From Batroun in the north of Lebanon it is an uphill drive of about 35 minutes to reach Nehla, a typical Lebanese mountain village at an altitude of 950m. It was in this little lost corner of the world where Maher Harb grew up and to where he returned to make wine, after a successful career working as a business consultant in France and Saudi Arabia.
It was in France where Maher was bitten by the winemaker bug. Not satisfied with the trajectory of his life, he bought grapes at the local Carrefour supermarket and started to experiment with wine in his apartment. Maher knew that there was excellent soil and climate for winemaking back in Nehla. Wine had been produced there before. In 2012 Maher planted the first vines in Nehla and during a long trip on the Camino de Santiago he decided to change his path in life for good.
Lebanon is among the oldest sites of wine production in the world. The eastern Mediterranean region was in terms of wine the France or Italy of the Antique. Lebanon’s wine heritage is also perfectly represented in Baalbek, in the Eastern part of the Bekaa valley, home of the impressive Temple of Bacchus, dedicated to the Roman god of wines.
During the Lebanese civil war, only three wineries kept constantly producing. In the past fifteen years the wine production in Lebanon has been soaring again and the number of wineries has grown steadily. Nowadays around 40 producers offer different varieties and qualities of red and white wine.
“What is your story as a winemaker?” I asked Maher Harb when I visited him in Nehla in the autumn of 2016.
“I had two things in my mind before I decided to shift my life path,” he said, with one of his Jack Russell terriers sitting on his lap. “Get back to my father’s land and do something that will make him proud of me. Winemaking is about nature, passion, love and authenticity; it is about roots. Making wine in my father’s land is the best homage I can offer him.”
In his garden, Maher opened two bottles of his 2015 wines for me, his first commercial production: a red wine - made of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon and 15% Grenache that gives the wine an extra edge - and an excellent white from the autochthonous Obeideh grape. Maher’s production is still limited. It moved from small tanks in his bedroom to bigger tanks in the garage for the 2015 vintage. Maher is currently building his own winery up the hill from his house. It should be ready for the 2017 millésime.
The Obeideh, a grape that only grows in Lebanon, is particularly close to Maher’s heart. I was tempted to play the devil’s advocate. “What is the matter with the indigenous grapes that everybody talks about?” I asked him. “Do they make a real difference in quality or is it just a marketing argument?”
Maher laughed and disagreed firmly. “From my point of view,” he said, “the use of indigenous varieties is very important at many levels. And storytelling comes at the end of the scale.”
“Identifying and reviving autochthonous grape varieties is a duty for every country,” Maher explained. “It is a matter of national identity. These particular varieties are the most authentic, they are in complete synergy with the land they grow on and the four elements - fire, earth, air and water - they live in.”
Sebastien Khoury, owner and winemaker of Domaine de Baal, whom I had contacted via Facebook, didn’t quite share Maher’s opinion on autochthonous grapes. Different people react differently to being in a foreign country and some of them even do better than the local population. With grapes it’s the same. A Syrah grape harvested in France produces another wine than the Syrah grape in combination with the Lebanese climate and soil. “In Lebanon we have great soils,” Sebastien said, “but for me the local grapes - Obeideh and Merweh - just don’t do the trick.”
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The classic white of Lebanon’s Château Musar winery is precisely a blend of the two indigenous grapes. For Serge Hochar, Musar’s legendary owner who passed away in 2015, Lebanese wine was the liquid representation of Lebanon, its geography and its people. “Wine is above politics,” he used to say, “wine is tolerance.” For some people the Musar belongs to the great wines of the world. For others Hochar had wrongfully elevated his faulty wines to a cult status. “To understand my wine you need brain and soul,” Serge Hochar is quoted as saying. To understand Lebanon it is the same, one might add: brain and soul.
Despite not being a renowned wine producer just yet, Maher Harb has already had a considerable media presence. Maher told me that he always met people along the way who were excited by his project and wrote articles about it. Maher himself is the perfect ambassador for his product: with his good looks, his Lebanese hospitality and entrepreneurial spirit, not to mention the intensity in his eyes when talking about this passion of his, he convincingly embodies the emotions that make drinking wine such an experience.
Tasting wine is a very personal experience of course. But how can the winemaker bring his emotions into a bottle, and to a consumer who has never smelled the fertile earth and the sweet air of Nehla; who has never been blinded by the sun of the Batroun mountains; never dripped of sweat when planting the vines, cultivating the land and harvesting the grapes; to a person who has never tasted his own wine, the result of his own work, for the first time.
“When I sample my wine outside of Lebanon,” Sebastien Khoury told me, “it is always difficult to convey this emotion.” But then Sebastien speaks about the nature of Lebanon and its beauty, and explains to the consumer how he works and what he is looking for in a wine. “And usually it works!”
Maher fully agreed. “I believe that I can share my passion through the wines that I produce and the identity that I create around them,” he said. In a Lebanon still largely disrespectful of the preservation of nature, Maher aims to produce a natural wine, with minimal human interference that respects and trusts the fruit. “There are many types of consumers,” he went on, “however I am sure that the most curious and imaginative among them will get a feel of these emotions.”
Identity at Maher Harb’s winery has a number: sept (seven, in French). When choosing a name for his winery, Maher was looking for a term that would reflect his strong link with his father. Then his brother told him that in numerology Maher was a number seven person, just as his father who died when Maher was seven, shortly before the end of the Lebanese civil war. Everything in Lebanon is always, somehow, about the war. Maher’s winery makes no exception.
What is next in store for the sept winery? The 2015 production has been a success and there are no bottles left. After my visit, Maher emailed me that with the new harvest he will start to produce terroir wines, using grapes from his own vineyard in Nehla and from different locations in the Bekaa valley, labeling the wines’ distinctive origins as such. Great wines don’t just come from ‘somewhere’; they bear the marks of their roots. Location is identity, identity is emotion, and emotions stimulate and inspire.
In his obituary for Serge Hochar, Michael Karam, Lebanon’s premier wine journalist, wrote that Hochar was a fighter. A fighter for his wine and his country, “which he saw as a glorious, magical and even mystical land, and for what it meant to be Lebanese, to be blessed and cursed in equal measure, but to trust in the ultimate triumph of the human spirit.”
As for Maher, “the ultimate triumph of the human spirit” might be a bit over the top, at least for now. It is too early to predict the imprint that he will make in Lebanon’s wine history. However there is something about Maher Harb that is captivating, charismatic, something that may give the art of winemaking a new poetic interpretation. “My aim is to produce a wine that will express the beauty of our country in its diversity,” Maher told me, “a wine that will bring people back to nature and simplicity.”
To achieve his goals, Maher will have to use all the assets he’s got to make him a remarkable wineman: sensitivity, intuition, leadership and stubbornness. Stubbornness in particular, because, as we know, ‘nothing ever comes easy in Lebanon.’