Wines of the Bekaa
I wrote this last week after a trip to the Bekaa Valley. It originally appeared on the guardian blog. There are some pics to go with it but i'll have upload them later.
Message in a Bottle
Message in a Bottle
Though Israel bombed economic targets, including dairies, bottling plants and even a chewing gum factory, all over the valley in its war with the Iranian-backed Hizbullah guerrillas, Lebanon's award-winning vineyards were spared.
"Ksara never stopped harvesting during the worst years of the civil war, and we would not have stopped now even if the ceasefire was not in place," says Charles Ghostine, Ksara's managing director.
And how could he? Sales of Lebanese wine in Europe and further afield soared during the recent conflict.
"Buying a bottle of Lebanese wine felt like you were supporting us here," agrees Ramzi Ghosn, co-owner of the French-Lebanese winery Massaya. "People wanted to show their solidarity with the Lebanese cause. And how better to do that than to buy a few bottles? A bottle of wine in Lebanon has its own message, one of tolerance and communication between cultures."
The problem now is getting all the new orders shipped out while Israel still blockades the ports. Ghosn estimates that the war cost Massaya between $5,000 and $8,000 a day. That figure is mounting by the hour, he says, as long as his shipments remain stuck at port.
But Ghostine is more optimistic - as long as the peace holds. "We are considering sending out orders through Syria via the port of Latakia, even though it will cost $2,000 to $3,000 more per shipment. But we are the biggest winery in Lebanon and can handle such costs."
"We are blessed by God. It was a nightmare as we waited for the war to stop. Even now, most of our grape pickers who are Syrian have not returned, having fled the country, and we are using all the vineyard staff and local Bedouin to do the harvesting."
Lebanese wine production is tiny in international terms. Even Israel produces upwards of 11m bottles a year. But its market share abroad and growth in sales in increasing annually.
Ksara, which is also Lebanon's oldest vineyard, founded in 1857 by French Jesuit missionaries, produces 2m bottles of wine a year, of which half are for export, and had a turnover of $8.7m million in 2005. The young upstart Massaya makes 500,000 bottles a year, with 80% going abroad, and had a turnover of $1.8m (nearly £1m) last year. Between them, Lebanon's 12 winemakers produce between 6m and 8m bottles a year and export a total of 2.5m. If the harvest had not begun yesterday, the 2006 vintage might well have been lost.
Ksara aims to produce 2.7m bottles by the end of 2007, while the other elder statesmen of the Lebanese wine industry, Kefraya and Musar, are also increasing their number of vines and output.
The nation's winemakers grow their grapes in the magical Bekaa, an inland plain whose porous, fertile soil yielded native vines millennia before the Romans built a temple to Bacchus, god of wine and nature, 2,000 years ago at Baalbeck, the easternmost point of their empire. (The Bekaa is also, of course, a heartland of Hizbullah.)
Ksara introduced noble grapes to the region in the late 1970s, and all the vineyards concentrate on quality over quantity to increase their international exposure, operating under the rules of the Office International de la Vigne et du Vin.
Despite the ferocity of Israeli bombing throughout the Bekaa, the producers refused to give up on their vines. Over a simple lunch of local halloumi cheese, freshly baked bread and a fine bottle of rose at his Massaya property near Chtoura, in the central Bekaa, Ghosn explains why he would not leave the plantation even when his offices were severely damaged by the massive bombing of nearby factories.
"When I was boy, in 1975, my father took the family and left the country after we had been threatened by local militia at the start of the civil war," he says. "We didn't return until 1992. I could not leave again."