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If you’re a wine enthusiast, you’re probably well aware that French wines are held in high prestige, but it just so happens that Lebanon also has some of the best wines– with impressive wine regions for unique picks.
It also happens to be a pivotal moment in Lebanon’s 7000-year wine history. And it’s this year that may make a true difference for how Lebanese wine will be seen for years to come.
2020, to say the least, was a tumultuous time for wine around the world–but that was especially true in Lebanon’s wine regions. In addition to grappling with the impact of a global pandemic, Lebanon was already experiencing turmoil, with a financial crisis and a devastating explosion on a Beirut port that resulted in over 2,600 casualties, including 200 deaths.
And yet, as it has in many countries, the wine industry in Lebanon has proved resilient. In fact, it continues to expand, with now around eight dozen wineries, doubling the amount that existed in 1996.
Of course, it faces countless challenges– but Lebanon continues to inspire as a story of innovation, resilience, and, of course, good wine.
In this article, I’ll tell you the best wine regions in Lebanon, and my top picks for Lebanese wine.
The History of Lebanese Wine
How it Began
If you haven’t heard much about Lebanon wine culture, you aren’t alone– but Lebanon actually has been producing wine for over 7,000 years. Wine cultivation is thought to have taken root in Baalbek, situated in Bekaa Valley, also home to the second century dedicated to Bacchus. Baccus is known in Roman mythology as the god of Wine.
Wine was thought to have been stored in pottery containers filled with olive oil and sealed with pine. While wine was closely associated with Roman mythology, it was also center to other religious movements in Lebanon: the Israeli prophet Hosea purportedly compared his followers of God to the flourishing and rich production of wine of Lebanon.
Lebanese wine also began to be widely used for the Jewish Passover, and, later, the Christian Eucarist.
Lebanese wine production quieted for some time, once it joined the Caliphate, under Islamic rule. But it would emerge later, and remain still in part practice.
Modern Wine Making
Modern wine making – the roots of the Lebanon wine regions that flourish today– most likely began in the mid 1800’s. The famed Old World wine came in popularity with the arrival of French Jesuit monks, in that same Bekaa Valley, the present day Chateau Ksara. Some of the original vines came from Algeria.
Wine planting continued modestly, and the First World War marked a turning point. Following the war, France implemented colony rule, enforced to a greater extent between 1929 and 1931 with the famous Charles de Gaule stationed in Beirut.
It was during this time that Chateau Musar was established– Lebanon’s most acclaimed winery to this day.
By the end of War War II, Lebanon had emerged as a notable wine region, especially with the city of Beirut. Due to this influence, Lebanon gained recognition around the world– and heavily invested in the production of French style wines even post occupation.
Innovation in the 1990’s
That said, Lebanon is not simply a producer of French-style wines. Lebanon began to find more of its own unique characteristics in the 1990s. Recovering from a harrowing civil war, Lebanon, as if symbolically, divided to invest in replanting, and great expansion of its wine regions.
After enduring 15 years of blocked roads, perilous situations, and political calculations, Lebanese wine culture did what it seems to always do: it came back with perseverance. Though not totally decimated during the war, the wine industry bloomed once more, and wine production skyrocketed.
Despite political, religious and economic barriers, wine regions grew, continuing the balance of French winemaking traditions, but a little of their own signature cultivation– making Lebanese wine what it is today: part tradition, part innovation, and always, a story of survival.
What is Lebanese wine like?
Lebanese wine, as you might guess, has a number of things in common with French wine, due to its history of planting and cultivation. But as with all wine regions around the world, it has its own unique characteristics and things to love.
Lebanese is very much terroir wine, that is, wine that is distinct for its characteristics based upon the specific climate and soil, and often produced in smaller batches.
Lebanon inspires a few key grape varieties, all of which are also integral to French wines. These include: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Grenache, Cardigan, and Cinsaut– showing a propensity not only towards French grape varieties but also red wines that tend to be crowd-pleasers are suitable for both individuals wines and some red blends.
