The media promote only Hezbollah,” says my driver Nrem as he hurtles up Lebanon’s west coast, weaving with what seems like a death wish through vintage 1970s white Mercs and heavy trucks. “But there’s so much more.”
There certainly is – beaches, nightlife, ski resorts, luxury hotels and, perhaps least familiar to those who only know Lebanon from news reports, lots of vineyards. The country has 30 or more wineries, some well-known, such as Château Ksara with its Roman cellars spread through 2km of caves, others little-visited. Many of those clustered around the Batroun region and the Bekaa Valley are opening new restaurants and tasting rooms – making them all the more appealing for a tasting tour.
An hour out of Beirut, I arrive at Byblos, often referred to as the “oldest continuously inhabited town in the world” and a beautiful, albeit beachless, seaside resort at the start of the Batroun wine circuit. My plan is to stay in a converted shepherd’s cottage at the Coteaux de Botrys winery further up the coast, but bad news comes via a text message: “Botrys has just burnt down!” So, instead, I stay at the sumptuous new Byblos sur Mer, which has the remnants of a Roman ruin visible through a glass floor in its restaurant and lovely views across the port from which the Phoenicians first started exporting wine in 3,000 BC.
The next morning, after a short drive to the first winery of the day, Château Musar in Ghazir, breakfast is a 1974 vintage (the last before 15 years of bloodshed) poured by Serge Hochar, the owner and an international star of Lebanese winemaking. On days when the bombs were falling, the château-bound, sanguine Hochar would decant a whole bottle into one large glass in the morning and take a sip from it every hour to note the evolution in taste.
Just 80 visitors per month come to Musar for tastings and tours of the gothic cobweb-filled cellars, but treats await them. As we sip the 1974 wine, it’s clear that time has been more than kind to these Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Cinsault grapes. An aroma of blue cheese yields to sublime complexity and smoothness. I buy two bottles of the 2002 from the winery shop ($27 each) and vow to age them as long as I can muster the willpower to.
There are seven wineries in the Batroun area north of Byblos, ranging from the basic but charming Aurora, where you taste its black-peppery reds in a garage, to the mighty Musar. Last December, they set up coordinated signposts to their respective properties from the highway. It’s not quite Sideways (the 2004 film about a Californian wine tour) but it’s getting there and all the wineries welcome visitors.
Next, I visit Ixsir, which will be the most modern, flashy winery in the country when it opens fully in late spring with a café converted from a partially bombed-out 17th-century house. Later, at the 4th-century monastery of Saint Antoine in Ghazir, where the Adyar wines are produced by Maronite monks, oenologist Frederic Cacchia tells me that the cross on each bottle helps sales in the monastery shop “but has put off the Muslim customers”. I laugh. He doesn’t. It’s a huge market apparently.
I drive east to the Bekaa Valley for a late lunch in the restaurant at Château Kefraya with a bottle of Comte des M, the most popular “special occasion” big red wine in the country. Kefraya, blessed with gorgeous grounds, is expanding, with plans for a boutique hotel by 2013. It’s something that no one else – apart from the temporarily out-of-action Coteaux de Botrys – has done yet but Ixsir and Musar are looking at similar plans.
I wind down for the evening at the Grand Hotel Kadri, a five-star resort in Zahlé that’s a favourite wedding spot. The pool is drained for winter, so I have an aperitif by the fireplace before the inevitable mezze marathon in the dining room.
The next morning in Baalbek I look at the framed Cocteau sketches in the lobby of the Hotel Palmyra (the very definition of faded glamour), then tour incredible Roman ruins. Under vivid blue skies, I follow my fez-wearing guide around the Temple of Bacchus. These are ravishing, humbling structures but the only other person I encounter is a woman sitting on the steps, shrouded in a black chador.
We head south, for a night at the Massabki Hotel, a recently refurbished boutique hotel next to a pretty little river in the Bekaa Valley. On the next stretch of land sits Domaine des Tourelles, the most seductively ramshackle and atmospheric winery in the country. As the sun goes down I enjoy one of Tourelles’ customary al fresco tastings, sipping superlative Syrah du Liban and Marquis des Beys from a wine crate plonked under a tree. I buy some there and some more in duty-free on the way home.
The people are passionate about their terroir in Lebanon. The next day, after a tasting at Clos St Thomas, owner Natalie Thomas shows me the ancient chapel on the winery grounds. “We have weddings here,” she says. “And we have a lot of visitors who come to camp out here to help pick the grapes in the autumn. On the first morning of harvest, a priest rings a bell at dawn to bless the season and call everyone to the vines.”
Further down the road I visit Massaya, with the prettiest tasting room of them all – hippy-chic, with a vista across the vines to the wood-framed fondue restaurant that opens at weekends – and then head to Bhamdoun for a tasting at Château Belle-Vue. It produces just 15,000 bottles a year but the wine is available by the glass at the Ritz in London. It’s a fearless, community-oriented labour of love for owner Naji Boutros, who, in 2000, planted his first vines here on the site of his grandfather’s long destroyed Hotel Belle-Vue, when there were still stray cluster bombs in the grounds.
Two hair-raising hours on the road later and I’m back in Beirut, passing through the metal detector in the reception of Le Gray, a slick hotel that opened late in 2009 and last year won a prestigious Wine Spectator Award for “one of the most outstanding wine lists in the world” (the house red is a Clos St Thomas).
Throughout the city, there’s a buzz about Lebanese wines. In the souk I meet London-based, Algerian-born restaurateur Mourad Mazouz as he puts the finishing touches to a new branch of Momo. Though the clientele will be international, the wine list, he tells me, will be full of Lebanese stock, including a 2006 Syrah du Liban. Around the corner is Le Cave de Joël Robuchon, a new addition to the star chef’s empire. A red-and-black jewel box of a wine boutique, it sells burgundies and bordeaux, but also local brands such as Coteaux de Botrys, Ixsir and Domaine de Baal. ‘It would have been inconceivable for this to open up here without them,’ says manager Deenah Fakhoury.
I have lunch at a restaurant called Tawlet with its owner Kamal Mouzawak and Michael Karam, Lebanon’s most influential wine writer. We talk about our favourite wines over a bottle of Domaine des Tourelles rosé, the perfect lunchtime tipple. I like the big reds – Syrah du Liban and Comte de M – while Karam likes the medium-bodied fruity stuff, singling out Massaya for praise. Mouzawak would rather drink the spirit arak. He has, however, invited every winery in the country to stock two wines at Tawlet, making it a library of the Lebanese grape.
“The image of Lebanon is still guys with guns and beards,” says Karam. “But the wine producers are now starting to tell people that we’re a wine-producing country. And I think Lebanese wine could be the sexiest in the world.” But before that, he argues, the novelty of “vines on the frontline” will have to wear off. And yet the reality is that – for all the downtown designer shops – the situation is fragile, which for some travellers will continue to add a frisson that Napa could never offer. As Mouzawak says: “It’s easier to sell terrorism than tourism in the news, so people who come here are still adventurers.” For these incredible wines, it’s an adventure well worth having.
The writer travelled with Quintessentially Travel (www.quintessentiallytravel.com). It offers an eight-night wine tour from £1,025; BMI (www.flybmi.com) flies twice daily to Beirut from London, from £427 return.