Bekaa Valley wine tourism: A weekend of fun

The vineyards of Chateau Kefraya in the Western Bekaa Valley

Lebanon’s wine country – essentially the Bekaa Valley for the time being at least – offers the perfect peg upon which to hang an ideal day trip. Even the loner can just get in the car and head off over the mountain pass at Dahr el Baidar, drive down to Chtaura and be faced with over half of dozen possibilities for scenic beauty, delicious food, better wine and even a bit of historic trivia.

Located on the main road just past the Massabki Hotel, is Domaine Des Tourelles, one of Lebanon’s oldest wineries and one of its best-kept wine secrets. Founded by a French engineer, Eugene Francois Brun in 1868 it was run by his grandson Pierre Brun until his death in 2000. The winery is now owned by the Issa and Issa-Khoury families and produces 5 wines, liqueurs and the famous Brun arak. A phone call to Christiane Issa, giving at least 24 hours notice, should guarantee a tour of one of the oldest wineries in the Bekaa (with many of the original features that date back to the turn of the century) culminating with a wine tasting in the winery’s garden.

What to look out for: Marquis des Beys, a medium bodied red made from

Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. It has a developed smoky aroma of cloves. Smooth texture with restrained tannins that have nicely integrated with the fruits.

Domaine des Tourelles: 08-540114

Take the turn-off to Zahleh and at the first big roundabout you will see Lebanon’s oldest wine producer Chateau Ksara, which has been making wine since 1857, when the forward thinking Jesuit brothers decided to use French vines to make their wines. Sold in 1973 to the current owners, the winery is a rich source of Bekaa history. It is home to the first observatory in the Middle East (set up nearly 100 years ago) and has 2 km of Roman passages, discovered at the turn of the century and which are now used as the winery’s cellars. There is a tasting room and a gift shop as well as a sound and light show in various languages for those interested in the Ksara’s rich history.

What to look out for: Reserve de Couvent, a medium bodied wine made from Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc. On the nose there are menthol and peppers Black fruits in the mouth underpinned with savory tannins balanced with good length.

Chateau Ksara: 08-813495/818254

The Temple of Jupiter at Baalbek is a must see

Further up the road in Zahleh is Domaine Wardy, another new generation producer of no less than 11 different wines. It is owned by the Wardy family of Ghantous Abou Raad arak fame. The very elegant tasting room is already in place, but 24 hours notice is required for wine lovers who want to sample the winery’s extensive labels.

What to look out for: Private Selection, a full-bodied red made from Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. It has a smoky nose. Balanced in the mouth with a fruity finish with well-integrated soft and velvety tannins giving it good aging potential.

Domaine Wardy: 08-930141

Down the road from Chtaura, just past the Jesuit monastery of Tanail (the original makers of Chateau Ksara) are signposts for the Tanail Property, home to Massaya the Franco-Lebanese winery that arguably the spearhead of the 90s wine revolution in Lebanon. Today, Massaya is still one of Lebanon’s most hi-profile labels and this is part is down to the success the owners have achieved in coaxing people to dine at their beautiful winery. Run by the charismatic Ghosn brothers, Ramzi and Sami, Massaya offers country-style lunches made from Bekaa produce and prepared by people from the area. The lunches are served all year round (indoors in winter around a huge roaring fire and in the gardens in spring, summer and autumn).  Bookings required during the summer and holiday periods.

What to look out for: Silver Selection, a medium bodied wine made from Grenache Noir, Cinsault, Cabernet Sauvignon and Mourvèdre. It is ever so peppery on the nose with a second wave of floral notes. The texture is supple and the tannins well integrated. The finish is peppery but underpinned with fruit.

Massaya: 08-510135

The winter oven in the restaurant at the Massaya winery

Western Bekaa

To hit the Western Bekaa, home to four of Lebanon’s wineries, turn right at the entrance of Chtaura at the signpost for Mashghara. Chateau St Thomas, located at the far end of Qab Elias, is owned by one branch of the famous arak-making Touma family. Either Said Joe, Nathalie or Micheline Touma will be on hand to let you sample their six wines, which have made impression on the international scene. During harvest time friends of the winery are invited to camp out and wake early to help pick the grapes with the bedou. Other events are also held during the summer. Phone for details.

What to look out for: Les Gourmets, a red wine made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache and Cinsault. The fruit is complex and thoughtful while the finish is balanced and integrated.

Chateau St Thomas: 08-500812

Just before Clos St Thomas is the Heritage winery. While it doesn’t yet have a formal tasting room, a prior phone call to the charismatic owner, Dr Dargham Touma (or Dr D as his label proclaims) should ensure a tasting.

What to look out for: Fleuron, a light and fruity red made from Cinsault, Mourvedre, Carignan, Tempranillo, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache. The result is a fruity sun-kissed and earthy red with bags of flavor.

Heritage: 08-500609

After that, take a leisurely drive past the beautiful swamps at Amiq and the billowing silver birch that line the crop fields down to Cave Kouroum. This winery is not as well known as others in Lebanon but its staff will always give a warm welcome.

What to look out for: 7 Cepages. As the name suggests a blend of Syrah, Cinsault, Grenache, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Pinot Noir. The nose is fruity with peppery undertones. Structured with depth and complexity. Hard to find wine that is worth a try because of the interesting blend.

Cave Kouroum de Kefraya: 05- 953401

Across the road is Chateau Kefraya, one of Lebanon’s most celebrated and prestigious producers. The winery has beautiful gardens named after operas and a very popular restaurant and tasting room. If you choose to dine, the wines are sold at retail price so you wont break the bank if you choose a bottle of the famous Comte de M. After lunch why not take a drive further south and enjoy Kefraya’s 300 hectares of landscaped vineyards, and head down to Lake Qaroun for a sunset stroll around the shore. Bookings required during the summer and holiday periods.

What to look out for:  Comte de M, a full-bodied red made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. One Lebanon’s most famous wines, it has black peppers and thyme on the nose. Elegant structure and a smooth finish and a nice balance between the tannins and the fruit that will ensure that this landmark wine will age very nicely.

Chateau Kefraya 08-645333

Other wineries to visit in the area include Château Ka (08- 543500), where I recommend the Fleur de Ka; Coteaux du Liban (08-930700), which has a great Syrah and Château Khoury (03-075422) which has a Cuvee St Therese, a sumptuous Pinot Noir/Caladoc blend.

The Bekaa wonderland

What next? Well the beauty of the Bekaa is that there is always something else to do when the wine has been drunk. For fans of antiquity, there are the ruins in Baalbek and Anjar. In Kerak, near Zahleh, there is the supposed tomb of Noah and in Qab Elias there is the huge Roman mural carved into the cliff celebrating the valley’s fertility.

The Lebanese are starting to take an interest in their burgeoning wine industry

If its shopping you like, do it Bekaa style. If you have a fold down trunk, the Bekaa is the best place to buy plants for decorate your home, balcony or gardens at less than half the price of Beirut, while the monks at Tanail still make and sell fresh produce. Or why not simply just drive down the Western Bekaa and turn off towards the anti Lebanon mountains, park the car and talk a walk amid the silence in this natural wonderland. The Bekaa is a bug waiting to be caught.

 

PS If you head south you will hit Jezzine, Home to the Karam Winery (no relation to the author) South Lebanon’s only producer.

Vines at the Karam Winery at Jezzine in South Lebanon

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