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History of Wine

With wine making tradition dating back 5,000 years the Phoenicians, the ancient dwellers of Lebanon, were tending vineyards, making wine and trading with other major cities long before the Greeks and Romans. And it was here that later Jesus changed water into wine, performing his first miracle at the wedding of Cana.

The term wine, or Cherem in Phoenician, is derived from a Phoenician word referring specifically to the fermentation of grapes. Wines were a specialty of the Phoenicians and their ancient Ugaritic poetry and epics mentioned wine with ringing praise. The Rapiuma and others were specific in identifying the choice wine of Lebanon as being one nurtured by their god El and fit for gods and kings. They must have learned about wine from earlier civilizations; however, they perfected viticulture and oenology so that Phoenician wines became prized commodities of the ancient world and a major source of revenue in their exports.

The Phoenician Canaanites were avid wine drinkers. The Bible mentions that the Phoenician Canaanite Melchizedek, King of Salem (King of Jerusalem) and Priest of the Most High God (El Elion), offered bread and wine to Abraham and Ezekiel refers to the wine of Helbon as a unique commodity. Some believe that the village of Qana (Cana) where Jesus turned water into wine at the wedding feast was a town near Tyre, Phoenicia and not elsewhere. Also, wine was central to the Passover observance among the Jews and continues to be so. It was served for the Passover of the Last Supper betwixt Jesus and his disciples and continues to be central to Christian Eucharistic liturgy of the Mass.

Some of the icons of Phoenician philosophy, Zeno of Citium and Chrysippus of Soli, Phoenician co-founder of the Stoic School of Philosophy were "serious" wine drinkers. The former's main enjoyment was sitting in the sun, eating figs and drinking wine while the latter is said to have died as a result of drinking too much over proof wine.

The Egyptians never succeeded in growing enough grapes to produce wine, a drink foreign to the Egyptians, and relied on imports. In fact, a fresco in an Egyptian tomb of the 18th dynasty depicts seven Phoenician merchant ships anchored at an Egyptian port to sell their goods, including the distinctive Canaanite wine jars in which wine was imported. Egypt recorded the harvest of grapes on stone tablets and the Egyptians drank wine from cups or from a jar through a straw. The Pharaohs were especially fond of wine and some even had bottles buried with them in order to make their journey to the underworld more tolerable. Also, wines were given to dead kings, so that they might entertain their friends in the afterlife. Wine was a very social drink in Ancient Egypt and great importance was given to its limited production and consumption.

Even the Greeks couldn't offer vintages to compare with the Phoenicians until much later. At the table, most people drank their wine mixed with water, quite frequently half and half. So the opportunity to drink pure wine at a ritual was a special occasion. This is why getting drunk was so special and originally considered a spiritual state, in which deities could talk or act through the person in that condition. Some scholars believe that Dionysus was originally from the Middle East, home of wine and ecstatic worship. Also, in pagan worship, wine was used to anoint idols.

 

Wine of Lebanon

Lebanon is one of the oldest sites of wine production in the world. In Baalbeck, the ancient Greek city in the Bekaa Valley, the majority of vines are grown. French influence on the country is apparent in the grape varieties most commonly planted: Cinsaut, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Mourvedre, Grenache and Syrah.

Although today more known of its majestic cedars - and a very damaging 16-year civil war - today Lebanon is blessed with 300 days of sunshine a year, and enjoys a burgeoning industry producing award-winning wines for export to a wide Lebanese community now living throughout the world, mainly in the UK, Europe and the United States.

since 1948 at least one winery in Lebanon (which was part of Syria until1920 when it became a French protectorate), has consistently produced world-class wines. Chateau Musar, by far the best and best known of the Lebanese wineries, was established by Gaston Hochar in 1930. According to George Mulford, an English journalist who actually visited Lebanon in 1936, the winery produced "wines that are as good as many I have tasted in France". By the late 1940s, Chateau Musar was producing vintage wines so good that they astonished even the owners of some of Bordeaux' finest chateaux. In 1959, Gaston's son Serge, who studied wine-making at the University of Bordeaux in France, became the winemaker and since then there has been no doubt that this winery can produce some extraordinarily fine and very long-lived red wines.

Even though Chateau Musar produces several good white wines, it is their reds that constantly attract the attention of wine lovers. The vineyards that supply the grapes to the winery are located in the lush Bekaa valley, whose best known crops are hashish and opium. Situated nearly 1000 meters above sea level, the soil and climate here are ideal for raising the Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache, and Cinsault grapes on which the winery relies for its red wines. Here too are grown Obaideh grapes which Serge Hochar theorizes are the ancestors of the modern Chardonnay grape, and it is from these and Merway grapes that the winery makes its white wines.

Since the onset of the Lebanese civil war in the 1970s, making wine has been a frequently dangerous enterprise. Even though the 36 kilometer drive from the fields of the Bekaa to Musar's winery north of Beirut has often been a battleground during these years, the Hochar family has managed to produce at least limited quantities of wines every year except in 1976 and 1984. What is truly amazing about many of these wines is their ability to age well. Infact, many of Musar's red wines go through a cycle that I have only rarely found elsewhere. After a period of easy drinking during their youth, many of the wines suddenly give the appearance of having spoiled. In reality, what they are going through is an extended "dumb period" (a time when the wine seems to have gone bad but in fact needs another four or five years in the bottle before they magically regain their youth and then continue to improve as they age.

Ideally, Musar's best reds, based almost always on a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon grapes and Cinsault grapes should only be drunk ten to fifteen years after they have been bottled, for it is only at that age that they often show their extraordinary richness, depth and velvety smoothness. Musar's white wines are also unusual in that they should never be drunk until they are at least six years old.

The two other Lebanese wineries to be taken seriously are "Chateau Ksara" and "Domaine de Kefraya", both of which are also located in the Bekaa Valley. Even though Chateau Ksara was first established by Jesuit priests in 1857, the Jesuits only succeeded in making a few really good wines. What they did, however, was to build more than two kilometers of underground tunnels that are now ideally suited for the aging and storage of wines. The vineyards, winery and tunnels were purchased by private investors in 1973 and since then Ksara has become the largest producer of wines in Lebanon. Domaine de Kefraya, which was founded nearly fifty years ago, has produced fine wines since 1980, when they acquired the services of French winemaker Yves Morard, whose wines have consistently won medals at Bordeaux' prestigious VinExpo competitions.

Although these wines are sometimes found in the United States and Canada, it is far easier to buy them when visiting London. Best stores for finding the wines of Chateau Musar are Waitrose, Tanners, Majestic Wine and Adnams. The wines of Kefraya and Ksara are more difficult to find but are sometimes available at Tanners and Adnams.

 

 

 

Information From the Ministry of Tourism

Lebanese Ministry of Tourism

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