KHIRBET QANAFAR, Lebanon (AFP) – Lebanon Bekaa Valley is gaining a new reputation as a wine-making region increasingly attractive to vintners. More than a dozen labels have appeared on the market since the end of the country’s 1975-1990 civil war with each vying for recognition among the growing crop of New World wines.

And judging by the awards some of the wines are receiving at international fairs, they are holding their ground amid stiff competition and peaking the interest of connoisseurs. "The Lebanese wine industry today produces about seven million bottles annually out of which some three million are exported," said Serge Hochar, head of the Union Vinicole du Liban, a loose association of wine producers.

"It is a 25-million-dollar industry out of which about 10 million dollars represent exports."That is more than triple the receipts of the mid 1990s when the wine sector began taking off after the devastating years of war.At the time, the lush Bekaa Valley, known in Roman times as the breadbasket of the world and home to a Roman temple dedicated to Bacchus, the god of wine, was synonymous with guerrilla activity and hashish rather than wine making.

"In 1975, when the war started, we were selling 97 percent of our production in Lebanon," said Hochar, whose family owns Chateau Musar, which gained world attention at the Bristol Wine Fair in 1979.

"In 1990, 97 percent of our production was being exported", mainly to Europe and the United States.

And whereas the country had some 700 hectares (1,729 acres) of vineyards in the early 1990s, it now boasts about 2,000 hectares with more being added annually.

"If you could construct the perfect wine-growing area, it would be the Bekaa," said Michael Karam, who published an award-winning book on Lebanese wines in 2005.

"Wine-making conditions there are perfect, because there is very little disease, you’ve got 320 days of sunshine, the right altitude and the right soil."

With that in mind, Lebanese wine has nowhere to go but up, added Karam.

"It has still got to make its mark internationally but it already has a very good reputation abroad founded primarily on the performance of Chateau Musar in Britain," he said.

Hochar managed to establish his wine on the international market in the late 1970s thanks to its quality and tales of him braving bullets and bombs to transport his grapes from the Bekaa to his winery near Beirut.

"So when you opened one of his bottles, you were getting a wine made in the heat of conflict," Karam said. "It added an exotic note."

At Chateau Ksara, the country’s oldest winery which is celebrating its 150th anniversary this year, the 2007 season is already being toasted as grape pickers this week finished harvesting the last vines.

"I think we’re going to have an exceptional year as far as the maturity of the grapes is concerned," said Paulette Bou Moucef, in charge of the vineyards.

"We had two heat waves toward the end of summer and that’s a plus for the grapes," she added, casting a proud eye over neat rows of vines in Qanafar, where Chateau Ksara has a domain.

She said the winery, started by Jesuit priests in 1857, was experiencing three percent growth annually with 2.2 million bottles produced, more than half of them for export.

One winery that has been gaining attention in recent years is Massaya, which was founded in the mid 1990s by two brothers and their French partners.

Their wines have quickly moved up the ranks and are now served in such posh establishments as Paris’ Ritz or George V hotels.

As for Hochar, who considers himself a "wine priest", his aim is to put his country’s wines firmly on the world map and to have people think of wine rather than war when referring to Lebanon.

"Some people are not aware that we were the country of milk and honey, that we are a very old civilisation and the epitome of civilisation is wine," he said.

"I advise people to drink a glass of wine a day, preferably good wine which should be Lebanese."