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May 30, 2017

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Journey to one of the world's oldest wine regions

Lebanon is one of the world's oldest wine regions. Grapes were grown in the Biblical land of Canaan on the slopes of Mount Lebanon at least 3,000 years BCE. The Phoenicians were possibly the first to export wine, by ship to Egypt.

In the last quarter of the first century BCE the Romans built a temple to Bacchus, their god of wine, in Baalbeck in the Bekaa valley. This valley has been the historic site of grape growing and most of the best-known estates are based or grow grapes there.

Currently the wine industry in Lebanon is booming. The country has about 2,000 hectares under vine involving about 25 different international and local grape varieties. The number of wineries rose from five at the end of the 1975-1990 civil war to about 40 today.

Local winemakers are moving away from international grape varieties and French-centric styles to make wines with indigenous grapes such as obeideh and marweh. An organization known as the Wine Mosaic is working to preserve indigenous grapes in the Mediterranean region.

I visited three vineyards in April. The first was Chateau Kefraya in the Bekaa valley at an average of 965 meters elevation. Fabrice Guiberzeau, originally from Cognac via Morocco, is the immensely talented winemaker. He said the wide diurnal range — the gap between the day's highest and lowest temperatures — was the secret of growing grapes there.

The terroir varies from limestone to sand to rocks, with lots of iron. Grapes are not irrigated. The winery was established in 1978 with the first vintage in 1979. Only estate grapes are used. The site has 430 hectares, with 300 under vines.

Guiberzeau spends a lot of time in the vineyard: "You must live in the vineyard to make great wine. The key is great fruit."

A feature of the vineyard is the hypogea — Roman tombs discovered when vines were first planted. The site is very rocky and dynamite was used to break up the rocks. They founders discovered Kefraya was built on the site of a Roman village with a large number of tombs.

Guiberzeau offered a range of barrel samples. A highlight was a 2012 carmenere with 20 percent syrah that was quite magnificent, redolent of dark fruits and spices.

Guiberzeau also made a 2012 cabernet sauvignon matured separately in French and American oak. Despite the fact it was the same vintage and the same grape and winemaking process, they seemed like different wines.

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