With a majority Muslim population, the Middle East provides limited opportunities for producing alcohol. But perhaps the most famous product from the region is Lebanese wine, which was made in the region thousands of years before Islam.
The Phoenicians cultivated wine in Lebanon over 4000 years ago along the coastal plains from Byblos down to Tyre. Today, Lebanon is home to around 30 wineries, many of which are based in the Bekaa Valley.
With a healthy combination of rainfall and sunshine, the valley has a unique terroir that’s ideal for wine production. Chateau Ksara is the largest winery by far, and at over 150 years it’s also the oldest. Chateau Musar is well-known in western countries, while Tanail-based Massaya is a boutique winery run by two Lebanese bothers with input from French partners.
Many of Lebanon’s wineries also produce Arak, the traditional spirit flavoured with anise. Arak is usually mixed with water, whereupon it turns a milky colour, and is served with mezze (note of the editor: the traditional appetizers). It is also made in Jordan by Zumot, in Iraq, Egypt and Syria, where the quality of anise makes for a superior flavour.
Syria also produces its own beer, which is controlled by the government and split into two main brands. Al-Sharq is brewed in Aleppo, whereas Barada is the favoured tipple in Damascus. Both beers have moderate alcohol content, at well under 4 percent, and bottling issues often lead to fluctuations in quality. Better off sticking with the arak.
If you are interested in a first comprehensive guide to all the Lebanese wines currently on the market, you can find the Michael Karam's Lebanese Wines 2011 here.