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Winemaking in the Middle East: Lebanon

In an region where Islam prevails, winemaking can be a failing trade. It's well-known that Muslims are prohibited from drinking, serving, selling and buying alcohol. Some Arab societies frown upon alcohol consumption and look down on those who enjoy a glass of wine or a bottle of beer.

Lebanon is however an exception to the rule.

When you arrive in Beirut, you can't help noticing the billboards around advertising different brands of beer, wine, whiskey and other alcoholic beverages with different and subtle sexual references. This is fairly unusual in the Arab world where most countries–including Egypt, Syria, and the Gulf region–forbid alcohol advertising in general, and some even criminalize alcohol trade as a whole.

Due to the civil wars and financial woes that have broken the heart of the capital, Lebanese society is looking for an escape in the form of fun times. Wine, beer and other alcoholic cocktails are readiy available around the city and in most cafes and shops. “This historical record reminds us why Ch√Ęteau Ksara’s 150 years of uninterrupted wine production in times of violent change and upheaval is such a remarkable achievement,” says Zafer Chaoui, the chairman of Ksara beverages.

Ksara's different brands of wine are seen as a regular and favorite drink on the semi-private beaches all across town and in the Jemaizeh district, Beirut's main bar scene. This local Lebanese wine brand is a favorite for locals and visitors alike.

Mesmerized by the chic advertisements and billboards covering the city, this reporter went through the beautiful mountains of Lebanon for an hour-and-a-half's trip away from the capital to visit the main Skara winery for a wine-tasting event.

Located in the Bekaa valley, the Ksara estate is a beautiful old castle built above a cave system that was discovered back in the 18th century. Twenty hectares of vineyards surround the beautiful French-designed castle where the workers take care of noble varietals such as Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Grenache and Cabernet-Sauignon. The underground section is filled with wooden oak vats used to store the wine for years to come.

The free daily wine tasting event takes place between 9 AM and 6 PM all week long. The tour starts with a video screening of the stages of winemaking in Ksara–starting with a trip back to 1857 when, according to the tour guide, a group of German people wanted to build a monastery. “They didn’t know that there was a cave system underneath,” the tour guide Salma Otthman says. “A fox hunt ended up finding the cave system, which has the perfect environment for wine storage.”

The enterprise grew bigger and the place has seen developments in both the techniques used to make the wine and the quality of the vineyards. “The wines of Ksara have a specific character,” says Otthman, while escorting us through the dark alleys of the cave system, “[they have a] rare balance of dry fruitiness, of delicacy and coarseness, and of freshness and vigor.”

You enter the cool caves leaving the hot weather outside, and you start to grasp why these caves are perfect for wine storage. The hot, humid weather of Lebanon prevented previous efforts to start wineries around the country, but after the discovery of these caves, storing the wine in a cold area was no longer a problem. “We managed to plant the finest French vines where no one thought we could,” says Chaoui. “These caves provided an ideal place for wine storage.”

As you walk around taking photos and staring at the old, dusty wine bottles behind locks, the tour guide points out that “some of these bottles have been kept here since the 1930s.” One might think this would be a good thing but, in the words of Chaoui, “they are merely vinegar now.”

“If [the wine] is of a medium quality, we age it in the vats for six months,” says Otthman, pointing to the oak vats. "They can age it in bottles for ten years, but if it’s of a high quality, it can stay in the barrels for one to two years, then we age it in bottles for from 25 to 30 years.”

In general, the quality of wine in Lebanon has not changed a lot, due to the stability of the climate in the region.

The oak vats used to store the wine can’t be used more than once, as their oak wood no longer gives the wine its dry taste after a number of years. “We sell the oak vats for home decorations after using them,” Otthman says, pointing to one of the beautiful vats. “People buy them and use them to create home furniture.” One person jokes, “Do they sell them with the wine inside?” and we all laugh at the idea of having your own wine-filled vat at home.

Ksara owns about 300 oak barrels for wine storage. Each can contain 225 liters of wine and fill 300 bottles. Each year about three million bottles of wine are produced in Ksara–50 percent for local distribution and the other 50 percent are exported to neighboring countries.

And the punch? “We sell wine in Turkey, Syria and the Gulf area,” says Otthman.

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