I’m always excited to dive into a new region, so I was particularly thrilled when Florida Wine Academy invited me to a special tasting of wines from Lebanon—especially since my family, down the line, is Lebanese (thought you knew everything about me, ha!) Winemakers from Terre Joie and Sept Winery traveled far across the pond to give us a private crash course on what makes Lebanese wines so unique and special.
Before we dive into their wines, let’s talk about the wine industry in Lebanon. Even though Lebanon was one of the earliest countries to produce wine, there were only about four producers 20 years ago and they focused on the local market. Luckily, within the past couple of decades, the industry moved from just those four to more than 55 wineries, with Château Musar putting the region on the map. This change inspired winemakers to produce better and more interesting wines.
There are about 10 million bottles of wine produced each year, which could be drunk by the whole world in four hours (random fact, I know). Half are exported, mostly to the United Kingdom, and currently, there are only about 12-13 brands who have their wines exported to the United States.
Most wineries are in the Central Valley because of the terroir. The air is clean and dry, so there is no need for fungicides. The water tables create a natural irrigation system and there are 300 days of sun a year. The most planted grapes are Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, but winemakers are also using indigenous varietals to get a better product.
Maher Harb grew Sept Winery out of a desire to revive a family’s land and cultivate it with a life-changing passion that matured over the years. He worked as an information systems consultant for 12 years in France before realizing that it wasn’t the life for him. He wanted to return home and create wine. It was ambitious passion project, especially given the fact that he had no industry experience, so he read as many books as he could about winemaking and immersed himself in the process.
In 2012, Harb found some land and planted a hectare (about 600 bottles) and truly became a self-taught winemaker. He knew he had so much to learn, so he enrolled in a masters in wine program that brought him to 25 countries in a year and a half, to learn all that he could.
In 2018, his dreams came to fruition. Sept Winery was born, with “the lucky number” name being a tribute to his late father. He takes a biodynamic approach and is also proud being a “vin de lieu,” producing wines that express the rich diversity and exceptional character of the Lebanese soil. He loves wines from Rhône, so he first planted Syrah and used a lot of intuition during the process. He believes in spontaneous fermentation, using indigenous yeast, and avoiding oak. Harb currently produces seven bottles and works on a lunar calendar as his guiding star.
We tried five different wines:
- Obeideh, a Lebanese grape, for white wine. Hard was proud to be just the third winery to offer this varietal. It was pale yellow in color with notes of almond, freshness, nice acidity, and a bit of oiliness. I would totally sip this on the regular.
- Viognier, an unexpected sipper for me. This one was a darker yellow in color and had a funky nose. It was ripe, kind of like popcorn and toasty. The palate was way creamier and fruitier than I expected.
- Merweh, an indigenous grape from Lebanon, this wine comes from the north in the mountains. The owner of this vineyard is a 95-year-old man who runs it with his sons. Harb calls this vineyard his secret garden. Only 700 bottles are made each year. It was pale yellow in color, fresh but a bit salty with apple notes. Another yummy one perfect for the Miami weather.
- Cuvée du Soleil, is a blend of Cabernet France and Syrah and comes from grapevines cultivated on the Eastern hillsides of Mount Lebanon. It’s from a very hot climate. It’s burgundy with a purple tinge. It has a light nose with dark fruit. It’s super dry and peppery.
- Syrah de Nehla comes from the vineyard Harb planted himself and 300 bottles per year are produced. The grapevines are exposed to optimal warmth during the day and breathing sea air at night. The color was stunning, very purple. There was a smokiness to it and nice tannins.
The next winery, Terre Joie, is family-owned and run Joe (who joined us) and Maliha Saade. It is one of the new waves of Lebanese wineries who optimize our altitude terroirs rather than replicate Bordeaux profiles. The name Terre Joie was inspired by the initials of Joe’s son Tareq Joe, who was very supportive of the project, but passed away in a scuba diving accident. The French translation of the Saade family name is Joie, meaning joy or happiness. So all together, Terre Joie means land of joy.
Joe was in advertising and around 2005, he started playing around with grapes. In 2008, he bought his first vineyard and planted Cabernet Franc and Merlot. He chose those two varietals because he wanted to be different from the other winemakers. The vineyard has a tri-continental soil—subsoil from Europe, Africa, and Asia.
He uses all organic methods—from goat manure to no chemicals. He strived for wines of a certain standard and quality. His wines are free-fun, meaning he doesn’t press his grapes, and he uses less oak, and the grapes are picked manually. Joe’s roadmap to making a perfect wine is to create wines that are pleasurable, distinctive, and memorable.
Fun fact—Terre Joie is one of the only ones in Lebanon creating Rosé in Grenache, but does not export it (BOO!). Also, Joe’s father lived in Cuba, which hits home because I’m Cuban with Lebanese background.
We tried four wines (P.S. Sorry for lack of notes, last wines of the night):
- Soeur de fLuR 2016 is made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, Merlot, and Syrah. It smelled absolutely beautiful. It had smelled of tobacco and flowers with notes of red and black fruit.
- fLur 2015 is made with Cabernet Franc and Merlot. It had notes of tobacco and mint, and definitely had more alcohol.
- fLur 2014 was also delicious with notes of violets, pepper, spice, vanilla, and cherries. This one won silver, with 91 points, at the International Wine Challenge in 2018.
With such a wonderful evening of wine tasting, it was such a shame to learn that these wines are not yet available in the United States (BOO!) Fortunately, they’re still working on it and hopefully they’ll be in stock soon enough. Until then, I’ll be prepping my wine-fueled vacation to Lebanon.