BL16 - Page 31

Clockwise from
left: French officials
tour Lebanon with
the Jesuits; Château
Musar 1917, a vintage
from the last days of
the Ottoman Empire;
François-Eugène Brun’s
winery in Chtaura,
founded in the 1860s
arlier this year, on a misty
and rainy day on Mount
Lebanon, I was shown a letter
written in French in January
1943 by a Cairo-based British
army officer to a Lebanese winemaker,
thanking him for his hospitality while
he was on leave in Beirut, remarking
that his wine – presumably a parting
gift – “tasted very good in the desert”.
The soldier was Ronald Barton,
whose family owned, and still own,
Châteaux Léoville-Barton and LangoaBarton in Bordeaux. The Lebanese
winemaker was Gaston Hochar, who,
13 years earlier, founded Château
Musar, Lebanon’s most celebrated wine.
The pair went on to form a lifelong
friendship, one that would extend over
the generations, with Serge Hochar,
Gaston’s eldest son and the man who
would firmly plant the Lebanese flag on
the world wine map, interning at the
famous Saint Julien producer while
studying under the great Emile Peynaud
in Bordeaux in the early Sixties.
But the wine ties between France
and Lebanon run much deeper, and the
love affair between the two nations
really begins in 1857, when Lebanon
was still part of an Ottoman Empire in
decline and a group of French Jesuit
missionaries, living in Tanail, a village
in the remote, mystical and often
lawless Bekaa Valley, decided that amid
their hardship, they needed some
decent wine instead of the boiled, sweet
nectar made for church services.
Applying their solid knowledge
of agriculture and the sciences, they set
out to produce the Middle East’s first
“dry” red, importing what were then
considered “les meilleurs cépages” from
Algeria, the most important of France’s
colonial wine-producing territories. The
French Jesuits in
the Bekaa decided
they needed wine
instead of the
boiled, sweet nectar
made for church
Cinsault and Grenache vines reached
Lebanon just in time to beat the
Ottoman ban on imported plants,
enforced to curb the spread of Phylloxera
– an aphid that feeds on vines.
The results were so successful that
the priests were eventually able to
distribute their vines among the
previously sceptical and often
contemptuous locals. “Cereal crops and
mulberry were replaced with vines,
which became known by the people of
the area as vignes Françaises,” writes a
missionary, Brother D’Ore, in his diary.
The wine, according to another
Jesuit, Brother Mold, “possessed more
bouquet than any in the whole of Syria,
the most esteemed being our Vin D’Or”.
Brother D’Ore also waxes lyrical: “What
wonderful wines! They are sent abroad
to be used in church services in
Bavaria, Prussia, Holland and the
countries of the Far East,” while yet
another monk, Brother Jullien writes,
“today the domaine is an excellent
vineyard. The people revel without fear
of the new grapes. They know they give
superior wine.”
Elsewhere in the Bekaa Valley,
another Frenchman was busy
establishing his dream. In 1860, three
years after the Jesuits began their wine
experiment, François-Eugène Brun,
a 24-year-old military engineer from
Chézery Forens in the Rhône Alps,
arrived in Lebanon to work on the main
Beirut-Damascus road. After a year, he
jacked in his job and set up a winery
in the town of Chtaura. Domaine des
Tourelles became Lebanon’s first
commercial winery (the Jesuits had not
started selling their wines) and by the
turn of the 20th Century his blends
were winning medals at London fairs.
The end of the First World War
would change the face of Lebanon and
Lebanese wine forever. The 1920 Treaty
of Sèvres brought the curtain down on
the Ottoman Empire and the surrender
of all non-Turkish territory to the
victorious Allied nations. In the Eastern
Mediterranean, this saw the creation of
mandates in Palestine, Syria and
Lebanon, where France was the new

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