New Wine in Old Bottles

Lebanon seeks to get back on the wine map amid economic crises

Workers pick grapes in the northern mountains of Lebanon. Lebanese winemakers are trying to get the country—where wine and winemaking have historical roots—back on the wine map even as the currency has lost a staggering 98 percent of its value. COURTESY JENNY GUSTAFSSON
31 March, 2023

“This is when it all happens. The harvest time is our playground,” Eddie Chami said, surrounded by vines, as he stood on a mountain slope in Bousit village, wearing a T-shirt and a khaki hat. It was early morning, the best time to harvest fragile grapes. Further ahead, a group of men and women were carefully cutting fruits from vines. “We won’t take these,” Chami pointed to a few low-hanging grapes. “We always leave the small ones for the birds.”

Similar scenes play out across Lebanon each fall. It is a small country but has one of the longest-standing wine-making traditions in the world. The Bible describes it as a place of fragrant wines. And it was here, as is traditionally believed, that Jesus turned water into wine. But with a dwindling economy, despite their rich culture of making wine, natural winemakers in Lebanon face the challenge of existing perceptions surrounding the country; one does not think of wine when they hear its name. The country has, it seems, been consonant with political upheaval and disruption, the last in line being the explosion at the Port of Beirut in the capital city.

“Lebanon is the first place where wine was traded, when the Phoenicians had trading posts in the whole Mediterranean,” Michael Karam, a wine expert, told me. “The French were not even in the game then.” After first emerging in the nearby Caucasus around 6000 BCE, viniculture took root in Lebanon. Its fertile Bekaa Valley possesses a unique micro-climate perfect for growing grapes: warm and dry summers, rainy winters and high altitudes. “We never have to intervene a lot in our wines, nature does everything for us here,” Farah Berrou, a podcaster on wine based in Beiruit, said.

In a corner of the Bekaa Valley—not far from the ruins of a spectacular temple the Romans once built for their wine god, Bacchus—is Couvent Rouge, the winery where Chami is a partner. Surrounding it are vast fields with vines planted in neat rows. “Some fifteen years ago, all of this was cannabis,” Chami said, as we drove past the winery in his pickup truck. During the civil war of 1975–1990, Lebanon emerged as one of the main producers of hashish in the world. Much of that production has continued until today. “It gives you a quick profit so many are tempted, especially since the government gives zero support to farmers,” Chami said. “We are trying to introduce wine as an alternative.”

Jenny Gustafsson is a journalist and writer based in Beirut. She is the co-founder of “Switch Perspective,” a storytelling workshop and training project for journalists and civil society, and Mashallah News, a collaborative online platform on society and culture in the Middle East.