it was the best of days; it was the worst of days

Chasing beer delivery men aside, another highlight of arriving in Lebanon was our return to the land of the grape. We foolishly flirted with a bottle of Syrian plonk, which was tipped down the sink in its entirety mere moments after wrestling the cork out. But unlike their Syrian and Israeli neighbours, Lebanese winemakers have chosen to embrace the “new-fangled” techniques of those “crazy Europeans” and hence, their product has risen above being complete rubbish.

Minor illness and bizarre opening hours thwarted our early attempts to visit some of Lebanon’s lesser wineries so we decided just to shoot for the hottest part of the flame: Chateau Musar. Despite having alluded to our tight-arse backpacker status, so as to avoid disappointment when the inevitable buying part of the visit came around, our tentative email enquiry about a cellar tour elicited a startlingly enthusiastic response and so we decided to move whatever logistical mountains were required to get ourselves up to the small town of Ghazir.

And indeed there was a rather significant mountain to be moved: Lebanese taxi drivers. If there is one group of people against whom we have developed an unabashed prejudice during the course of our travels, it’s taxi drivers. After 15 minutes of explaining that we didn’t want to go to Beiteddine and negotiating an only moderately extortionate price, the whole process had to be repeated once inside the cab as a driver, seemingly a complete stranger to the previous conversation, was assigned to us and attempted to renegotiate the whole deal on the basis that the traffic was bad, it happened to be a day ending in “-y” or because the price of tea in China went up last week. Things didn’t improve when we rounded the corner to make a 10-minute stop so the driver could race inside a faceless building and have a piece of Very Important Paper stamped. I mused that it was probably his parole record. We would have abandoned ship there and then if he hadn’t made off with our guidebook, which I’d recklessly given to him to lean on while he scribbled on the bit of paper, as ransom.

After finally getting on the road and explaining for the umpteenth time that we wanted to visit Jeita Grotto after visiting the winery, it became clear that the driver had no idea where we were going. Cue a ridiculous series of stops to ask a motley parade of local characters for directions – a mechanic at the petrol station; a lady with a pram; a young woman at a juice stall wielding a paring knife and, even more dangerously, an enormous pair of breasts – united only by their complete and inexplicable ignorance of the whereabouts of one of Lebanon’s finest and most proud establishments, housed in a large castle in the centre of a very small town which, trust me, has nothing much else to recommend it. Accusations started flying from the driver that no such place existed until we drove back through the centre of town and spotted a sign directing us 500m up the hill. Our animated pointing at the sign prompted the driver to then park the car under the watchful gaze of said sign, as though this was our intended destination, until we did some more animated pointing up the hill.

Despite being forty minutes late for our appointment, we were very graciously received and immediately transported to a wine wonderland. Atmospheric stone cellars and a very good product aside, the history of the winery is undoubtedly its most impressive aspect. You’d be hard pressed to find much written about Chateau Musar that doesn’t mention the steadfastness of the Hochar family during the civil war. Amazingly, they stood guard over their remarkable cellar – which contains bottles from every vintage since the winery’s inception in 1930, for the owners’ personal tasting or to be sold only on application to the owners themselves – at the winery’s HQ and continued production right through those nightmare years.

Even if what you were drinking didn’t have such a background, it would still stand up as one of the classics of wine making. Everything about the Chateau Musar operation is uncompromisingly old world, which manifests in the wine itself. For the amateur Australia wino, it shocks with its near total difference from the big, juicy fruit that is the cliche and reality of many Australian wines. Their flagship red is a blend of cinsault, carignan and cabernet sauvignon; savoury, gamey and grown-up, it’s great stuff.

We were pulled down off our cloud the moment we stepped outside; our driver immediately engaged in another attempted renegotiation of the fee based, I presume, on the extra time and distance consumed by getting lost. We dug our heels in, which provoked a string of the sort of vitriol that transcends language barriers and fist-shaking of unprecedented magnitude. Faced with the prospects of being punched in the face, abandoned on a Lebanese highway or stuck in the car with this lunatic driver any longer than absolutely necessary, we called off the detour to Jeita and shut up, making for a fairly tense journey back to Beirut. Stuck in traffic not far from our hotel, we seized the moment to thrust forward our payment and escape down a side street to seek refuge in the loving arms of an Armenian sausage sandwich.

After writing this, I now feel the need to go take a cool shower and have a lie-down. My rage has been further fuelled by the discovery, in the course of searching links for this post, of a map on the Chateau Musar website that not only details the cellar’s location but also confirms that we could very easily have taken a bus there. But then we wouldn’t have really earned that sausage sarnie, would we?


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One Response to “it was the best of days; it was the worst of days”

  1. beer notes #35 « beyond bagot Says:

    […] unlike Chateau Musar, the story of the Taybeh Brewing Company is one of passion for family, place and quality […]

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