The Archeology of Lebanese Wine

8th May 2019

Tags: history, retsina, religion, identity,

This is the start of our trip, and – quite logically – we’re beginning with the history of wine in Lebanon.  The UVL explained that they chose to have this session as many writers have used different start dates for the origins of Lebanese wine, and they are trying to get some clarity.  Consequently, the UVL have decided to sponsor a proper analysis of the data around the history of wine in Lebanon, starting with written records.  The next stage will be to analyse artefacts in their museums for residues, and then to analyse the indigenous grapes to understand their history.  They suggest that it is illogical to talk of the ‘oldest wine production’; wine may have appeared by accident rather than design for a long period, even if there are traces of it.  Georgia isn’t mentioned by name at this stage, but it’s an obvious dig at the country, and clearly a desire to position Lebanon as having an ancient, unbroken tradition of winemaking – even perhaps another contender for the origins of wine!  This presentation, made by an archaeologist working on the first of these studies, has not yet been published, but it gives us a great contextual understanding of the historical development of wine in Lebanon.

Lebanon was first settled by semi-nomadic humans in about 12500 BC.  From around 7000 BC the first villages appear and along with them signs of religious practice.  By the end of the stone age era (4500-3300 BC) there was a trade in wild raisins to Egypt (grapes have been found in early jars), and later wine.  Some of these jars were sealed with cedar resin – so there was the possibility of a form of retsina developing by accident.  By 2100 BC there are records of trade in wine to Syria.  Egyptians called the land of the Canaanites (the name of the population here four millennia ago) ‘the place of honey and wine’.  An Ugarit text also speaks of ‘yn’ (wine) in the region.  Our word ‘wine’, linked to the Greek ‘oinos’ is also similar to the Georgian ‘gvino’.  Georgian is a separate language group from both the Semitic (including Ugarit) and Indo-European and the similarity of the words suggests that the drink was widespread at an early stage of linguistic development.

Carthage was founded by the Phoenicians from Lebanon in 813 BC.  At this point Mago of Carthage wrote the first major book on agriculture, including wine, just before Hesiod did the same thing in Greece.  Wine continued to flourish in the Phoenician, then the Hellenistic, Roman, and Byzantine periods.

Lebanon was conquered by Muslims in the early 7th century.  Although the Koran forbids the use of wine on earth, its attitude to the drink was in fact ambiguous and the toleration of drinking in the Islamic world was widespread outside the Arabian peninsula.  There were Arabic wine songs which praise wine: Al-Khamiriyya talks of drinking wine in Baalbek, and the North African poet Al-Raqiq in the 11th century mentions Lebanese wine.  However, paradoxically more intolerance develops after the Crusades took place, as wine was associated with the invading Christians.

Nevertheless, vineyards and wine are mentioned all the way through the medieval period.  By the end of the 18th century ‘Vino d’Ora’ from Mt Lebanon was well known and Cyrus Redding, the early 19th century wine writer, mentioned it.  It was a Maronite wine, possibly late harvest.  However, in the early 19th century there was a loss of indigenous grapes for wine production.  They become used for Arak, which was in high demand with the Ottoman army, and easier both to tax and smuggle than wine was.  The wine industry was only rejuvenated in 1857 with the arrival of Jesuit missionaries from France who bring French grapes, making their domaine, Ksara, a commercial enterprise; this forms the basis of the modern industry of Lebanese wine.

This presentation was followed by a trip to the National Museum of Lebanon. The museum is very well laid-out and explained, and worth a visit.  The references to wine are scattered throughout, and I’ll just highlight a few key ones here but they illustrate much of the ancient and medieval continuity of wine noted in the earlier presentation. 

We saw Canaanite jars, like plump amphorae, which were typically 19-22 litres in capacity, usually sealed with a wood stopper and cedar resin.  There was also a fresco of a royal tomb with pictures of grapes – but no wine making.  Bacchus featured in a very clear Roman era mosaic pouring wine out as if in a libation, with a rather saturnine satyr peering over his shoulder.  From a later period there are also preserved grape stalks from a Christian tomb dated precisely to 1283 AD.

A mosaic of Bacchus from the National Museum