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French Version

Sampling Lebanon's growing wine industry

'Wines of Lebanon' profiles emerging market

Lebanon makes wine, by the way. Other countries in the region make it too, of course.

There is, for instance, Syrian wine - though Syrian friends recommend against sampling it.

Indeed, in the days when Lebanese-Syrian border procedure was more predictable, Beirutis en route to the Sham charitably stopped in Chtaura to pick up a couple of bottles of something sturdy - a Breteches-this or a Prieure-that - for pals on the other side.

They also make kosher wine in the Occupied Territories. Habitues of international wine shows attest to the appearance once of a snappy little red that had been given the nod by the Grand Rabbis of both the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities. It's called "Golan," shamelessly enough.

Purportedly there is Egyptian wine. The stuff usually comes up in the context of some amusing Cairene horror story, though, leading skeptics to conclude that the tales are apocryphal.

The local bargain-basement wines thrown back by Lebanon's hoi polloi - in whose ranks weave many a self-respecting hack - are perhaps not much better than the other plonk in the region.

There are a number of Lebanese wines, though, that enjoy a more-than-respectable reputation overseas, where about half of the country's wine is sold. The Lebanese wine industry is growing, furthermore, with several new labels appearing on the market in the last five years alone.

For all but a few insiders, however, Lebanese wine is uncharted territory. The superfluity of labels alone suggests the market needs a reliable map of the Lebanese vineyard. Now it has one, "Wines of Lebanon," just released by London-based publisher Saqi.

Written by Michael Karam - a fixture in Beirut English-language publications since repatriating from the U.K. in the early 1990s - and abundantly illustrated with photographs old and new - the new ones shot by veteran photojournalist Norbert Schiller - "Wines of Lebanon" is the first thoroughgoing survey of what's on the Lebanese wine market and who's responsible for it. Karam has written the book in three sections.

"A Wine Heritage" places Lebanon's contemporary wine industry within the matrix of Lebanese mythology and history. Karam then moves into the verifiable origins of Lebanese wine- and arak-making - the practice, pursued by the clergies of the region's various Christian faiths, of making ecclesiastical wine.

Having set the groundwork, Karam and Schiller get down to business. "The Old Guard" and "New World Order" profile the country's 16 wine producers in a sort of descending order based on age and reputation, from Chateau Ksara (arguably the oldest and most prestigious) to Kfifane (a newer boutique operation).

In the process Karam moves from the Musar wines, which aren't meant to be drunk for years after they're bottled and are said to acquire an ever-more elaborate latticework of complexity as they age, to the nouveaux, which fulfill the need for something cheap that tastes nice.

Wine consumers vary and this book will satisfy some more than others. First there are the casual consumers - the Breteches-this or Prieure-that set - who think about wine during pre-party trips to the corner store.

Those who buy wine only because lugging one bottle (of wine) to a gathering is more convenient than toting six or 12 bottles (of beer) will likely have no interest in "Wines of Lebanon."

Just find the label with the highest alcohol content.

The more discriminating neophyte - the boy who wants to impress a girl by bringing a tasty wine to dinner, say - may be stumped as to how to judge the value of one wine over the next. He may not find this book very useful either, since "Wines of Lebanon" isn't a consumer guide.

The book sometimes seems indecisive as to what its target audience is, in fact. Its basic data - its glossary includes definitions of "wine," "cork," and "grape" as well as "varietal" and "malolactic fermentation"- and the jokey Lebanese Arabic sprinkled through the text suggests it wants to snag Anglophone Lebanese novices.

The explanations of the basics of recent Lebanese history - the French Mandate and Lebanese Civil War, for instance - implies it's aiming for foreign wine enthusiasts.

These shortcomings are less authorial than editorial - as are other missteps, like the decision to commence the book with a description of Lebanon's geographic location rather than providing a simple map.

So much for what "Wines of Lebanon" isn't. As is, it's an attractive object with a well-written text that accomplishes the hitherto unknown task of pulling together disparate bits of information into a single volume. More than fulfilling the basic requirements of a coffee table book, it makes "Lebanese wine" a verifiable commodity. Readers who will appreciate it most are those who want to know where to look for something and want to make up their own mind about it.

Karam is the right man to write such a book. He edits Executive, one of Beirut's two English-language business magazines, and writes a column on Lebanese wine for Wine Report, a periodical that acts as a barometer for the international wine industry.

Still, he writes as an avid student of the culture more than an expert in the industry. He assesses a wine here or an arak there, but these are fairly arbitrary choices and they tend to be complimentary, more decorative than critical.

"Wines of Lebanon" is largely descriptive, then, as much a profile of the winemakers as the wines they make. A skeptic might accuse the author of writing one long service piece in aid of an emerging industry. You might also argue that this is precisely what the first book on the subject should be.

Individual chapters are written as profiles, but Karam is clearly more interested in some of his characters than others. The passages written with the most verve depict the more colorful (some would say eccentric) personalities. At times these enthusiasms bleed through into Schiller's photos as well.

The terrain is ripe for this approach. The personalities behind Lebanon's wines range from resident Jesuits to returning Lebanese expatriates, from a peripatetic French wine expert to a Lebanese warlord.

A collective biography of Lebanese winemakers it may be, but the country's politics and society are continually encroaching from the margins, so the book serves as a primer to contemporary Lebanon as much as its wines. It suggests that "Wines of Lebanon" sublimates the author's real interest, which is neither wine nor Lebanon, really, but people.

Beirut 12-09-2005
Jim Quilty
The Daily Star

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