Over a month ago I returned from my week in Lebanon, and here I am just getting around to getting any thoughts together. I supposed it’s because I have a lot of thoughts to gather.
How about we start big picture?
Lebanon is without a doubt one of the strangest places I have ever visited. The juxtaposition of wealth and absolute poverty infiltrates the landscape, yet we spent out time flittering between one state of the art palace after another.
This was a wine trip, and the focus was on the burgeoning wine scene, but it was still pretty shocking to see the massive disparity of wealth everywhere.
This was a Master of Wine organized trip. Hady, a stage 1er I met in Austria last January, makes wine at IXSIR in Betroun, and put this trip together for MW students. The first night he took us out to Em Sherif, which is one of Beirut’s best Lebanese restaurants. It was delicious, as was all of the food in Lebanon, and such a treat to have every meal built around vegetables, and not meat and cheese!
Above you’ll see our fairy floss ice-cream dessert, complete with rosewater and pistachios. By an large the desserts were pretty weird (see rosewater), but I’m a purist and don’t quite understand why anyone would fruit their dessert. #chocolate.
Hady explained a bit about the conflicts of the past 4 decades, how Lebanon is plagued with a Syrian problem (1.8 million refugees in a country of 4 million), how more Lebanese live outside of the country than in (18 million!), and how infrastructure is a huge challenge. There’s constant traffic. The lights go out once or twice a day. Those wealthy enough have generators, but for everyone else, life gets put on hold.
What wasn’t mentioned, but was flagrantly obvious, was the garbage crisis facing Lebanon. After the last conflict, all public services were privatized. So now, the wealthy areas are all well maintained, but the poor areas have mounting garbage they don’t know what to do with. Despite the fact that most of it is compostable or recyclable, most of it is burned out of necessity of space. Burning plastic is not good for anyone, my friends.
Lebanon has been safe, without incident, for the last 4 or so years. A fact which everyone made clear, if not with an undercurrent of surprise (perhaps that’s me projecting). As such, there’s been a land grab. Lebanese living outside the country have been buying up property, beginning to develop, and then abandoning projects so as not to pay property taxes. Driving down the highways feels like you’re in a scene from the Walking Dead. There are spikey rebar topped skeletal foundations checkering all of the hillsides. Many of which look down on the Syrian refugee camps down below.
In a country the size of Vermont, it was fascinating to see how varied the topography is. Lebanon is all about mountains and sea. To the west you have the Mediterranean, then Mt. Lebanon, then the anti-Lebanon ranges before heading off into Syria, which we did not do (although we got within 20km). Altitude ranges from 400 to upward of 1800 m for viticulture, which puts it among the world’s highest.
But it is precisely this altitude that makes grape growing viable here. It’s warm! At the end of October it was still mid 20s and barely into the teens at night. <3. There’s good solar radiation, making for thick skinned grapes, yet also high acidity due to the swings in diurnal shift. The style of wine is most accurately described as a midpoint between old world and new. You get tons of ripeness, high alcohol, color and tannins, but the wines are wholly savory, with dust, leather, and that old world sensibility.
Just 20 years ago there were only 3 wineries in Lebanon, Chateau Kefraya, Chateau Ksara, and Chateau Musar. Today there are 55 wineries, and new ones popping up all the time.
Next post, we’ll talk more wine.