However, Lebanese wine regions are also known for some white wines as well. These are also white grape varieties common in French wine culture as well, including: Viogner, Chardonnay, Semillon, and Sauvignon Blanc. There are some Rose wines as well.
Lebanon wine tends to be higher in tannins. Tannins provide both structures that give that “pucker” element to a drink.
However, red wines are a bit on the spicier side than you might expect, are fruit forward, and are high in alcohol. White wines, meanwhile, present as elegant and a bit perfumed, with a refreshing finish. Wines tend to be complex, with depth and unique, layered flavors.
To understand the best wine and food pairings for Lebanese wine, first a little background about Lebanese cuisine–which, in my opinion, is delicious and complex, with plenty of flavor, balanced by hearty starches and red meats.
Mainstays of the Lebanese diet include: sumac (a citrus like spice), parsley, rose and orange blossom water, pomegranate molasses, tahini, and starchy staples like chickpeas, pitas and lentils. Lamb and chicken are popular sources of protein.
Lebanese wine matches that heat and complexity, with a strong presence that can hold up to richer and complex dishes. Red wine from lebanon pairs well with beef, lamb, and veal dishes, while white wine is suited with heavier cheese and vegetarian dishes. Of course, pairings depend on the specific wine.
Wine Regions in Lebanon
Now, I want to share where to find the best wine from Lebanon. These wine regions, which have grown over time, present complex and excellent wine that is meant to be enjoyed with meals and is an excellent way to expand your knowledge of wine from around the world.
If you love French wine, but want to branch out, take a look at wine from these fantastic regions in Lebanon.
If you don’t look at another single wine region in Lebanon, look to Bekaa Valley. This valley is where Lebanese wine first took root, is rich in history and culture, and consistently produces some of the best Lebanese wines.
In fact, to this day, 90 percent of wine in Lebanon is produced in this region. The valley is set at a high altitude and extends to the Anti-Lebanon mountain range. The mountainous landscape provides an oasis for wine cultivation, with moderation against both wind and rain.
There is great pride in the terroir of the wine, careful cultivation, and abundance of variety. Varieties include: Cinsault, Cardigan, Grenache, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Ugni Blanc, Obaideh and Merwah.
Stand Out Wines
Bekaa Valley also happens to be home to Chateau Musar, the most famous wine producer in all of Lebanon.
Their expertise is oak aged red wines, especially blends of Cabernet Sauvignon and Cinsaut, though now you can also enjoy a handful of white wines like Chardonnay and Semillon. Wines from here are best enjoyed rich, smooth, fruit forward, full bodied and aged.
Mount Lebanon is also an excellent wine region in Lebanon, if less well known. Mount Lebanon is situated in the southern regions, with a high elevation (around 3,000 feet) and produces around 4 percent of all Lebanese wine.
Mount Lebanon is distinguished by heavier precipitation, year round, which does include snowfall in the winter. This region is home to diverse wines, and perhaps the richest in variety in all of Lebanon. While tricky to cultivate grapes, the region still is strongly helped with a Meditarrean climate and careful harvesting and care.
Grape varieties here include: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, Grenache, Muscat, Merlot, Mourvedre and Syrah. However, while the Bekaa wine region in Lebanon is most known for its signature red wine, here the mostly commonly planted grape variety is Sauvignon Blanc.
You can also find grape varieties first cultivated in Lebanon, such as Merwah and Obaideh. Wines here are also oak aged and embody French, Old World, winemaking.
Stand Out Wines
In this region, I love the variety and diversity of wines– while noting such wines still stay true to the French winemaking techniques that are signature to most all of Lebanon wine regions.
Northern Wine Region
Often simply described as “The North,” the northern region of Lebanon is home to a balanced blend of white and red varieties, but stands out for more playful sparkling wines as well. The Northern region is also high altitude, presenting well developed and flavorful wine.
