Zahlé, Lebanon

Photo: Chateau Ksara
Photo: Chateau Ksara

Travel to the Middle East has come to an almost complete stop recently. Refugees continue to flee Syria. Iraq, Iran, and Yemen remain off-limits. While Saudi Arabia’s welcome mat was never really extended. But there’s a bright spot among all this chaos: Lebanon. It’s wine region is flourishing.

The Bekaa Valley, in eastern Lebanon, was first settled by the Romans and quickly turned into an important farming region. Everything from wheat and corn to potatoes and hashish flourish in the fertile soil. Due to wet, snowy winters and warm, dry summers, grapes do, as well. Particularly around Zahlé.

Zahlé is the largest city in the Bekaa Valley. Open-air cafés line the Berdawni River. Cherry, plum, and pomegranate orchards surround the city. Old churches—the city is filled with Lebanese Christians—offer panoramic views of the valley. While wine has been produced here for more than 6,000 years. At least a dozen wineries now offer tours and tastings.

The city’s oldest winery, Château Ksara, was founded by Jesuit monks in 1857. It was Lebanon’s first winery to produce dry wine. You arrive at the winery to find a stone tasting room and grapes that grow more than 1,000 meters above sea level. The tour winds through a maze of underground tunnels. There are more than two kilometers of them; some date back to the Roman Empire. After learning about the wine-making process and peeking at the active harvest in the vineyards, move to the tasting room to start sampling the wines.

Start with the Blanc De L’Observatoire, a light, fruity blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Muscat, and Clairette. The young, fresh wine would pair well with Lebanese mezze. Contrast that with a Chardonnay that was barreled in oak. This wine, grown at Château Ksara’s highest vineyard (1,400 meters), tastes florally and buttery. Return to a fresh wine with Gris de Gris, a salmon-colored rosé. Then move onto the reds. Le Souverain tastes like dark wild berries with a hint of licorice. Cuvée IIIème Millénaire, the flagship wine, is a balanced, structured blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Petit Verdot. Plus the classic, full-bodied Cabernet Sauvignon, with hints of blackcurrants and chocolate, has lots of aging potential. How many bottles would you like to take home?

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