Sideways in Lebanon (Financial Times Weekend)

On the first floor of the freshly minted Beirut souks, surrounded by fine joaillerie merchants and LVMH subsidiaries, the Algerian London-based restaurateur Mourad Mazouz is putting the finishing touches to a new branch of Momo. ‘If Yves Saint Laurent was still alive, I imagine he’d create something like this,’ he says. The walls are hand painted with oriental frescoes of songbirds and grape vines, the cuisine will be Moroccan and the clientele international. I flick through the wine list, full of Lebanese stock, including the 2006 Syrah du Liban. ‘What a wine!’ says Mourad. ‘Big, full and rich.’ Around the corner, Le Cave de Joël Robuchon is a new addition to the world’s most Michelin-starred chef’s empire. A red and black jewel box of a wine boutique, it sells Burgundies and Bordeaux, but also local brands Coteaux de Botrys, IXSIR and Domaine de Baal. ‘It would have been inconceivable for this to open up here without them,’ says manager Deenah Fakhoury.

Serge and Gaston Hochar, Chateau Musar

Robust, revelatory red wines certainly aren’t the first, second or third thing that the rest of the world thinks of, when it thinks of Lebanon. ‘The media promotes Hezbollah,’ says my driver, Nrem, as we hurtle up Lebanon’s west coast, weaving through vintage 1970s white Mercs and truckers with a death wish. ‘There’s so much more. It’s beautiful here.’

Truth be told, it’s not really: it’s rugged, more Burt Lancaster than Brad Pitt. Last night I stayed at the new, super-slick, gleaming-spired Four Seasons – where the sommelier recommended a wonderful cherry-heavy Chateau Marsyas – but overall, the rebuilding after the civil war hasn’t allowed for much in the way of aesthetic delicacy. But it has its moments, and many of them are on the grounds of its 30 wineries. Chateau Ksara – with wine cellars spread through 2km of Roman caves – is already Lebanon’s fifth-biggest tourist attraction. New restaurants and tasting rooms are appearing across Batroun and the Bekaa Valley. And the wines are revelatory: big reds, generating the kind of smart dinner party cult that Marlborough did with its Sauvignon Blancs a decade ago.

An hour out of Beirut, I arrive at Byblos, the oft quoted ‘oldest continuously inhabited town in the world’ and a beautiful, albeit beachless, cobbled seaside resort at the start of the Batroun wine circuit. My plan is to stop at Byblos’ de-facto best restaurant Bab El-Mina – with Phoenician caves in the back – for some mezze and grilled fish, and then to stay in a converted shepherd’s cottage at the Coteaux de Botrys winery, further up the coast. The bad news comes via SMS: ‘Botrys has just burnt down!’ I do a U-turn from rustic towards the brand spanking Byblos Sur Mer. Other rural hotels in Lebanon may have an unintentionally hip late-70s porn idea of luxe, but Sur Mer is contemporary-sumptuous, with remnants of a roman ruin visible through a glass floor in its restaurant, and lovely views across the port, where the Phoenicians first started exporting wine in 3000BC.

After a short drive from Byblos to the first winery of the day, breakfast the next morning is a 1974 Chateau Musar – the last vintage before 15 years of bloodshed – poured by Mr Musar himself, Serge Hochar, the international star of Lebanese wine making. On days when the bombs were falling, the Chateau-bound, sanguine Serge would decant a whole bottle into one large glass in the morning and take a sip from it every hour to note the evolution in taste. If life gives you lemons… make fine wines. Just 80 visitors per month come to Musar in Ghazir, for tastings and tours of the gothic cobweb-filled cellars, and fewer still get to try the 1974. Time has been more than kind to these Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Cinsault grapes. An aroma of blue cheese yields to sublime complexity and smoothness. It’s some kind of wonderful. ‘This has no wrinkles – it’s ageless!’ says Serge. I buy two bottles of the 2002 from the winery shop for $27 each and vow to age them as long as I can muster the willpower to.

There are seven wineries in the Batroun area north of Byblos, ranging from the barely-boutique but very charming set up of Aurora – where you taste their black-peppery reds in a garage – to the mighty Musar. In December they got their act together to have coordinated signposts to their respective properties from the highway. It’s not quite Sideways, but it’s getting there, and they all welcome visitors.

I visit the building site at IXSIR which, when it opens in late spring, will be the most modern, flashy winery in the country, with a café converted from a partially bombed-out 17th century maison. At the 4th century monastery of Saint Antoine in Ghazir, where the Adyar wines are produced by Maronite monks with a distinctly low-profile, oenologist Frederic Cacchia tells me that the cross on each bottle is a romantic draw for many, and helps sales in the monastery shop ‘but has put off the Muslim customers.’ I laugh. He doesn’t. It’s a huge market apparently.

I drive east for a late lunch, to the Bekaa Valley, for a steak in the red chequered table-clothed restaurant at Chateau Kefraya with a bottle of Comte des M, the most popular ‘special occasion’ big red in the country. Kefraya – blessed with gorgeous grounds, is expanding and planning a boutique hotel for 2013. It’s something no one else – apart from the temporarily out-of-action Coteaux de Botrys – has done yet, but IXSIR and Musar are expressing interest. I wind down for the evening at the Grand Hotel Kadri – a rambling five star resort that’s a favourite wedding spot, flanked by mountains in Zahle. The pool is drained for winter, so I have an aperitif by the fireplace before the inevitable mezze marathon in the dining room.

