“I am the emperor of the Bekaa Valley.” Faouzi Issa, the boss of Lebanon’s oldest commercial winery, Domaine des Tourelles, likes making provocative statements like this. But, as he sweeps his arm theatrically across the vast plateau before us, I get the sense he’s only half joking. Because this charismatic 34-year-old has big ambitions – not just for his 150-year-old winery but for the whole of this wine-growing region, which was first planted with vines more than 5,000 years ago.
Most wine lovers will be familiar with the Cabernet blends of Chateau Musar, often dubbed the “Lafite of Lebanon”. But Issa has chosen to make his calling card the more workaday Cinsault – a red grape with echoes of Pinot Noir that’s seeing a revival among new-wave winemakers. “The French call it pisse en vin!” he says gleefully as we speed down the Damascus Highway. “They think it’s only good for blending. But I forgive them, because here it is proving that the Bekaa Valley is diamond terroir.” That terroir looks unforgiving: so arid and stony you half expect Jesus himself to emerge from behind a rock. But Issa’s 70-year‑old bush vines love it – they sprawl luxuriantly across the ground like unkempt octopi. “Their fruit has fantastic acidity – you taste so much more of the place.”
The more recent vintages of its top wine, the 100 per cent Cinsault Domaine des Tourelles Vielles Vignes, are particularly exciting: the 2015 marries broad tannins with zippy notes of orange peel, crunchy red fruits and a hint of rosewater. The slightly more mineral 2016 is on the list at City restaurant Sushisamba. “It’s vibrant, fresh and silky,” says head of wine Filippo Pastorini.
As I sit under a pomegranate tree sipping wine with Issa and his team – a glamorous lot who chat among themselves in a fluent mix of Arabic, French and English – the conflict of the Middle East seems far away. But for Tourelles, a few miles west of the Syrian border, instability is part of everyday life. Issa takes me to Heliopolis, a co-op he’s involved in that encourages local farmers to switch from illegally growing marijuana to farming grapes.
I visit five wineries in Lebanon: Tourelles, Kefraya, Ksara, Marsyas and the modernist IXSIR. I meet some visionary winemakers, encounter intriguing grape varieties and taste fantastic wines. I hear shocking stories too – of raids, kidnappings and harvests under fire. But Issa remains bullish about Lebanon’s future. “The war sent all the brains out of this country – we lost our confidence,” he says. “Now it’s time for us to start putting back the rich and beautiful history of this land.”