Once more, terroir wine reigns supreme, shining from an unique climate and soil, with clay like soil with a bit of stone, and a climate that enjoys ample sunlight but also moderate coastal winds. Warm summers mean rich fruit forward wine.
Grape varieties in the Northern region include: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, Merlot, Moudevre, and Syrah, as well as white varieties including: Chardonnay, Muscat, and Viogner, among others.
Stand Out Wines
Wines that stand out to me are sparkling wines, mostly because they are produced here more than in any other Lebanon wine regions.
That said, the bright note to this region is undoubtedly one of the most famous wine producers: IXSIR Winery. IXSIR Winery is actually relatively new, first established in only 2008, but has quickly earned acclaim, and plays a big role for its exports. In fact, it’s won acclaim both for its white and red blends.
Lebanese Wine: My Picks
2014 Chateau Musar Red
This red blend is perhaps the most famous of all Lebanese wines, no matter the year. Wine is French barrel aged and carefully blended. The 2014 vintage features the same signature blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, and Cardigan and exhibits an elegant red hot, with expressive sweet cherry, plum and dried fruit notes.
Just the right balance of spice and smoky tobacco makes for a rounded wine, while caramel and mocha with velvety tannins create an expressive finish. Buy Here.
2010 Chateau Musar Blanc
This 2010 vintage proves that while blends can exhibit the best of Lebanon, too, for a fresh, bright, and expressive wine that is unique to the region.A lemon hue brings forth ripe pears and lemongrass, accented with thyme and pine.
The zest of the citrus and present acidity is balanced with undercurrents of herbs and pine, and made of a blend of 60 percent Obaideh and 40 percent Merwah. Buy Here.
2016 Chateau Musar Rose
Longing for a Rose? This wine is great paired with tapas, and presents as both approachable and memorable. A soft, silky finish is accented with a fruit forward, citrus palette: peaches, oranges and grapefruit present with herbaceous undertones and just a bit of nutty and mildly spicy undertones. Buy Here.
2011 Massaya Gold Reserve Bekaa Valley
A Lebanese wine for the Bekaa Valley that isn’t Chateau Mursar, this pick deserves its spot for a reason. The signature red blend is a full bodied wine, with toasted notes accented by beautiful cloves and other spices.
2013 Ixsir Altitudes Rouge
This red wine from a rising star in Lebanon wine producers presents a complex red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Caladoc (Malbec and Grenache cross), Surah, and Tempranillo, for a truly unique wine.
Aged in French oak, you’ll get those signature toasted and vanilla notes, which perfectly complement blackcurrant, black cherry, and a bit of licorice. Buy Here.
2017 Ixsir Altitudes Rosé
Bright berry and light notes pair with earthy tones of minerals, honey, and leather, with melon, pear and peach. The color is a soft pink, which greets you with freshly picked strawberries, rose hips, and even a bit of lavender.
In part floral, in part fruity and undertones of minerality, is manages to be pleasing but also surprisingly complex. Buy Here.
Frequently Asked Questions
Answer: Lebanese wine can be quite excellent. In fact, some of their wineries have earned awards, and Ixsir was even invited to a prestigious event held in France. With three distinct wine regions, Lebanon carries on the tradition of French winemaking, but with some signature touches of spicy notes.
Answer: The exact number is hard to know, but estimates are that there are now over 80 wineries in Lebanon. This just showcases how much culture has grown across wine regions and continues to do so. It is very possible we will continue to see this expansion for years to come, despite the hardships Lebanon has endured.
Answer: While there are many excellent options for Lebanese wine, perhaps the most well-known and acclaimed come from three winemakers: Ixsir, Chateau Musar, and Massaya.
All of them are focused on terroir wine and often incorporate French wine-making techniques. Red and white blends tend to be oak-aged, though not universally so.
Lebanon is still emerging, in some ways, for international recognition, but it’s simply a delightful place to explore for its signature wines. Whether you prefer a white or red wine, there’s something to love– and the climate gives way to unique wines that will leave a lasting impression.
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