Wine has been produced in Lebanon since ancient times. Now, vineyards destroyed during years of warfare have been replanted. Currently, the alcohol is tolerated by the Islamic conservatives of Hezbollah.
Grapes from traditional vineyards in Lebanon are once again being harvested
A tour guide at some of the world's best preserved Roman ruins assures visitors that Roman nobles fermented many of the finest wines in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley. After all, wine was an excellent lubricant for their sex orgies.
"The nobles stored the wine under the staircase of the Temple of Bacchus," tour guide Mohammad Wahabi said. "They had orgies every week, perhaps every day. We don't know."
Beginning with the Phoenicians 3,500 years ago, the lush vineyards of the Bekaa Valley have produced spectacular red wines. In modern times, civil war and foreign invasions have disrupted wine production. Vintners once worried that the conservative Muslim group Hezbollah, which regularly wins elections in the region and has been classified as a terrorist organization by the United States, would interfere with wine making. But wine has become a symbol of Lebanese religious tolerance.
Recovering from civil war
Chateau Kefraya, Lebanon's second largest winery, is about a 30-minute drive from Baalbek. Business manager Emile Majdalani extolled the region and climate of the Bekaa while pouring a glass of a cabernet-syrah.
"We really choose the best grapes from the best parcels of our vineyards, the ones in high altitude," he said.
But he noted that while Lebanese wine making dates back thousands of years, it's never been easy. Wine production disappeared during the Arab and early years of the Ottoman empires. Christians in the region always made wine for their own consumption, but commercial production only returned in the late 1800s.
Zafer Chaoui is chairman of Ksara, Lebanon's largest winery
Lebanon's civil war, which lasted from 1975-1990, dealt wine making a serious blow, according to Zafer Chaoui, chairman of the board of Ksara, the country's largest winery.
"Roads were blocked and the future of the Bekaa Valley was quite uncertain," he said. "You never knew what would happen there. We were concerned that fundamentalists would control the area."
Muslims make up an estimated 60 percent of Lebanon's population and Hezbollah, which means Party of God, regularly elects members of parliament from the Bekaa Valley. But fears of a fundamentalist crackdown on winemaking proved wrong as Hezbollah does not target winemakers, according to Majdalani.
"Maybe Hezbollah and the Shiites in Lebanon don't drink wine, but they are very tolerant about other people doing it," he said. "We haven't seen any religious obstacle to promoting wine in Lebanon."
Ironically, Israel proved to be a much bigger enemy for winemakers. Conservative Christian Phalangists had initially sided with Israel during its 1982-1985 occupation of Lebanon. But that rapidly changed.
Chaoui said that Israeli soldiers "dug out all the grape plantations on their way out. Why? Because they were an occupation army and wanted to destroy to the maximum."
Hezbollah is a significant conserative force but has tolerated the vineyards
It took four years for Ksara to replant and harvest grapes. The Lebanese civil war officially ended in 1990. Since that time wine production doubled. Today the country produces an estimated 7.5 million bottles annually, about 40 percent of which is exported, mainly to Europe and Syria.
But Lebanese production pales by comparison to exports from New World wine countries. Australia, for example, exports more than 70 times as much as Lebanon.
Sami Ghosen, co-owner of the Masaya winery, said he hopes foreigners no longer view Lebanon as an unstable, war-torn country. He said the end of apartheid in South Africa helped promote the sale of wine from that country.
"When you drink a glass of wine, you are traveling in a way," he added. "You give an OK in your mind or heart to that country."
Author: Reese Erlich/gs
Editor: Anke Rasper