The bekaa valley

The bekaa valley

Greg Malouf, Lucy Malouf
16 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
Matt Harvey

Our visit to the jesuit-run convent dairy at Tanaïl had been educational in many ways. As well as a profitable yoghurt and cheese-making business, the dairy also runs a successful model farm on its 230 hectares of land. It was here that we met its manager, Fadi Sarkis, and he was a mine of information about agriculture in Lebanon. The convent takes a very progressive approach to farming; indeed, Fadi has a master’s degree in sustainable agriculture and in his spare time he is president of ‘Biocoop Lubnan’, a dynamic organisation whose mission is to develop organic food production in Lebanon.

We had spent the last few days hurtling up and down the Bekaa Valley, the broad strip of arable land that runs down the centre of Lebanon. It is flanked by two long mountain ranges: the Lebanon Mountains to the west and the Anti-Lebanon Mountains that form the border with Syria to the east.

The Bekaa Valley has always been the agricultural heart of Lebanon. In Roman times, crops of wheat, barley and millet were grown in abundance, earning the area the title of ‘breadbasket of the Empire’. It is naturally fertile land, irrigated by two rivers, the Orontes and the Litani, and according to Fadi it accounts for 60 per cent of Lebanon’s farm production.

On our drives through the region we’d seen fields of young, iridescent-green wheat, pink- and white-blossomed fruit trees and rows of frilly lettuces. The Bekaa produces a wide variety of many other crops as well, from table grapes to olives and tomatoes, as well as more prosaic crops such as legumes, sugar beet and potatoes. Fadi told us that Lebanon is famous in the Arab world for the quality of its fruit and vegetables, and it does a brisk export trade with countries such as Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan and Kuwait.

However, the picture was not as rosy as it first appeared. The Bekaa appeared to be much poorer than the rest of Lebanon. Farm workers were shabbily clothed and they looked weary; the roads were littered with piles of uncollected rubbish and, in contrast to the attractive traditional stone houses that dotted the mountains, accommodation in the Bekaa was often little more than crumbling concrete boxes. Even the fresh produce being sold by the roadsides looked mean and miserable.

According to Fadi Sarkis, agricultural production has yet to recover from the devastating effects of the civil war, which saw assets destroyed, livestock lost and food-growing land severely damaged. More recently, farming businesses have also had to contend with big hikes in fuel prices and with the increasing flood of foodstuffs transported illegally across the border from Syria.

Farmers resent the government’s reluctance to invest in agriculture – although 40 per cent of Lebanon’s population are farmers, less than 4 per cent of the country’s annual budget goes to fund this sector. Neighbouring countries such as Jordan and Egypt heavily subsidise their own agriculture sectors and Lebanese farmers just can’t compete. They have to make do with out-of-date machinery, ineffective watermanagement systems and higher labour costs.

Most of the population in the Bekaa are Shiaa Muslims who have historically been largely ignored by the government’s Sunni and Christian elements. If it is this sense of marginalisation that has made locals so receptive to the fundamentalist message of religious salvation preached by the Hezbollah’s ‘Party of God’, it is also what has turned them over the years to illicit drug production for their economic salvation.

Until recently, crops of cannabis and opium reputedly generated an annual turnover of US$500 million for growers, but in the 1990s the Lebanese authorities cracked down on their production in a big way, a move that was sanctioned by the Syrian government and strictly enforced by the occupying Syrian army. Despite this ban, there are small pockets where drug crops have continued to be secretly grown around the Bekaa, but perhaps more hopefully, the area is becoming increasingly known as a wine-growing area.

There has always been something a little recherché about the idea of Lebanon as a wine country, but its viticultural roots stretch far back into early history. Historians speculate that early grapes were domesticated by Neolithic civilisations as early as 9000 BC. Certainly, there is evidence that the Phoenicians did a healthy trade in red and white wines all around the Mediterranean. And, of course, nearly two thousand years ago the Romans built a massive temple to Bacchus, the god of wine, at Baalbeck.

What might be termed the modern era of Lebanese winemaking started in 1857, when Jesuit priests planted vines at the old crusader fort at Ksara, near Zahlé in the Bekaa Valley, to make wine for Mass at the nearby Tannaïl Convent. In 1920, when the League of Nations divided the region between France and England (creating modern-day Lebanon in the process), Lebanon became a French protectorate and the influence of the French over the next twenty years helped develop the country’s wine industry further.

The industry hummed along quietly until hitting a rocky patch during Lebanon’s civil war. Army tanks ploughed through vineyards and the Bekaa became a battleground for Syrian and Israeli troops, but from the rubble grew a brave new world of winemaking.