The next morning I head to Baalbek, and after a look at the framed Cocteau sketches in the lobby of the famously down-and-out Hotel Palymra  (the very definition of faded glamour; big on atmosphere, not so big on running hot water), I tour the finest, most incredible Roman ruins on Planet Earth. On a vivid-blue-skied day, I follow my fez-wearing guide around the Temple of Bacchus, site of ruinous orgies and overindulgence in wine and opiates. These are ravishing, humbling structures and like those implausible Agatha Christie movie adaptations, where Hercule Poirot has the run of the pyramids without a tourist in sight, the only other person I encounter is a woman sitting on the steps, shrouded in a black chador: such sights to see, no one to see them.

We head south, for a night at the Massabki Hotel, a recently refurbished boutique hotel next to a pretty little river in the Bekaa Valley, with a restaurant dressed up as a very convincing French brasserie that marvellously identifies the non-Lebanese wines on its list as ‘strange wines’.  On the next stretch of land sits Domaine des Tourelles, the most seductively ramshackle and atmospheric winery in the country. As the sun goes down, I enjoy one of the customary Tourelles tastings, sipping superlative Syrah du Liban and Marquis des Beys al fresco from a wine crate plonked under a tree. I buy some now, and more in Duty Free on the way home.

The people are passionate about their terroir in Lebanon. The next day, after a tasting at Clos St Thomas, the owner Nathalie Thomas shows me the ancient grotto chapel on the winery grounds. ‘We have weddings here,’ says Nathalie. ‘And we have a lot of visitors who come to camp out here to help pick the grapes in the autumn. On the first morning of harvest, a priest rings a bell at dawn to bless the season and call everyone to the vines.’

Further down the road I visit Massaya, with the prettiest tasting room of them all – hippy-chic, with a vista across the vines to the wood-framed fondue restaurant that opens at weekends – and then head to Bhamdoun for a tasting at Chateau Belle-Vue. They produce just 15,000 bottles a year, but are available by the glass at the Ritz in London. It’s a fearless, community-oriented labour of love for owner Naji Boutros, who, in 2000, planted his first vines here on the site of his grandfather’s long destroyed Hotel Belle-Vue when there were still stray cluster bombs in the ground.

‘We’re building a library for the villagers here,’ says Boutros’ wife, Jill, as she stops her 4×4 outside the old French consulate’s residence, one of the few period properties in Bhamdoun that wasn’t wiped out by warfare. ‘We’re moving our tasting room here, and we’re opening a restaurant next door in the summer.’ As we stroll through the vines that provide the grapes for her superb Le Renaissance blend, there’s a roar of small jet engines in the distance. ‘Our neighbours to the south,’ says Jill. ‘They shouldn’t fly there, but they do.’

Two hair-raising hours on the road later, and I’m back in Beirut, passing through the metal-detector in the reception of Le Gray, the hotel which has become a key reason to visit Beirut in itself. It’s serene, contemporary and plush. It won a prestigious Wine Spectator Award last year for ‘one of the most outstanding wine lists in the world’ (the house red is a Clos St Thomas) and its infinity pool overlooks the bullet-riddled statue in Martyrs Square on the old Green Line that bloodily divided the city. Le Gray is, every inch, the New Lebanon.

I make my way to Tawlet for lunch with Michael Karam, the most influential wine writer in Lebanon, and Tawlet’s owner Kamal Mouzawak. We talk about our favourite wines over a bottle of Domaine des Tourelles rosé; the perfect lunchtime tipple – light as mountain air; summer in a glass. I like the big reds – Syrah du Liban and Comte de M – while Michael likes the medium bodied fruity stuff, singling out Massaya for praise. Kamal would rather drink arak. He has, however, invited every winery in the country to stock two wines at Tawlet, making it a library of the Lebanese grape. Tawlet acts as a super-chic (and uniquely, gloriously, smoke-free) café sideline to the weekly farmer’s market. Every day a different producer creates lunch and it’s become a sensation.

‘The image of Lebanon is still guys with guns and beards,’ says Michael. ‘ But the wine producers are now starting to tell people that we’re a wine-producing country. And I think Lebanese wine could be the sexiest in the world.’ But before that, the novelty of ‘vines on the frontline’ will have to wear off. And yet the reality is – for all the downtown Vuitton – that the situation is fragile, which adds a frisson that Napa could never offer. As Kamal says: ‘It’s easier to sell terrorism than tourism in the news, so people who come here are still adventurers.’ For these incredible wines, it’s an adventure well worth having.

The Temple of Bacchus, Baalbek

DETAILS

Quintessentially Travel (+44 (0) 845 224 6915, http://www.quintessentiallytravel.com) offer an eight night food and wine tour of Lebanon from £1025 per person (excluding flights), including B&B at Le Gray, Four Seasons Beirut, Grand Hotel Kadri, Byblos Sur Mer and the Massabki Hotel. British Midland International (bmi) flies daily to Beirut from London, and twice daily from 31st March, from £427 return. http://www.flybmi.com.

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