Ava Abiad is a gastronaut in the galaxy of food and wine. The Adelaide-based journalist has joined Wine Tourist Magazine team, where she is delighted to share her adventures amongst the vines.
“You know, they used to call it the Paris of the Middle East,” said every person over 70 I told of my travel plans. To that generation, Lebanon was a destination for glamour, nightlife, the beach and skiing, with just enough French influence to make it comfortably familiar for European travellers.
Mention you are going to Lebanon today and prepare for the fear-loaded questions surrounding words like ISIS, burqa and Jihad, as well as a shocked reaction to the notion of wine being made there.
I have come home unscathed from two trips to the tiny country of Lebanon, which operates much like an island floating in the sea of neighbouring conflict. A tense relationship with its southern neighbour Israel and porous border with surrounding Syria, Lebanon has been flooded with refugees spilling out of the war. Lebanon is host to crowded roads, pollution and years gone by without a president, but life and celebration goes on in the multi-faith, 4,000-square mile country. The religious terrain can range from hilltop crucifixes and Virgin Mary shrines to ancient Druze palaces, grand Sunni mosques and photographic tributes to Ruhollah Khomeini.
Lebanese people are incredibly resilient, almost flirting with desensitization. Like many nations around the world with lax gun laws, some neighbourhoods will always be close to boiling point, but those are easily avoided with planning. My in-laws often recall times in the civil war, when bombs were falling but the business of looking beautiful thrived. You won’t catch a Lebanese woman in public without her hair and nails done.
Staying in Beirut’s top-tier hotels means shopping in the downtown area, rebuilt as an exact replica from before the war destroyed it. Nights in the nation’s capital should be spent bar-hopping and waking up to a bounty of local street foods with Arabic coffee on every corner. English, French and Arabic is everywhere in the cities -- language is no barrier until you reach remote areas, so take a local if you are planning a day trip to off-the-beaten-path locales. Beirut is a city of decadence, but the charm of old Lebanon lies in the mountains.
Thirty miles east of Beirut is Chateau Ksara, a charming old monastery in a forest setting. Ksara was the first producer of non-sweet red wine in Lebanon. Jesuit priests commenced farming in 1857 on the precious land of the Bekaa Valley, a basin at the bottom of two mountain ranges by the Syrian border.
The highly prized Bekaa stretches 75 miles long and 10 miles wide, the most fertile, pastoral land basking in the glory of snow-capped Mount Lebanon. Soils in the Bekaa are stony, ranging from chalk to clay or a combination of both, as well as clay and lime. The Mediterranean climate enjoys heavy rainfall, winter snow, a mild spring and dry, hot summers with cool nights.
The wine at Ksara is cellared in ancient roman caves below the cellar door. The caves were discovered by the priests when they followed a fox on the property as it stashed dead chickens. The fox crept through a small opening in the earth and hid its hens in the cool of the cave until priests uncovered it and found it the ideal place for wine storage. The caves were also a shelter for 100 families during the civil war. A guided tour is a must.
Ksara’s reds were the most enjoyable for my Australian palette, accustomed to the heavily seasoned, berry-laden Shiraz of the south. Le Souverain was a close match, blending Cabernet Sauvignon and Arinarnoa to create a dark, wilderness berry bouquet with fenugreek and carob undertones. Ksara also makes Arak, branded Ksarak. The aniseed-tainted pure grape alcohol turns milky when it comes into contact with water and is best enjoyed on ice alongside mezze.
Admittedly, knowing I was less than 20 miles from Damascus made me slightly tense, but the village of Zahlé remains a tranquil delight. Checkpoints grow closer together along the road to one of the largest temples of the Roman Empire in Baalbek, aptly dedicated to Bacchus, the God of wine. Though the ruins are incredibly vast, visiting Baalbek and other towns along the Syrian border heading north should be avoided until the region settles. Nerves are frayed, money is scarce and arms are plentiful.
The French forces withdrew in 1946 but left behind winemaking practices still used today. Château Musar planted its first vineyards with specimens sourced from Bordeaux in 1930. Perched on top of a hill in Ghazir is Musar’s cellar door, 20 miles north of Beirut.
The winery tour will take you through the process of producing their organic wines and the cellar, which could be a scene from a Harry Potter film. Spider webs and dead albino spiders hang from the ceiling and drape the bottles to protect them from light damage, but with my arachnophobia tendencies, every trepid step seemed a little closer to being engulfed by the gaping, furry jaws of the giant I imagined at the back of the caves. These webs do, however, serve a purpose. To maintain the wine’s organic status, no pesticides can be used in the cellar, hence the spiders may feast and live without harm.
Château Musar produces Arak and wine. Ambient yeasts allow for fermentation, and the wines of Musar are neither filtered nor fined. My preference was the Château Musar White – a golden, Sauternes-style pour that turns to a tawny tone with age. And boy, do they age. The Ghazir cellar holds vintages dating back to 1954. The cream-textured, oaky blend of ancient indigenous Obaideh and Merwah grapes is exuberant with citrus and spice and just a droplet of honey.
The Musar White is fermented in French oak barrels for nine months, bottled after one year and released seven years from the harvest. The vineyards are located on the seaward side of Mount Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains. The untrained bush vines are still on their own roots, allowing for a maximum yield of 520 gallons.
After an hour driving up the rain-soaked hills of Batroun, where on more than one occasion I had to check the width of the road by sticking my head out of the four-wheel-drive, we reached Ixsir. There, my husband and I realized there was a new road that Google Maps failed to recommend. Luckily, wine awaited us.
The welcoming scent of charcoal emanated from the 17th century stone building, offering a generous outdoor entertaining space and vine-views for days. The cellar door here -- tasting room -- is an informative one, and the tour divulges the eco-friendly, sustainable practices of the winery.
An excellent spot for lunch on a sunny day, one can enjoy traditional Lebanese foods by famed chef Nicolas Audi. Offerings include kebbe, fattouch salad, samke harra -- a delectable dish of fish dressed in tahini, chilli, garlic, and coriander -- and charcoal-roasted meats. The provincial feel is palpable here, despite CNN naming Ixsir one of the greenest buildings on earth.
The grapes of Ixsir are grown in Batroun of the north, Jezzine of the south and on the hills of the Bekaa. The technical director at the estate is Spanish winemaker and oenologist Gabriel Rivero, who came to Lebanon after a 12-year stint at Bordeaux’s Château Sociando-Mallet. The consultant winemaker is Hubert de Boüard, a world-renowned consultant and co-owner and manager of Château Angélus of Bordeaux.
The Altitudes IXSIR Rosé 2014 was authentic and excellent, with a strong nod to Provence. The bouquet of gooseberry and vine leaves is cloaked in a robe of peony and blushing marble, unleashing the crisp and fruity palate with its blend of Syrah and Caladoc.
Take a short drive to the ancient port city of Byblos; your afternoon would be incomplete without a visit to the Portofino of Lebanon. Stroll the cobblestone laneways and take in the ancient Roman ruins. The streets will fill as night approaches dawn. Eating before 10 p.m. is a foreign notion.
Watch the sunset with drink in hand, and listen to church bells and the Islamic call to prayer send the town into a miraculous lull of unity. Lebanon may no longer be the Paris of the Middle East, but this place has made a mosaic out of its scar tissue.