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Bekaa Valley

The Bekaa Valley is the home of modern Lebanese wine. Almost 90% of Lebanon's wine is made here, as is a respectable proportion of its Arak, the anise-flavoured spirit that remains the nation's favorite alcoholic drink. Although the Bekaa Valley has long been a hotspot of agriculture in this otherwise desert covered, mountainous region, it is only in the past few decades that its vinicultural potential has been truly realised.

The oldest winery in the area is Château Ksara, which was established by the Jesuit Christians of Taanayel (Tanail), an ancient monastic settlement just down the valley from Ksara. The first vineyard there was planted in 1857, with plants brought from France via the colonies in Algeria. In those days Lebanon was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, whose Sharia law condemned the production or consumption of wine except for religious purposes. Thus the initial winery was very subdued, and it was not until the French took control of the country after World War One (under the League of Nations' French Mandate for Syria and Lebanon) that Bekaa Valley wine production began to expand.

The long, narrow valley is a high altitude (3,000ft/1,000m) oasis of agriculture and viticulture that runs north-south for around 40 miles (65km) between the Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountains. The soils range from chalk, to clay and chalk, to clay and lime, but are always stony. The mountains are almost entirely to thank for the unique fertility of the terroir here, as they provide protection from the deserts to the east and the maritime rains to the west. The first half of this simple but effective climatic equation is the rain shadow cast by Mount Lebanon (which is actually a 100 mile mountain range, rather than a single peak as its name implies). The second half is the water that flows down off the hills and into the valley below; this is often meltwater. Thus despite the limited rainfall, the area has ready access to fresh water. The slopes of the mountain ranges on either side of the valley also create a unique micro-climate in which the cool nights compensate for the hot summer days, resulting in longer ripening periods for the grapes and providing the wines with a grace and elegance one might not expect from such a warm region.

The original Bekaa Valley vineyards were planted with Cinsault, which was subsequently joined by other French vine varieties. Most of these remain in Lebanon's vinicultural makeup today: red Carignan, Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and white Ugni Blanc, Clairette and Chardonnay.