BEIRUT, Jun 23 (IPS) - Pine trees adorn majestic mountain flanks separating south Lebanon from the Chouf region in the village of Jezzine. Amid the shrubbery, lush vines, their crisp leaves tinted emerald green, bear the promise of a future harvest as the grapes start to form on the twisted branches. Bordering known Hezbollah strongholds, wine production seems to be thriving, in an area where the peaceful co-existence between the culture of the vine and the 'party of God' is indeed a paradox.
The neat rows of vines that neatly align the main road in Jezzine bear Syrah, Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and many other grape varieties. "Lebanon is blessed with a consistent amount of rain and sun every year, which are factors that facilitate to a great extent the vinification process and make our country perfectly suited for wine production," says Habib Karam, partner at the Karam winery.
The Lebanese started producing wine 5,000 years ago. Their ancestors, the Phoenicians, were among the first people to commercialise and sell wine regionally, exporting their produce to the far shores of Mediterranean countries, including Italy and Greece. The wine industry witnessed a boost in 1857, when monks from the Ksara village in the Bekaa Valley, east of Beirut, started cultivating new varieties of vines they imported from Algeria, at the time a French colony and the second largest wine producer after France.
Karam examines the vines under the scorching sun, fixing a stem against the wire that supports the shrubs. In the background is Mount Safi, a mountain chain located north of the Litani river, its white rocky summits glowing in the sun. Since the 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah, and the subsequent deployment of troops from the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon (UNIFIL) south of the Litani river, the militant group's military operations have become extremely difficult if not impossible, leading to their building fortifications on the mountain peaks surrounding Jezzine.
Karam nonetheless maintains that Hezbollah has never interfered with his work. Launched in 2003, his operation has been growing steadily, spreading over 75,000 square metres and boasting a yearly production of 55,000 bottles.
The wine maker has strayed from traditional Lebanese wine making by choosing an area away from the country's known 'wine country' in the Bekaa valley. "When I decided to establish my winery, the question I asked myself was what would make people buy my wine -- what would really differentiate me from the rest? I decided to produce a wine that would be distinguishable from others, something that could be only achieved if I grew my vines in a new territory outside the Bekaa Valley. I chose Jezzine." Karam comes from the area, which was occupied by Israeli armed forces until 2000.
His vineyards are currently scattered in different villages around Jezzine, such as Roum and Bisra. Looking at the picturesque landscape, it is difficult to imagine that the area was in the midst of a war only two years ago. Vine shrubs are firmly planted in soil of different shades, creating an earthy palette of beige and reddish brown, surrounded by pink wild flowers and red anemones.
"In spite of the war and the systematic targeting by the Israelis of any suspicious vehicles, I was able to irrigate my land. They had drones flying over the region -- luckily they never targeted my irrigation trailer, which was at one point filmed extensively. I suppose they wanted to make sure we were not engaged in any suspicious activity," says Karam.
The wine maker was in fact approached by Hezbollah members during the conflict, who inquired if he needed help with irrigating his vineyards. As the war lingered on, wine producers around the country worried about their autumn harvest. Fortunately, the conflict ended on Aug. 14, and the first white grapes were picked Aug. 18.
Two years after the July 2006 war, Lebanese wine production is in full throttle. One potential obstacle to the sector is the ever changing political climate, among which feature Syria's recent peace negotiations with Israel over the return of the Golan Heights. "The Golan Heights is known to produce a wine of excellent quality, which is comparable to Lebanese wines. In the event that the area is returned to Syria, it could represent serious competition for Lebanese wines," predicts Habib Karam.
As the sun sets over the Karam vineyard, the sound of explosions resonates in the distance, the source unknown, as Hezbollah has barred the entry of security forces. Nevertheless, the wine continues to flow.