Lebanese wine, and tasting Lebanon.
My itinerary for my recent trip to Lebanon included wineries, at the top of the list. I had lots of reasons for wanting to visit Lebanon’s wine country: the beauty of the vineyards that I hoped would be akin to those I’d seen in California, France, and Italy; the chance to learn more about the art of wine-making; the appeal of experiencing an aspect of Lebanon that is busting at the seams, as Lebanese wines are making the grade all over the place.
Oddly enough, actually tasting the wine was not something I had thought that much about. I had tried Lebanese wines on occasion, notably in a tipsy Lebanese wine-tasting orchestrated by my sister on the front porch up north years ago. Since then my wine knowledge has grown, with a nod to Tante Marie’s, where every Friday we had a wine tasting and lesson with a big map on the wall during lunch (our food tasted especially good on Fridays…).
It was here that I learned about biodynamics and that there is such a thing as good wine drinking days, or “fruit and flower days,” based on the lunar calendar. There’s a whole school of thought that says that on these days, wine tastes better, more open and flavorful, than on other days, “root and leaf days.”
There were many good things to eat in Lebanon, but it was the Lebanese wine with our meal every evening that spoke to me. I’ve looked it up and discovered that most of those days were, in fact, fruit and flower days. As I sipped, I thought, here I am, drinking Lebanon. I was tasting the terroir (the soil, the water, the air) of my fruitful family tree; the same elements that made this wine also in effect made my grandparents and their parents and theirs. What I tasted was the flavor of history, my history.
It’s a history of great joy, but also of suffering. It strikes me that the suffering of the family is not so different than the suffering of the vine (to produce great wine, the vine must suffer…), which must take place over generations in order for distinct, complex flavor to occur. One can’t help but understand, when meeting branches of the family as we did that are close but never before known to us, that with diaspora does come suffering. Opportunity and other good things came of it, yes. But also the breaking apart of family, the drama of who left and who stayed and why, the permanency of distance at a time when travel and communication were limited. Lebanon itself is a suffering vine, one whose resilience is palpable at every turn, and whose ability to withstand upheaval and still come out strong is a source of deep national pride. I think of resilience and courage and strength, among so many other things, when I say, I am Lebanese.
The wines I’ve tasted in California, in France, in Italy—these have their voices and with those they have told me stories. But these were always other people’s stories, and I was just a good listener. I love northern California—I lived there after all—but I know, and I always knew, it was not mine.
Lebanese wine tells me a story, and it’s one of vibrant fruit and flower, but also of root and leaf. In it I taste the flavor of the land, the sea, the people, the beauty, my family. Myself.
Today is a fruit and flower day…Lebanese wines to try
Lebanese wine is the oldest in the world, traded by the Phoenicians 5,000 years ago (take that France!). There are 30 vintners in Lebanon today. The fertile, gorgeous Bekaa Valley is where many of the wineries are located; the Temple of Bacchus at Baalbek is here, a structure dedicated to the Roman god of wine which is truly awesome (how nice to finally use that word as it was intended).
We visited Chateau Ksara, the oldest winery in Lebanon with its caves discovered by the Jesuits more than 150 years ago. What better to do with an ancient Roman cave than make and store wine? Here is a listing of the most prominent Lebanese wineries, many of which have French-inspired names because Lebanon was a protectorate of France for a good part of the last century, and the French influence there is distinct.
For specific wine recommendations from Lebanese vintners, read this.
Search for and purchase Lebanese wine here. Then ask your local wine shop to carry Lebanese wine!
Massaya (Gold Reserve red is special, worth finding)
Chateau Musar (Musar Jeune white is a great everyday wine)
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The fourth photo down, with the row of trees in back, looks familiar. I think you included that shot from a different angle before and it looked then like a typical garden. I think I remember the rows of trees that are apparently protection from direct sun. Now I see that the garden appears to be rows of “suffering” grape vines, though I am not sure. Very interesting.
Years ago in Virginia when visiting a winery the local vine expert mentioned that they don’t water the vines a lot, just enough to keep them going. Apparently that was another way of saying they stress the vines or “make the vine suffer”.
I have a vine on our rear clay hill, transported from Wisconsin, that did well the first year. Less so each year after that in spite of my frequent watering, fertilizing, etc. This year, at my wife’s insistence, I am just leaving it alone and we will see if it does better. My wife, by the way, insists that leaves from any grapevine would do for grape leave rolls. I remember only wild vines from the woods, that do not produce grapes, as the only ones being suitable (in Wisconsin at least). Some of the grape vines, that actually produce grapes, have leaves that are thick and furry, not the same at all. What do you think Maureen, she won’t listen to me!
Jerry, yes, those are our suffering vines at Ksara. They had them in a garden in the entryway, flanked by trees. Beautiful. I hope that yours will flourish this year. I love the idea that you brought them with you from Wisconsin. I’m sorry to your wife but I’ve always understood that it is only wild grape leaves that are used in grape leave rolls. I’ve lamented this because it can be impossible to find them, and I too have wondered why we can only use the wild ones, but that is so. I don’t understand why there aren’t more wild vines transplanted into every Lebanese person’s yard.
We have a grape leaf vine from my husband’s family here in Indiana. We have also picked from wild vines that grow prolific along the roads and under bridges. The best leaves are the first ones of spring and summer and are very smooth, not fuzzy. They are wonderful! As the summer progresses, the leaves seem tougher and we are more careful to reach for the newest ones on the vine.
As you know, I live in Napa Valley and am surrounded by vineyards and wineries. Despite that, Maureen,
you make me want to zip to these Lebanese wineries. Great descriptions of the wines, the people, the land.
You of all people would so appreciate Lebanon’s wine country, Toni! Perhaps one day we will share it together….
This is a most stirring post today! You put into words feelings that are deep in my soul but I never could make tangible–the metaphor of the vine for who we are–for the ancient and venerable stock from which we come. You touch me to the depths of my soul. True art, dear Maureen!
Yes, I agree, that is what pushed me to send it to my family tree mailing list, I thought they would especially appreciate the beautifully expressed paragraph just under the vine photo. The posts are always good though and the photos outstanding.
So kind, thank you Jerry. I look forward to greeting them here!
Diane, you are dear. Thank you so much.
I just sent the link from your column today to my two nieces and nephew (I have no children) as I wish for them to know further who they are at the deepest level possible.
Well then, something more we have in common Diane (no children). Our nieces and nephews are extra special to us. Thank you for sharing this with them!
Very beautifully put Maureen! Hope that article gets published some day in a national magazine as it deserves it.
Thanks so much, Joumana!
This time you haven’t written with your heart but with your soul.
Lebanese wine is so soulful! Thank you Paula.
Great post Maureen! But you missed a very special lebanese winery one of the oldest ! It’s Domaine DES Tourelles established by the French family Brun in 1868, in Chtaura at the Bekaa valley. I will be glad to receive you there the next time you plan to visit more lebanese wineries.
So hope to meet you soon !
Thank you Chritiane! There was so much to see during my visit, and so little time! I can’t wait to come back to Lebanon, and when I do, Domaine des Tourelles will be on my list. I hope to try your wine in the meantime though, if I can find it here in the states.