Lebanon

Lebanon is a Middle Eastern country with an ancient wine culture that has experienced a renaissance in the past few decades. In 2011, roughly six million bottles of Lebanese wine were produced from 5,000 acres (2,000ha) of vineyards concentrated mostly in the Bekaa Valley. The majority of Lebanese wine is exported to the UK, France and the USA, where the receptive consumer bases have encouraged healthy growth in Lebanon's modern wine industry. In 1998 there were fewer than ten wineries in Lebanon – now there are more than 30. The majority of the wine they produce is red, made from the classic wine grapes of southern France.

Lebanese wine history dates back more than five millennia. It begins with the Phoenicians, an ancient civilisation whose strong culture of travel and trade was of considerable importance to the development of early Mediterranean civilisation. Wine was an important export for this ancient culture, and was taken to Egypt in large volumes and traded for gold.

For well over 1,000 years, Phoenician traders consistently extended their influence from their homelands (modern-day Lebanon, western Syria and northern Israel) along the north coast of Africa and up into southern Europe – notably Sardinia, Sicily, southern Italy, Greece and Turkey. They traded gold, dyes (including Tyrian purple), metalwork, glass, ceramics and wine. Along with these wares came the raw materials and technologies used to make them. It was this enthusiastic talent for trade and technology that we have to thank for much of Europe’s winemaking history, including the propagation of various members of the Vitis vinifera vine family.

The ancient port of Byblos, just north of the Lebanese capital Beirut, is widely viewed as the world's oldest continuously inhabited city. It was famous in classical antiquity as a wine centre, in terms of both production and trading. For centuries a reliable river of wine flowed out from Byblos, metaphorically speaking, and into the Mediterranean. Tyre and Sidon (Phoenicia's other key ports, to the south of Byblos) were also important wine centers. This remained the case until the 16th century, when the Ottoman armies swept southward around the eastern Mediterranean. Wine production and consumption were prohibited under their Sharia law, so the once-thriving wine industry around Byblos, Tyre and Sidon fell silent for almost 350 years.

As dhimmis (non-Muslims living in a Muslim state), Christians living in Lebanon at that time were permitted certain freedoms, one of which was the right to make wine for ceremonial purposes. It was on this basis that in 1857 a group of Jesuit priests founded a winery in Ksara, a small town in the fertile Bekaa Valley, Lebanon’s finest wine terroir. Château Ksara warrants its own chapter in the annals of Lebanese wine history, alongside Château Musar and Château Kefraya. The Christian community that founded the original winery effectively founded the modern Lebanese wine industry, and their efforts have been rewarded with the château's success as the nation's largest wine producer. Even today one in every three bottles of Lebanese wine is produced at Ksara, which also makes Arak, the anise-flavoured spirit that remains Lebanon's most popular alcoholic beverage.

The original vineyards at Ksara 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. The original plants were brought from France via the French colonies in Algeria, and with them came contemporary French winemaking wisdom. This, coupled with the country's period under French rule in the early 20th century, explains why Lebanon's wine industry is so closely modelled on its counterpart in France. It is also the reason why Lebanese wineries are Châteaux and why the national wine authority, the UVL, is the Union Vinicole du Liban.

The first comprehensive Lebanese wine laws were drafted in May 2000. Although not as detailed or comprehensive as the French AOC laws they're based on, they outline each of the significant elements required for a national-level wine regulation system. The laws include definitions of wine-related terminology such as that used for sweetness (e.g. Sec <4g/l RS and Doux >45g/l RS) and sparkling wine pressures (e.g. pétillant >0.5 bar, and mousseux >3.5 bar).

Modern Lebanese viniculture has moved away from the ancient Phoenician port cities and inland to the fertile Bekaa Valley. There are also a handful of vineyards near Jezzine, a few miles beyond the southern end of the Bekaa, just inland of Sidon.
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