Since the end of the war in 1990, the Lebanese wine industry has grown in leaps and bounds – largely as a result of the efforts of dynamic new producers such as the Ghosn brothers at Massaya – although it remains tiny by world standards. There are currently around sixteen producers – mostly located in and around the Bekaa – who produce close to seven million bottles a year. This is a mere drop in the wine ocean in global terms, of course, when one considers that the biggest players, France and Italy, produce nearly ten thousand million litres between them every year.

Lebanon is unlikely to ever be a serious wine country, largely because more than 60 per cent of its population are, ostensibly at least, Muslim non-drinkers. Local per capita consumption remains less than one litre per year, compared with the European average of twenty-six litres (the French drink fifty-six!), and on our travels we were frequently disappointed by the lack of local wines represented on restaurant wine lists. The future of Lebanese wine lies in its export markets, and these have seen a strong 75 per cent growth since 2000 – mostly to the French and English, who receive the majority of Lebanon’s total wine exports.

Enthusiasm among local wine producers for promoting the industry is strong, however, and there are local and international marketing campaigns and even a number of wine-tour packages starting up through the Bekaa Valley. Most wineries are keenly aware of the enormous potential to be earned from the fledgling winetourism sector and believe that it will be a key driver in the subsequent growth of export markets.

It’s only when you drive around the region that you begin to see just how well suited it is for grape growing. The Bekaa Valley is really more of a high plain, suspended between two protective mountain ranges at a thousand metres above sea level. It offers sheltered slopes, rich brick-red soil and a climate to rival the Napa Valley. The air is soft and warm for nearly 250 days of the year, and the low summer rainfall means the grapes suffer little threat from disease. If not exactly organic, there is certainly minimal use of pesticides or herbicides.

Ksara is the oldest commercial producer of Lebanese wines, and one of the largest at around two million bottles a year. It is also one of the best known, featuring prominently on wine lists around the country and on the local wine-tour maps; it receives more than a million visitors every year. Housed in an old crusader castle, it’s a well-run operation, with a vast tasting room and an extensive network of underground cellars to explore. The cellars incorporate ancient caves that were discovered by the Romans and used by them to store wine, just as they’re still used today. Rania Chammas, Ksara’s charming PR executive, took us on a personalised tour of the cellars to see some of the million bottles stored there. The 80 per cent humidity and constant temperature of between 11 and 13°C create perfect cellaring conditions, and the natural mould that covers the bottles means that re-corking is rarely required.

We were fascinated to see the massive concrete storage tanks that are so different from the shiny stainless-steel ones used in most Australian wineries. Equally intriguing to us Australians were the grape varieties – names such as cinsault, carignan, obeideh and merwah were new to all of us.

If Ksara and its close rival Kefraya are the best-known winemakers domestically, supplying around 70 per cent of the market, it is Château Musar that has the edge as far as international competition goes. It was the first local wine to succeed internationally, and for many years the name Château Musar was virtually synonymous with Lebanese wine. It had its first success on the world’s wine stage at the Bristol Wine Fair in England in 1979, where it famously earned rave reviews and the Find of the Fair award with its 1967 vintage.

Château Musar was founded in 1930 by the legendary Gaston Hochar, with the objective of producing small volumes of outstanding wines for a small, sophisticated market that was already educated in the pleasures of the grape. He established his winery in an eighteenth-century castle at Ghazir, in the hills north of Beirut, and dug deep cellars to provide for long cellaring.

Today, Château Musar remains very much a family business, and is run by Gaston’s two sons: Serge, who supervises the winemaking, and Roland, who manages the business. We met one morning with another Gaston Hochar, grandson of the founder, who told us that Musar’s primary goal was to continue to grow its export volume. ‘The Lebanese don’t really have a palate for wine,’ he said a little sadly as he led us down to the vaulted underground cellar for a spot of tasting. ‘They just don’t have the habit of drinking wine with a meal, as is the European way.’ We sipped our way through a tight, fruity 2004 cinsault and then a more peppery, tannic 2004 carignan, trying to envisage the way each would develop and mature with age.

All Château Musar wines are created along traditional lines, specifically with ageing in mind. The whites are typically bottle-aged for around five years before being released, and each red variety is barrel-aged separately before being judiciously blended.

The hallmark wines are undoubtedly the powerful, complex reds that blend cabernet sauvignon, cinsault and carignan grapes. Hot-climate red wines generally age poorly, but Musar’s age exceptionally well, due to careful pressing, blending and ageing in those deep, cool cellars.

The current 2004 cabernet sauvignon vintage was, as anticipated, mouthpuckeringly dry and we asked Gaston about its potential life. ‘Oh,’ he said with a little shrug of his shoulders, ‘around forty years or more – if the cork holds.’

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