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Lebanon: Rebirth and renewal

Published:  16 January, 2023

In a Harpers exclusive, Lebanese expert Michael Karam shares his new, in-depth report on his native Lebanon’s wine industry, with a scene-setting introduction here and the full content published online at

First off, Lebanon is small. The tiny, mountainous nation situated at the eastern extremity of the Mediterranean, with a population of 4 million, covers an area of just 10,452km2. It is, depending on your mental references, the size of Yorkshire; half the size of Wales or two-thirds the size of Connecticut. Its wine industry is, by global standards, ridiculously small: 11 million bottles from 60-odd producers. But the Lebanese don’t mind. They believe that, like their country, small is beautiful.

Lebanon is old. It is the site of Phoenicia, the ancient semitic civilisation that created the first trading empire, and home to some of the most magnificently preserved ruins from antiquity. Beirut, the capital, is steeped in millennia of history, as are the other major conurbations, the port cities of Tripoli and Sidon, and the fishing towns of Tyre and Byblos. 

The latter is home to the modern alphabet; the world’s oldest continuously inhabited community and the place where Bybline, the grand cru of the ancient world, was made. In the Bekaa Valley town of Baalbek is the awe-inspiring Temple of Bacchus – proof, if any were needed, that our relationship with fermented grape juice is long and deep. 

In many ways, but particularly when it comes to understanding the wine industry, Lebanon is also French. 

The Jesuits – who introduced Rhône varieties to the Bekaa Valley in the mid-19th century and founded what is today Chateau Ksara – were mainly French, as was François-Eugène Brun, the young engineer who founded Domaine des Tourelles in Chtaura in 1868. 

Their compatriots who ruled Lebanon from the end of the First World War until 1943, and who mobilised a nation to make wine that would quench the thirst of 30,000 civil servants and soldiers, left a strong Francophone legacy, ensuring that if a modern wine culture were to flourish anywhere in the Arab world it would be in Lebanon. 

Today’s Lebanese winemakers are mostly French-trained and the wines still have a distinct French identity. 

Crucially, Lebanon is high – and not necessarily from the potent cannabis that grows wild alongside many of the vines in the Bekaa Valley. It’s a mountainous country, and it is these mountains that give Lebanon its competitive edge, allowing it to grow grapes at altitude, in some cases at over 2,000m, to produce wines with a freshness and extended ripening (the day/night temperature variation is around 17 degrees) that belies their warm climate origins.

And finally, Lebanon is diverse. It is a home to the three great monotheist religions – Christianity, Islam and Judaism – with 18 state-recognised faiths. It is a system that is an ossified relic of the 1943 constitution, which distributed political representation according to the sectarian spread. This guaranteed, and to be fair still guarantees, Lebanon’s very existence, even if consensus on major national issues has often been elusive because of it. But when it comes to wine, this diversity is nothing but positive, with more than 30 varieties plying their trade in the nation’s vineyards and a range of styles that has allowed Lebanon to set out its stall with confidence.


And yet Lebanon remains an intriguing contradiction. On the one hand it is held up as the epitome of chaos and strife – a throwback to the dark days of the 1975-90 civil war – while on the other, it is famed for its wonderful food, shrewd, multilingual and glamorous people and often breathtaking scenery. 

The Lebanese are kind, generous and fiercely proud of their country, especially when they are living abroad. They are, by and large, a fun-loving bunch, but centuries of being governed – by the Ottomans and the French – or influenced by bigger and stronger nations, has created a streak of fatalism and a penchant for seeing everything as a conspiracy. 

They may have a point. Despite periods of prosperity, much of Lebanon’s recent history has been punctuated by war, instability and suffering. 

The country is once again in a state of turmoil, on the constant verge of economic and social collapse. As multiple calamities – hyperinflation; infrastructure failure; shortages of essential commodities and a massive explosion that devastated a swathe of East Beirut and traumatised a nation (not to mention Covid) – buffeted the sector, hampering production and choking what logistics channels were left open, driving wine producers to delve deep into the crisis-management handbook. 

But as the wine industry, like those of many other countries, dusts itself down from the two-year hiatus and braces itself for the imminent economic winter, there is still much to be positive about.

The sector is expanding and the action is no longer confined to the Bekaa Valley. In the northern district of Batroun, where 20 years ago there was nothing, there are now ten, mainly micro, wineries with sea-facing vineyards. With other wineries in South Lebanon, Mount Lebanon and the Chouf, further diversity of terroir is assured.

A new mood

There is also a new mood, defined arguably by a significant, upward shift in the quality of the white wines that, with more focus and precision, are allied to greater experience of working at altitude with relatively new varieties. Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat, Semillon and even Chardonnay are in the ascendancy, as well as indigenous varieties such as Merwah and Obeideh – grapes that Lebanese farmers knew better than their own children, but that were never considered for wine. 

These ‘new’ whites have a freshness and elegance that not only allows them 

to now claim equal billing with their more celebrated red siblings, but also offers a new dimension to Lebanon’s wine offering. 

For their part, the reds are shedding their butch reputation. The new mantra is ‘Less extraction. Less oak. More integrity’. 

Alongside the powerful, long-ageing international blends, dressed in the most expensive oak money could buy is a new generation of restrained, terroir-driven wines, using the Rhône stalwarts – Cinsault, Carignan and Grenache – that have been running the Bekaa Valley since the mid-nineteenth century. They are Lebanon’s adopted children.

And it hasn’t stopped there. A new generation of winemakers, unburdened by convention, have announced their arrival to the normally conservative Lebanese wine establishment with skin-fermented whites made with indigenous grapes, pet nats, amphora ageing and even a traditional-method sparkling wine from the banks of Lake Qaraoun at 900m. All this would have sparked derision a decade ago.

The epicentre of this new movement is in the Cedars of North Lebanon, where Mersel’s Eddie Chami, a maverick who makes wild wines with local grapes no one had heard of – let alone considered using for viticulture – has created a colony of sorts, welcoming other likeminded winemakers.

It is the radical end of a wider epiphany among many of Lebanon’s producers who have finally embraced indigenous grapes. It started with the ubiquitous white Obeideh and Merwah and now every respectable winemaker has at least one local grape on their books. These old and profound varieties can make beautiful, delicate wines and at the same time shape Lebanon’s identity. There is a newfound pride where once there was only a desperate urge to ape the French.

The future

So, Lebanon’s modest stock is finally beginning to perform. The sector is enjoying a period of unprecedented growth, innovation and international interest, despite the best efforts of the country to self-immolate. This momentum should continue as long as professional standards are imposed and maintained. 

This is now the responsibility of the National Institute of Vine and Wine, which will, it is claimed, in collaboration with the Lebanese government be responsible for all areas of grape growing and wine production. This will encompass viticulture, viniculture, legal issues, commercial concerns, quality control and analysis, as well as the creation of a system similar to, and inspired by, the French appellation d’origine contrôlée. 

Let’s see. The fear is that the NWI will get bogged down in parochial matters and lose sight of the big picture: selling the wine, ideally through a campaign that harnesses and promotes all that is good about Lebanon through the lens of wine.

Wine is Lebanon’s most high-profile export. It is the soft power tool par excellence, not only to combat Lebanon’s often negative image, but for also helping push that most important of messages – that Lebanon is a genuine wine-producing country. It’s simple. 

Sell Lebanon and you sell the wine. The producers know this. They just need the state to get behind them. They will do the rest.

Michael’s full, in-depth and up-to-the minute Lebanon 2023 report on the industry, its producers and its wines, is now available to read for free, exclusively here.