Wine's World

The Wines of War

They’re not as bitter as you’d think.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker

With the dogs of war straining at their leashes, could there a more appropriate time to uncork the grapes of wrath? Implausible though it may seem, several major war zones are also home to small but resilient wine industries. Making grapevines struggle to survive—“stressing the vines,” as it is known—is critical to the production of quality cabernets and chardonnays. Exposing them to a steady diet of F-16s, mortar fire, and tank shells is probably taking the concept a little far. Still, while you might imagine frontline wines to be undrinkable novelty items, with scorched-earth aromas and sediment composed of shrapnel, some are actually quite decent, and the wines of one battle-scarred nation in particular, Lebanon, enjoy a stellar reputation.

Wine and war have, of course, been inextricably bound since the beginning of time. Skim the Old Testament, read Homer and Virgil, and you will find the wine flowing almost as freely as the blood. To the ancients, there was a symbiotic relationship between wine and war, a link embodied in the myth of Dionysus (Bacchus to the Romans), the god of wine, who represented both life and death, ecstasy and brutality. Throughout the ages, wine has been a lubricant in battle and a balm following it; if war is the Great Leveler, wine can justly be called the Great Painkiller. It served that function for history’s pre-eminent warrior-lush, Winston Churchill, a champagne aficionado who often quoted Napoleon on the subject of bubbly: “In victory I deserve it, in defeat I need it.”

During World War II, the relationship between wine and war took on an added dimension. After their conquest of France, the Nazis naturally helped themselves to the local wines—which in this case meant the gems of Burgundy and Bordeaux. In a recent book titled Wine & War: The French, the Nazis, and the Battle for France’s Greatest Treasure, Petie and Don Kladstrup (he the former CBS correspondent) describe the supposedly heroic efforts of French winemakers to guard their prized bottles from the plundering Germans. The novelist and enophile Julian Barnes politely noted in his review of the book that the Kladstrups present a slightly air-brushed history; while there were indeed many vignerons who endeavored to keep their best wines away from the Nazis, many others were only too willing to give them the keys to the cellar.

Amazingly, most of France’s finest vineyards emerged unscathed from the Nazi occupation, and for both Burgundy and Bordeaux, the 1945 vintage is a legendary one. Other, less-acclaimed wine regions thrust into conflict have not been as lucky. In recent years, war has devastated vineyards in a handful of wine-producing nations, including Croatia, Kosovo, Chechnya, and the Republic of Georgia. This can’t really be counted as a great loss since a) wines from these countries were always nearly impossible to find and b) even if you could find them, you probably wouldn’t want to drink them; Petrus they are not. On the other hand, with a little peace and some investment, it could be a different story; Georgia, in particular, has a long history of winemaking, and its climate and topography are unusually well-suited to viticulture.

One strife-torn country starting to fulfill its winemaking potential is Israel. From the Negev to the Syrian border, the number of wineries, both large and small, has increased exponentially over the past decade—growth generated in no small part by Israel’s tech boom and the emergence of a yuppie class. Many of the upstarts are owned by winemakers trained in Europe and the United States. Far from churning out treacly kosher wines, they are fashioning dry, non-sanctified cabernets, chardonnays, and merlots.

Are they any good? Based on what I recently tasted, Israel still has some distance to go. I tried two wines from Golan Heights Winery: the 1999 Yarden Cabernet and the 1999 Yarden Chardonnay. The cabernet could easily have been mistaken for any number of Australian or California cabs—which is to say, I found it overblown and anonymous. The Yarden Chardonnay wasn’t much better. It had the virtue of being surprisingly understated, with good acidity and even a faint hint of minerality. Alas, it was too demure; in the quest for finesse, the winemaker forgot to throw in enough fruit. I also sampled a third wine, the 2000 Cabernet Sauvignon from Tishbi, one of Israel’s original family-owned boutique wineries, founded in the mid-1980s. Strangely light in color and thin to the point of insipidness, the Tishbi was a wasted gulp.

Although most Israeli vignerons take their inspiration from France or California, they could do worse than to emulate the success of their neighbor to the north, Lebanon, the world’s pre-eminent winemaking war zone. Lebanon traces its viticultural heritage back to the time of the Phoenicians, and prominent among its architectural treasures is the temple of Bacchus, built by the Romans. The Bekaa Valley, deep in the cross hairs over the past few decades, is the region with the longest and most successful winemaking tradition. The valley has superb weather—cool, rainy winters; dry, hot-but-not-scorching summers. With most of its vineyards sitting more than 3,000 feet above sea level, sandwiched between mountains and the Mediterranean, the Bekaa has all the raw materials to produce fine wines.

The relative calm that Lebanon is enjoying of late has given its wine industry some renewed vigor. Among the recent noteworthy developments: the establishment in 1998 of Chateau Massaya, an estate located in the Bekaa that includes among its owners and consultants the former co-proprietor of Chateau Cheval Blanc and the current co-proprietors of Chateau Angelus and Domaine du Vieux Telegraph (Cheval Blanc is considered by some to be the greatest bordeaux of all. Angelus is also a fine bordeaux, and Vieux Telegraph is one of the best producers of châteauneuf du pape).

But Lebanon’s leading winery is still plucky old Chateau Musar. Started in 1930 by Gaston Hochar, Musar, which has its vineyards in the Bekaa and its headquarters in an 18th-century castle just north of Beirut (the grapes are transported by truck during the harvest), is today run by his two sons, Serge and Ronald. Serge, who trained in France and took over cellar duties in 1959, is a venerated figure in the wine world, not least because he managed to turn out wines even during Lebanon’s worst bouts of violence. Musar produces two red wines, a white, and a rosé. Its crown jewel, known simply as Chateau Musar, is a blend of cabernet sauvignon, cinsault, and carignan, with grenache, syrah, and mourvèdre occasionally added; the exact composition varies year to year, sometimes (apparently) barrel to barrel. With its baked aromas, slightly sweet fruit, and dusty texture, the 1995 Musar immediately called to mind an ultrarustic southern rhône. I liked it a lot, but at over $30 a pop, I’d forgo the exotica and purchase a real southern rhône.

Should the United States attack Iraq, no vineyards will be in peril, but one wine drinker will be. According to Mark Bowden’s recent article in the Atlantic about the private life of Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi dictator enjoys a glass of Mateus rosé with meals. This nugget probably meant nothing to our teetotaler in chief, but to my mind, it was one of the most damning details Bowden unearthed. Here is a murderous tyrant with a personal fortune said to be in the billions, and the best he can do is Mateus rosé, quite possibly the worst swill on the market? Put me down in favor of regime change.