The only post about Lebanese wine you’ll ever read which is not headlined “Grapes Of Wrath”

FROM Bordeaux through various rutas de vino to new world destinations in New Zealand and South Africa, many corners of the world have become places of pilgrimage for wine fans: vineyards can generally muster pretty locations, a sunny  climate and of course good food and wine.

But if there’s one wine land that should have special appeal to wine bloggers and columnists, it has to be Lebanon. I haven’t been yet, but feel doubly indebted to the home of the ancient Phoenicians who gave us both the alphabet and viniculture.

While some European wineries proudly point to their thousand-year-old Roman (and indeed Greek) origins, those two great cultures had in turn learned the practical secrets of vine-growing and winemaking from the even more ancient civilisation of Phoenicia on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean.

Radio programme about Lebanese wine

Click to go to BBC iPlayer website

This prehistory of the wine in your glass is highlighted by a thought-provoking radio programme about the wineries of Lebanon. In Vines on the Front Line (click that link to listen up until the morning of Wednesday January 19) the BBC’s Middle East Editor, Jeremy Bowen,  introduces us to some of the key winemakers who have endured the appalling conflict that has all but torn that country apart in recent decades. He visits Chateau Ksara, an ancient vineyard which was revitalised by the Jesuits who owned the property in the 1850s; and introduces brothers Sami and Ramzy Ghosn who founded Massaya in the mid-’90s.

Although a newcomer, the latter winery’s location in the Bekaa Valley – between the Roman temple to Bacchus and the ancient city of Byblos – is an embodiment of words and wine and history.  And as if that weren’t enough metaphor for one place, Massaya is on the road to Damascus. Literally.

Generations of the Ghosn family had been farming grapes for the table and citrus fruit near Tanäil until, in the 1970s, war saw them unceremoniously booted out of their property. Brought up in France and the US, Sami still had unfinished business down on the family farm.

“I always felt we would do something with that land again one day,” Sami told me when I met him a few years ago.  “So in the early ‘90s I went back there to reclaim our land. Of course, people thought I was crazy. Our house was occupied, the Syrians were still there [as they were until recently] and then Bush goes and starts the first Iraq war. I bought a Range Rover and a Kalashnikov…”

The way he tells it, thus began an uneasy stand-off. He says he was greeted by the occupants of his home with hot tea and an edgy sort of hospitality.  Seven months later, he says, the occupants left peacefully.

The radio documentary brings the uneasy relationships between neighbours up to date – both within Lebanon and across its borders with Syria and Israel.

Back in the Bekaa, the Ghosns  began making arak and later bottling wine. But it’s with their later partnership with Domaine du Vieux Télégraph in Châteauneuf du Pape and Château Trianon in Bordeaux that their winery truly flourished. Just 1km inland, the Bekaa valley hangs about 1,000m above sea level between two snow-capped heights.  “Yes it’s hot,” says Sami, “but the altitude compensates for the latitude.” And after the short wet winter, some 300 days of warm sunshine are moderated both by the sea and by the cool night-time winds that whip in over the land from the Syrian desert to the East.

The French helped the brothers put land and winery to work — insisting on stringent monitoring in the growing and modern clean techniques in the winemaking.

The result at Massaya is a range of top-class wines. Ironically, despite predating western Europe’s wine history  by millennia, the Lebanese have an open ‘new world’ approach to wines, for instance creating blends of Bordeaux and Rhone grapes that one wouldn’t normally see together — certainly not in their homeland. Quality is admirably consistent across the Massaya range. Here are two of them.

Massaya Clasic Red Bekaa Valley 2008 (€15.25).
As poised as it is powerful, this is a ripe and spicy blend of cinsault, cabernet sauvignon and syrah.

Massaya Silver Selecton red 2005 Bekaa Valley (€19.50).
This isn’t cheap. But it’s well worth considering for a special occasion. A blend of cinsault, grenache, and mourvèdre, it’s a bright but extraordinarily concentrated  red.


♦ Massaya wines (www.massaya.com) are imported by James Nicholson Wines (www.jnwine.com) and you will also find bottles from the range at Lonergans of Clonmel or Kevin Parsons’ Wine Warehouse in Carrigaline. Restaurants stocking Massaya include Lily Mai’s in Golden, Co Tipperary and Star Anise in Cork.

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Goes up to 11

BBC iPlayer

♦ One last thing.  Look a little closer at the volume slider on the BBC iPlayer (left). Like Nigel Tufnel’s customised amp in This Is Spinal Tap, it goes up to 11. Just because.  ♦

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Generations of the Ghosn family had been farming grapes for the table and citrus fruit near Tanäil until, in the 1970s, war saw them unceremoniously booted out of their property. Brought up in France and the US, Sami still had unfinished business down on the family farm:

“I always felt we would do something with that land again one day,” Sami told me when I met him a few years ago.  “So in the early ‘90s I went back there to reclaim our land. Of course, people thought I was crazy. Our house was occupied, the Syrians were still there [as they were until recently] and then Bush goes and starts the first Iraq war. I bought a Range Rover and a Kalashnikov…”

The way he tells it, thus began an uneasy stand-off. He says he was greeted by the occupants of his home with hot tea and an edgy sort of hospitality.  Seven months later, he says, the occupants left peacefully.

The radio documentary brings the uneasy relationships between neighbours up to date – both within Lebanon and across its borders with Syria and Israel.

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2 Responses

  1. It’s not Grapes of Wrath but they still couldn’t resist the war link with their name (Vines on the Front Line)!

    I’ve never been to Star Anise in all my time in Cork. It is a good sign if they are carrying “interesting” wines like Massaya. Must get there.

  2. Musar, Jim, but not as we know it… Another post not headed Grapes of Wrath: http://bit.ly/fOjSZE

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