September 7, 2010

Lebanese wine - from the area that gave you Hizballah

Granted, not in keeping with my normal subject matter, but one of interest.

Lebanon (my photos) is a fascinating country, a country of contradictions in almost every aspect. It is the most western of the Arab countries with a vibrant Christian minority (almost 40 percent of the population), yet has some of the most conservative Muslims in the world, including Hizballah, a Shi'a political and militia organization listed as a terrorist group by the U.S. government. The country fought a 15 year civil war based on its confessional differences.

The conflict between Western and Islamic values exists not only in Beirut but in the Bekaa (wadi al-biqa') Valley as well. When most people think of the Bekaa Valley, they think Ba'alabak and Hizballah, Iranian influence, previous Syrian military interventions, etc. Yet the Bekaa Valley is home to some of Lebanon's greatest archaeological treasures and - surprising to some - a burgeoning wine industry.

In the city of Ba'alabakk is a Roman temple to Bacchus, the god of wine. The city hosts one of the region's most famous festivals every year, yet is a stronghold of Hizballah and conservative Islam. Wine originated in the Middle East, possibly in the area now Iran - Noah was said to have been a wine maker. Wine is produced today in many countries of the Middle East - Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Egypt, Syria and Jordan all have wine industries.

A general rule of thumb - wherever the French were or wherever there are significant Christian populations, there is a wine making operation. There is a growing wine industry in Israel as well, although most of the vineyards tend to be in areas seized by Israeli forces in 1967 - the West Bank of the Jordan River (then administered by Jordan) and the Syrian Golan Heights.

I have tasted wines from all these countries - part of my professional education as a Middle East specialist. North African (Moroccan, Algerian and Tunisian) wines tend to be rough and a bit bitter. Egyptian wines to me have a uniquely Greek character (probably due to the large number of Greeks residing in the Nile delta near Jiyanklis where the grapes are grown), but with a chemical taste. Syrian wine, mostly from the As-Suwayda' area in the south, is not much better.

Jordanian wine, when it was from the West Bank, was not bad - now those vineyards are in Israeli hands. I remember being in Jerusalem in the early 1980's and offered "wine from the Holy Land." That was a polite way of saying Israeli-made wine from occupied Jordanian territory.

Lebanon has proved to be the exception among the Arab countries producing wine - it is actually quite good. Although there are now 30 wineries in Lebanon, there are five major companies, but by far the largest and best known is Ksara.

Ksara has been in business since 1857 - it's wines are available throughout the Middle East and in some European countries. When I was the air attaché at the American embassy in Syria, we often drank Ksara at local restaurants. You had to be careful, though - there is a great difference between the vintages. One year will be great, another not so. After a while, we compiled a list of which years to look or and which years to avoid. Ksara Reserve was consistently good.

All that said, I am amazed that there still is a vibrant wine industry in the Bekaa Valley. The area is ideal for growing grapes - the Valley sits at almost 3,000 feet above sea level, has a chalky soil, long hot summers and adequate rainfall. However, what surprises me is the unlikely coexistence between the Christian vintners who produce alcohol and the ultra-conservative Shi'a in this Hizballah stronghold. They're just a few miles apart geographically, but much further apart in outlook.

Like I said, it is a country of contradictions.