8th-9th May 2019

Hady Kadale and others…

Religion dominates everything in Lebanon, but religion is hideously confusing.  This must be the only country in the world which is a ‘confessional democracy’; democratic elections but with power at the top shared (supposedly equally) between two religions (but also two interpretations of one of those – Islam) and a range of religious commitments represented in parliament.  There are 18 recognised confessions in the country – but most of the population follow a form of Islam, or Christianity, or (for a much smaller group) the Druze religion.

The Mohamed al-Amin Mosque and the Maronite Cathedral of St. George side by side in central Beirut

The modern wine industry in Lebanon is a direct result of religion.  The ‘great’ powers were trying to exercise influence over the country in the middle of the 19th century.  Officially it was an Ottoman province, but the British, French, and Russians all wanted to control a strategically situated foothold in the Levant.  In the maelstrom of religious and community fissuration the French made friends of their coreligionists, the Maronite Christians.  The Maronites are a version of Catholicism from West Asia, and the largest Christian sect in what is now Lebanon.  As part of a ‘civilising’ mission, French Jesuit missionaries arrived in Lebanon, and from 1857 planted grapes and began to make wine.  In part this was for sacramental purposes – but it also made them money.  It’s possible to suspect, as well, that in a country where not everyone accepted wine, it made a statement about who they were and what they believed in.  Their settlement became Chateau Ksara (a neat allusive, mix of aristocratic Bordeaux and oriental mystery) and it turned into one of the biggest wine producers in the country.  Yet, paradoxically, the Jesuits were too successful.  In the wake of Vatican II, in the 1970s, with the Church turning away from more a more overt commitment to mammon and in search of a new spirituality, the fathers of Chateau Ksara were told to stop their commercial activities and retreat to a more pious life.  The winery was sold.  With yet another paradox its major (though shy and retiring) shareholder is a Muslim.

But one legacy of the Jesuits lives on: the varieties they brought with them from France.  Sensibly, moving to a hot, sometimes arid, country, they arrived with southern French grapes: carignan, cinsault, grenache and the like.  The indigenous grapes like obaideh were already mainly being used for arak production, but the use of the exotic grapes by the wine-focused French crystallised their place as the pre-eminent wine grapes in the country.  Obaideh and its compatriots, like merwah, are still struggling to make their voice heard.

The Muslims, as one would expect, are overtly opposed to alcohol, and therefore wine.  But it’s much more complex than that.  Some Muslims drink in private but keep it very quiet; some may be known to drink in the wider community; however, it’s hard for any of them to admit that they own a vineyard (although they do).  Some of them will grow cannabis though, and are quite open about it.  The former groups – those who may drink (or even invest in wine) tend to be more educated Sunni Muslims.  The latter, the growers of dope, are more likely to be from poorer Shiite communities. 

Hady told us the story of an external contractor he met at a winery he was involved with, who was doing some work for them.   

‘Do you drink wine?’ asked Hady.


‘Oh, I was going to give you this bottle’.

‘Oh, well, just from time to time…’

So for some there is a flexibility; but not always.  For years the minister of agriculture has been a Muslim – they always give the post to a Shiite in the negotiation over government jobs.  But (s)he will never sign anything to do with the wine industry – so the responsibility is delegated to the Head of Department (who is a Christian) so sign on their behalf.  So religious purity is maintained but the economy can still operate.