Growing Wine In The Bekaa Valley In The Age Of ISIS

When Lebanese winemaker Serge Hochar died last year in a swimming accident, Chateau Musar, the family-owned winery that he ran for most his adult life, was operating in a surprisingly stable environment. ISIS had not yet gained access to the Bekaa Valley, the winery’s location and Lebanon’s foremost wine-producing region. Hezbollah was indeed operating in the region, though had never attempted to tread on wine territory.

Chateau Musar is just one of many wineries in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Chateau Ksara, established in 1857, is the country’s oldest, but Lebanon has reportedly been documented as a wine-maker for over 5,000 years. Jesuit priests started wine production at Ksara during the Ottoman rule for use in Christian religious services; although perhaps the process was perfected later by the country’s French colonisers in the 1920s and 30s. For a country that has endured great civil strife and many foreign occupations, not to mention religious fundamentalism of all types, the Bekaa Valley’s wine is something Lebanon is deeply proud of, and is also of impressive quality.

Perhaps it’s a case of nationalist pride overriding religious ideology. Hezbollah has even joined efforts to help us fend off violent Islamist groups like ISIS.

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Ksara is located en-route from Beirut to the ancient Roman city of Baalbek, located in the heart of the Bekaa Valley, home to Hezbollah, the Islamist political party based in South Lebanon. It’s indeed surprising that Lebanon’s oldest official vineyard, a Christian-operated site, lies so close to a conservative Shia-Muslim stronghold.

Rannia Chamas, Chateau Ksara’s PR Manager, is aware of this contradiction. “We’ve never felt threatened, however,” she says, “by hostility in the neighborhood. On the contrary, there seems to be an allowance for wine-making. Perhaps it’s a case of nationalist pride overriding religious ideology. Hezbollah has even joined efforts to help us fend off violent Islamist groups like ISIS.

One of the winery’s chairmen, Zafer Chaoui, has goals of improving Ksara and enhancing its facilities. He is understandably proud of Ksara’s 150 years of uninterrupted wine production and its status as one of Lebanon’s oldest and most successful business. “One must not forget Chateau Ksara’s strong tradition,” he said when we spoke over the phone, “One that stretches back to 1857, when a determined group of Jesuit monks decided to make a wine like no other.”

Chateau Ksara In 1936
Chateau Ksara In 1936

When Chaoui was appointed Chairman in 1991, he pushed for better, modern French equipment and the expansion of the vineyards, which has resulted in production more than doubling in the past 20 years. Onsite tasting rooms, which can receive 70,000 visitors a year, were also part of the improvements that he introduced. In a country that is plagued with years of civil unrest and foreign involvement these are massive achievements. Chaoui states he took a gamble in planting grapes few believed would thrive: “But the Bekaa is kind to those who have faith and it’s through this faith, both in our wines and in Lebanon, that we seek to perpetuate and build on the legacy of our forebears.”

During the Ottoman’s Islamic rule Ksara was allowed to produce wine. The Ottomans often turned a blind eye towards alcohol-making such as arak in most of the Middle East. Arak, a type of liqueur made from anise seeds, is very similar to the Turkish raki. Since the fall of the Ottomans and, later, the French mandate, Lebanon has been witness to various factions of religious fighting. I asked Chaoui, who is a Christian, if he feared Islamic “terrorism” from groups such as Hezbollah who are opposed to the drinking of alcohol. I am worried about Islamic extremists, I am worried about Jewish extremists, I am worried about Christian extremists. All extremists are dangerous,” he stated diplomatically, “I don’t see why Hezbollah, who are conscious of the mosaic of communities that exist in Lebanon, why they would target wine production.”

The population of Lebanon is divided almost equally between Muslims and Christians, though on a sectarian level the demographics begin to fragment further. Of the Muslim population, there are roughly equal numbers of Sunni and Shia sects, while Maronites and Greek Orthodox dominate the Christian community. Other minorities, including Armenians, Druze and Syriacs, all form part of the social patchwork. Today, most Lebanese coexist in harmony, as they did for hundreds of years before the outbreak of civil war in 1975. Beirut is still often referred to as the “Paris of the East.” It’s the capital of a country that, regardless of religion and background, has produced Khalil Gibran, Mika, and the great singer Fairouz, among others.“This country is composed of a mosaic of communities who have different political interests,” says Chaoui.

The vines of Ksara were first mentioned in the journal of Brother Mold, a Jesuit priest, around 1857. Mold states that site was ideal not only because the Bekaa valley has the right climate and soil for vine production but also for the excess of water. More importantly, the monks found a network of ancient Roman caves dug into the rock which even today play a role in the success of the winery. The 1,800m network of caves maintain a constant temperature and humidity throughout the year, providing the perfect conditions for the aging and conservation of wine. More recently, the caves were used as shelter and storage during the civil war and the war with Israel.

The Caves At Chateau Ksara
The Caves At Chateau Ksara

While the monks were making the traditional sweet raisin-based wine, the French mandate (after the Ottoman collapse in 1918) encouraged the Ksara wine-makers to cater to French tastes. The French encouraged the creation of wine businesses rather than just self-consumption for religious purposes. After the defeat of the pro-Nazi Vichy regime and the independence of Lebanon in 1943, the wine business thrived and the locals adopted the French style of wine as an equal to the traditional Middle Eastern arak.

Despite the turmoil of civil war and multiple invasions, Lebanon’s wine tradition continues to thrive even today. Chateau Ksara provides a fascinating reminder of the richness of Lebanese culture and the diversity and tolerance of its society, one that extends even to wine.