Massaya vineyard in the Hadath Baalbek region of Lebanon
Idyllic Massaya vineyard in the Hadath Baalbek region of Lebanon

To assume, however, that Lebanon owes it viticultural renown to France would be misguided. The ancient city of Byblos, 26 miles north of Beirut, lays claim to be one of the world’s oldest continually inhabited city, and its Phoenician occupants were among the world’s first wine producers; Qana in southern Lebanon, meanwhile, is reputedly where Jesus turned water into wine – this is a place rich in oenological history. The later period of production in Lebanon’s Beqaa Valley (where 90 per cent of the country’s winemaking takes place) dates back to the mid-1850s and the Jesuit-run Château Ksara, although under Shia Ottoman rule output was limited. French control of Lebanon after the first world war brought a more encouraging environment, but the most significant development was the founding of Château Musar in 1930 by Gaston Hochar.

Gaston’s late son Serge blazed the trail for Lebanese wines and Musar remains among the most distinctive, much beloved in the past by notables such Auberon Waugh and still praised today by the likes of legendary English wine critic Michael Broadbent. As a result, the Musar story is now well-known: how Serge and his team kept up production throughout Lebanon’s near two decades of civil strife, transporting grapes, often under gunfire, from the Beqaa Valley across the mountains to the winery in Ghazir.

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A “natural” wine before the term became voguish, Musar remains organic, with minimal addition of sulphites, and is unfined and unfiltered. A blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Cinsault, it is aged for seven years before release, a decision largely taken says Serge’s brother, Ronald, because of the English preference for older-tasting wines: the UK remains Musar’s most important export market.

I was hosted at the winery by Ronald, his nephew Gaston and winemaker Tariq Sakr. My tasting tour through the Château’s range included the exotic white Musar (£26 per bottle for the 2007 vintage, available from Roberson Wine) made from indigenous grapes Obeideh and Merwah, which exude dried mint and tarragon aromas, with greengages and stone fruits on the palate and a balance of salinity and creaminess. “Drink a bottle over a week,” exhorted Sakr. “One glass a day.”

Château Musar White 2007 vintage, £26, and Massaya Rosé 2016, £18.50
Château Musar White 2007 vintage, £26, and Massaya Rosé 2016, £18.50

Our visit concluded in the depths of the musky cellar, which houses more than a million bottles of maturing vintages, including the softly perfumed yet still vital 1974 (£1,438 for a case of six, available from VinQuinn) – “no longer an athlete but a sage”, according to Tariq – the final wine produced before war broke out, and a poignant reminder of the harsh backdrop of production in the region. A plaque on the winery wall commemorates Serge’s tremendous contribution with his own words: “My wines are my legacy. When I have finished talking, they will talk for me.”

Tom Harrow is a fine wine commentator, consultant and presenter. His Grand Crew Classé is the ultimate invitation-only club for fine wine enthusiasts, with exclusive access to rare bottles and events around the world. Follow him on Twitter here.

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