For decades it has been a strong hold for militant group Hezbollah. Now the revival of an ancient industry brings optimism back to Lebanon’s war torn Bekaa Valley.

Centuries before it became known for its cannabis crops and as the base of the notorious militant group Hezbollah, the Bekaa Valley produced wine. Historians estimate wine production began here about 5000 years ago, in this basin nestled between the craggy limestone mountains that form the north-eastern extension of the Great Rift Valley in eastern Lebanon.

Ancient references to wine abound; the first winemaker according to the Bible, Noah, is reportedly buried in Zahle, one of the main administrative towns in the valley. The best-preserved temple in the Roman-era ruins of Baalbek, in the northern reaches of the Bekaa Valley, was dedicated to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine. And nearby in Cana is the site where Christ reportedly turned water into wine.

Lushly fertile and strategically located midway between Damascus and Beirut, the Bekaa Valley’s wine industry has long been at the mercy of feuds and warring armies. Production dwindled to a trickle during Lebanon’s civil war between 1975 and 1990, when grapes were neglected in favour of the more lucrative war-time crops of cannabis and opium.

But the Bekaa Valley’s wine industry has been revived. More than 30 vineyards have opened since the mid 1990s, after the Syrian army – prodded by the US government – destroyed most of the valley’s illicit crops.

“Lebanese wine is in a renaissance,” says Ramzi Ghosn, the wiry vintner at Massaya, one of the Bekaa Valley’s new boutique wineries. “Wine culture here is very strong, much stronger than the events of the last few decades. It’s the call of the land.”

Blessed with cold winters and long, hot summers, the Bekaa Valley’s topography makes it ideal for producing wine with high sugar and high alcohol content. In fact, other than general maintenance, most winemakers hardly touch their vines until harvest.

“The Bekaa Valley is a very easy place to grow wine in,” Ghosn says. “Here, we don’t worry about the weather conditions; instead, we get to worry about political incidents.” The 2006 crop, for example, was saved only because a military conflict with Israel ended just two days before harvest was due to begin.

I’m sitting in Ghosn’s homely straw-bale kitchen, a clutter of jars brimming with black olives and pickles, bowls of cumquats and raw almonds, bottles of nuts and oil. Wearing a “Make wine not war” T-shirt, Ghosn is roasting potato crisps with rock salt and rosemary for us to nibble on while we taste a few bottles of wine from last year’s harvest. The first, a classic blanc 2009, is a zesty white made with obeidi grapes, one of 22 varietals native to the Bekaa Valley. But it’s the herby rosé I fall for: dry, refreshing and blushing pink, it seems perfectly suited for long afternoons lazing in the Lebanese sun.

Ghosn and Sami, his brother and business partner, fled to Europe and the US during Lebanon’s 15-year civil war and returned in the early ’90s to revive their family estate.

It took a few years to evict the squatters who had set up camp on the property. Then, in 1995, their first bottle of booze hit the market: an aniseed-flavoured arak that is also made from obeidi grapes. They teamed up with some high-profile French advisers, including Frederic and Daniel Brunier from Domaine du Vieux Telegraphe, and the brothers turned their focus to making wine. The Ghosn brothers’ winery, Massaya, now supplies 300,000 bottles a year to 22 countries and establishments including the Ritz and Four Seasons George V hotels in Paris.

The brothers are now ramping up efforts to attract tourists. They opened a cafe recently called Le Relais, tucked in a leafy, lavender-studded corner of the vineyard, with wooden tables clustered around a rammed-earth kitchen. When I visit, the popular cafe is packed with people feasting on bottles of rosé, roasted quail legs dusted in tangy zaatar and other long-forgotten Levantine dishes prepared by local farmers.

Tourism facilities in the Bekaa Valley are limited at the moment and most travellers take a day trip from Beirut, an hour’s drive away. Tourists are frequently overcharged and there are few lodgings worth recommending. My room at the Hotel Grand Kadri, known as one of the best lodges in the region, is comfortable enough but several promised amenities, including free internet and access to the health club, are reneged on at check-in.

But the vignerons of the Bekaa Valley are working to transform the region as a destination for wine tourism. The Ghosns are planning to open a hotel in their vineyard soon and the Syrian-Lebanese group, Saade, is investing in several wineries.

Chateau Kefraya is opening a museum documenting the region’s rich winemaking history, the first of its kind in the Arabic world. Surrounded by sweeping fields of vines and sugar-cube villages nestled beneath rocky mountains, Chateau Kefraya has one of the most popular vineyard restaurants and cellar doors in the Bekaa, attracting about 35,000 guests a year.

Established in 1987 by French-Lebanese farmer Michel de Bustros, who admits to knowing “little about wine-making or viticulture” at the time, this 122-hectare winery is one of the biggest in Lebanon, producing more than 2 million bottles a year. It wasn’t an auspicious beginning; mid-civil war, shortly after opening, Kefraya’s French consultant winemaker was arrested and deported by the Israeli military.

“When we first started, people were in love with arak,” de Bustros tells me in his grand French-style chateau, set in the heart of the vineyard. “Then slowly they began to fall in love with wine. Hopefully this enthusiasm marks the beginning of a new era for Lebanese wine.”

Like most wines in Lebanon, all of Chateau Kefraya’s are blended. De Butros claims that only a melange of two or more grape varieties can be classified as art. “Blending wine is like a painting,” says Chateau Kefraya’s vintner, Fabrice Guiberteau. ”We have to fuse colour, expression and emotion.” A French national, Guiberteau arrived five days after the last scuffle with Israel ended.

Led by Guiberteau, we make our way into the cellars where last year’s vintage fills stainless-steel barrels. Our first stop is at a shiraz blend brimming with blackberry aromas. Next up is the smooth, spicy Comte de M, Chateau Kefraya’s most prized drop; it’s drinkable but lingering tannins need time to mellow.

At Chateau Kefraya’s spacious cellar door we try a playful blanc de blanc, a blend of sauvignon blanc, viognier, chardonnay and claret. Next is the delicately scented “prestige” white, Vissi d’Arte. Once again, it’s the salmon-pink Myst 2008 rosé that steals the show.

The biggest drawcard in the Bekaa Valley has always been the beguiling ruins of Baalbek. Known as Heliopolis, or Sun City, this was the biggest temple complex in the entire Roman Empire. It was never finished but what was built still remains: gargantuan Corinthian columns, roaring stone lions and the awe-inspiring temple of Bacchus bearing elaborate friezes of maidens carrying baskets full of grapes.

These days Baalbek is a stronghold of the radical Islamic group Hezbollah. Portraits of the leader, Hassan Nasrallah, line the streets and hawkers flog Hezbollah T-shirts for $US3 ($3.27).

In this political climate, it’s unclear if wine tourism will take off as the region’s vignerons hope. Winemaking, however, is here to stay. “We have been making wine here for thousands of years,” Ghosn tells me confidently. “A few bombs aren’t going to change this. Wine is our culture. It’s our way of life.”

Fast Facts

Massaya’s cellar door is open daily: Monday-Saturday, 8am-5.30pm and Sunday, 10am-5.30pm in summer; reduced hours in winter. Le Relais restaurant at Massaya has a daily buffet of local organic fare for $US37 ($40), including wine and arak.
Massaya, Tanail Village, Chtaura; phone +961 3 735795; www.massaya.com

Chateau Kefraya has wine tastings and Le Relais Dionysos Restaurant serves French and Levantine cuisine daily. Bookings essential.
Kefraya Village; +961 8 645333; www.chateaukefraya.com

This article appeared in the August 14, 2010 edition of the Sydney Morning Herald and Age newspaper’s Traveller.