One of the things that consistently astounds me when it comes to the world of wine is how many vines have been cultivated to grow in areas that seem uninhabitable for vinifera grape varietals. The truth is there are many areas of the world that have been cultivating grapes and producing wine for thousands of years, including wines that rarely make an appearance in our local markets.
One such area is the Beqaa Valley (sometimes translated as Bekaa) in Lebanon. The valley, which sits in a north-to-south strip between the Mount Lebanon and Anti-Lebanon mountain ranges, is fertile and moderated, making it perfect for producing wine grapes. East of Beirut and northwest of Damascus, the Beqaa Valley has been home to grape growing for thousands of years, by the Phoenicians traveling throughout the Mediterranean, through Roman occupation, and many political conflicts affecting the country.
The area, which would be traditionally quite warm, is moderated by mountain ranges that act as a shield from harsh summers. The mountains produce breezes and limit rainfall, which helps cool and dry the vineyards to create ideal temperatures for ripening and growing. One vineyard that calls the Beqaa Valley home is the Hochar (pronounced: hō-shawr) family, which settled in the region in the 12th century and later founded the Chateau Musar vineyard.
In the 1930s, family member Gaston Hochar returned from a trip to Bordeaux, France, and immediately began work planting Bordeaux’s famous Cabernet Sauvignon grapes throughout their land, and many of these grapes are still in production today. As the winery began to grow, the Musar style of wine began to take shape with Bordeaux inspirations. With the addition of other French varietals including Grenache, Cinsault and Viognier from the Rhone Valley, as well as Chardonnay plantings, the Chateau Musar vineyards produce several different French-style wines, both red and white. The vineyard also employs organic practices and began doing so before the term was commonplace in mainstream wine conversations.
One of these wines, and one of my cellar favorites, is the Chateau Musar red blend (retails: $55-$60). A blend of noble Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault and Carignan, the grapes are grown from the nearby Hochar vineyard sites in villages of Aana and Kefraya. The thriving vines are grown in the region’s gravelly soils over limestone sub-terrain that carries many similarities to the successful wine regions of France. The wine has been produced since the 1930s and continued to be perfected each vintage ever since. The resulting blend combines the dark fruit qualities from Cabernet with the aromatics that are so common with the Rhone varietals to create a wine that the vineyard describes as “distinctly Lebanese.” As you taste this wine you pick up on flavors of dark plum, cherry, and fig. These are then balanced with floral flavors of purple flower and a peppery spiciness on the finish. Fermented in cement vats, the wines are then transferred to French Oak barrels for 12 months, which adds a layer of spice notes to the wine. Once bottled, the wine remains underground in stone cellars for four years before they are ultimately released seven years after harvest.
When I look to pair these wines from the Beqaa Valley, it’s important to note that while the vineyard sites are close to the Mediterranean, the mountain ranges that protect the valley create a more continental climate than its coastal regions. This produces riper grapes, which ultimately extend to a wine that has qualities of dark baked fruits and bold tannin structure. While these tannins begin to soften as the wine ages, it is important to avoid any food pairings that may be overpowered by the wine. Instead, I recommend pairing with bolder cuts of meat such as rack of lamb, game meats such as elk or venison, or fattier cuts of meat like pot roasts with which the tannins can bind. The fruity qualities in the wine pair nicely with any sweeter components in your meal, such as the use of any chutneys or black fruit reductions, and the spicy peppery qualities can be a lovely addition to the char and sear of the grill.
The Beqaa Valley may be far removed from the regular travel itinerary for many, but I find the wines offer a unique take on classical French Bordeaux and Rhone varietals. Through its wines, we can celebrate a region founded on thousands of years of heritage and experience a slice of what the region has to offer. While it can be difficult to find vintages of Chateau Musar, it is not impossible, so be sure to keep an eye out while shopping in larger cities and ask your local retailer about stocking this exciting cellar favorite.