Up in the hills above Beirut lies the Chateau Musar winery. Lebanon is one of the oldest wine producing regions in the world, but people don't always appreciate their 6000 year history. Musar is probably the wine from the region best-known internationally, and it commands great respect as a wonderful producer. The winery was started up by Gaston Hochar in 1930.
If you visit Lebanon, take some time to head out to the winery in the hills of Mount Lebanon. They will show you around and then happily give you a tasting session in the shop. You need to book in advance, but it means that small groups (I was in a group of 6) can get a bespoke tour. They don't charge for this, as they see the tours as a good chance to publicise their wines and ethos. The staff are truly passionate about the place, and you come away having learned a huge amount.
The grapes themselves are grown in the Bekaa Valley, which is a little further east. The grapes arrive at the winery in order to be processed. Musar prides itself on an unusual but important difference in its production process. Their main vats are all made of concrete, as opposed to the stainless steel used for other wines. They feel that the concrete allows more air to get to the pulp, but also that stainless steel does leave a tainted taste. They keep some of their young white wines in stainless steel for short periods of time for storage purposes as much as anything else, but keep it to a minimum possible time. They tried using stainless steel more a number of years ago, but just didn't like the results.
They make three different grades of wine, depending on the blend and the time spent maturing. Here is just a short summary. Since 2007 they've produced a fresh, young wine under the theme 'Jeune'. The red is pleasant, but the white and rose really stand out as a bit different, unusual, tangy. The 'medium' range is the Hochar Père et Fils, which offers a richer and more rounded drink. The top range is the Chateau Musar itself, available only in red and white. They're smooth, subtle, warm wines, but personally I preferred the fuller flavour and character of the Hochar Père et Fils.
Musar pride themselves on selling wine that is ready to drink rather than wine which is too young and needs to be kept before drinking. It does keep, it just doesn't need to be kept. This means that they have immense, extraordinary warehouses of wines waiting to be released. Down in the cellar of this former castle there are banks of barrels and bottles, waiting for bottling and labelling, keeping cool in the dark. Layers of dust accrue and give you some sense as to the age - they keep substantial quantities of each vintage back to act as a wine museum, a catalogue of past achievements which can be tested and assessed periodically.
Other good wines include Ksara, Kefraya and Fakra. Ksara also have a winery you can visit, over in the Bekaa Valley, in an old monastery, where Jesuit monks' cells now function as storage cellars. Sadly at the time of writing the political situation has become too dangerous to make visits a sensible idea.
They also make arak here, the Lebanese aniseed drink akin to Greek ouzo. You can buy this all over Lebanon, and it has various grades depending on how many times it has been distilled. Again, Musar do things differently, producing one refined up to three or even four times, which makes it pure and smooth, and far less likely to give you a headache!
Ask to see the storeroom and be prepared to be transported back in time. The first thing you notice is the wall of aniseed smell which hits you from the evaporating and maturing arak. On inspection the room resembles an archaeological site - it's full of large clay amphorae. Just like the Ancient Greeks, Musar still uses these pots to store arak in, gently breathing and letting the 'angel's share' evaporate, the pots reused time and time again until one breaks and has to be replaced.
You need to drive to get to the winery. It might be worth getting a taxi or being driven, so that you can try the wines without worrying about getting home safely. The shop sells the wine in individual bottles as well as presentation packs and cases. Prices are very reasonable, and will be slightly, but not much cheaper than buying it in the local shops. This is still much cheaper than buying it exported. The exported bottles also get a different label, so a bottle from the winery is a prize item indeed.
And to finish... I found these wine tops on the stairs, which suggest someone else had been having a good time there before us too!