Lebanon’s wine landscape has evolved continuously since the end of the civil war in 1990. There were only about five operational wineries at the time; today, Lebanon has 45 wineries, according to the latest count by the Union Vinicole du Liban, Lebanon’s official association of wineries—and some in the field place the figure as high as 50.
This increase has opened investors’ and wine enthusiasts’ eyes to the potential that lies within a glass of Lebanese vino, and as a result, even more wineries are set to enter the market.
Executive took a look at three wineries that launched their first vintage within the past few years to find out what motivated their owners to enter this business, and what they bring to this dynamic industry.
Nestled deep in Saghbine, west Bekaa, with a view of Lake Qaraoun, lies Latourba winery. Latourba is the brainchild of Elie Chehwan, an engineer and former head of municipality of Saghbine, who envisioned a social-development angle for the winery. It also includes an animal farm and an ecotourism project.
Chehwan wanted a sustainable project that would support Saghbine and allow locals to work within the area rather than have to travel into cities for work. He already owned some land in the village, and rented additional land from a nearby monastery on a long-term contract.
Since the land he owned was known for its rich layers of soil—hence the brand name Latourba, which translates to “the soil” in Arabic—Chehwan considered crops that would benefit from this richness. “We thought of wine because, since the time of the Romans, the land here used to be planted with grapes known for their superior quality,” says Chehwan, explaining that he did not want to stop at planting table grapes since he believes agro-foods—processed foods from the land—have a larger and more stable market, both locally and abroad, compared to fresh produce.
Starting in 2006, Chehwan began working with Sofoklis Petropoulos, a Greek winemaker who has a PhD in winemaking from Australia and five years of experience making wine there, to plant his 65 hectares with a variety of grapes.
[pullquote]Latourba released its first vintage in 2014. Today, the winery produces 12 vintages, making 4,000 to 5,000 bottles of each. Latourba also wants to be the first winery in Lebanon to produce a sparkling wine[/pullquote]
Chehwan only uses his grapes for wine and sells the surplus to other wineries. Latourba produces only monovarietal wine and does not have blended vintages. “Every parcel has a different grape variety, and the same parcel makes the same vintage every year, so it’s interesting to compare year after year,” says Chehwan, explaining that as a new winery, producing monovarietal for a couple of years helps him understand how each grape variety is maturing and responding to the soil, in case he wants to produce blended wine in the future.
Latourba released its first vintage in 2014. Today, the winery produces 12 vintages, making 4,000 to 5,000 bottles of each. Latourba also wants to be the first winery in Lebanon to produce a sparkling wine. Chehwan says he has been working with an expert consultant from Champagne, France, on this pet project for five years now: “It takes time, because you can experiment only once each season, so you have to wait until the next year to modify the recipe and test it,” he explains.
Latourba wine is currently available for purchase online on the 209 Lebanese Wine website, in high-end restaurants, and in boutique wine sellers. Chehwan says he is planning on opening a boutique store in Beirut where Latourba wines will be sold among international wines, and where charcuterie, cheese, and wine nights will be held with visiting sommeliers.
The Latourba winery itself was only the beginning of the vision Chehwan had in mind for his property. In 2015, he built an animal farm with cows, goats, sheep, and chickens adjacent to the vineyards. He uses these animals to produce eggs, labneh, and a variety of cheeses, including goat cheese.
While these products do not have a brand name yet and are not available in the retail market, customers can buy them from Latourba. Visitors will also be able enjoy them in the restaurant Chehwan is developing on the property, which will be open by summer 2018.
The restaurant will be a part of a 15 kilometer space for a tennis court and children’s activities, a small guesthouse, the winery and cellar, and the animal farm. The project will also include a shop that will sell Latourba wine, the food products produced on the property, and traditional mooneh—food such as pickled vegetables or mollasses made by villagers to be stored in the pantry—prepared by local villagers. Chehwan hopes to employ more than 10 families through this project, in addition to the families making part of their livelihood through selling their items in the shop.
Chehwan thought of this project as way to profit from the serene and beautiful setting of his property in a way that city-dwellers would appreciate. “I felt that luxury tourism is no longer in demand, and people are looking for authentic ecotourism. They want to be in nature [at least] once a year. It’s also good for children to experience farm life and nature,” he says, recalling how one of his children’s friends was surprised to see that chickens have feathers, having only seen them on supermarket shelves.
Chehwan will not disclose how much he invested in the project, claiming he was focusing on the social impact of his venture and did not have a feasibility study in mind. Today, however, Chehwan sees promise in his project beyond the social value. “I felt that this project has a lot of potential, whether it’s the wine or the food products—it has the potential to [meet] some of the local demand for quality food items and decrease the rate of importing,” he says. He also took a subsidized loan from Banque du Liban, Lebanon’s central bank, when he set up the farm, and another one for constructing the winery. He says he will take a third when he wants to expand his wine production.
Maher Harb was satisfied with his life in Paris—he had a promising career in business-intelligence consulting and had lived there since 2001 when he left Lebanon for his university education—but he always felt there was something missing.
The only place he would feel truly at peace, he decided, was in the home his father built in their village of Nahla, Batroun, a year before he passed away.
In 2009, when the economic crisis was just starting in Europe, Harb was denied a project he had really wanted within his company, and began to question his life choices. “I realized that I feel at peace in nature, and when I would go visit the villages around France, I would feel almost the same kind of peace I would feel on my visits to Nahla. I realized that maybe the life I was living is not the one for me,” explains Harb.
After months of introspection, Harb decided to become a winemaker and plant the small plot next to his family’s home with winemaking grapes. Thus began a year of research during which Harb read as many books as he could about winemaking, visited many wineries across France, and even made wine in his apartment.
Harb returned to Lebanon in 2010 and, using the $35,000 he had saved in Paris, he transformed the woodland in Nahla into a plot of land ready for planting. But this depleted his funds, and he was left with no resources with which to move forward.
For the next two years, Harb worked within his original field in Lebanon to make the needed amount to plant the land with grapes—which he did in February 2012. But he was once again at a financial roadblock, so he returned to work in business-data analysis, this time in Riyadh. “I stayed there for two years and a half, struggling with wanting to come back to the vineyard and staying in Riyadh to make a living in a domain which was helping me make a life,” recalls Harb.
In the end, the vineyard won out, and Harb submitted his resignation in Riyadh. In mid 2014, he applied for a Master of Science in Wine Management at the International Organization of Vine and Wine. Using $50,000 from the money he had earned in Riyadh, he spent the next year and a half immersed in learning about wine, touring 25 wine-producing countries, and meeting influential figures in winemaking. “This was the most beautiful experience of my life. I came back to Lebanon [at the] end of 2015 physically exhausted and broke, but full of energy and determination to start my own winery,” says Harb.
For the next two year, he made money by working at wine retail shops and wineries, and by giving wine appreciation lessons. At the same time, he was working on launching his own winery and promoting it on social media.
He registered the company in 2016 and chose the brand name Sept (“seven” in French), as that is his and his father’s life number in numerology. “This project is really an homage to my father, so our common life number was the perfect name,” explains Harb.
He took his first personal loan the same year to buy winemaking equipment in order to produce the 2016 vintages. He also applied for an $80,000 Kafalat-sponsored loan, which was approved two months ago, and which will allow him to work toward the 2017 vintages.
Harb follows the natural method of winemaking, meaning he works with natural yeast and uses no additives in his wine except sulfur, of which he uses less than the minimum recommended amount. Since he produces vin du lieu (wine that represents the soil and area it is produced in), he uses each grape variety separately and clearly states the region of origin on every bottle. In addition to the grapes from his vineyard in Nahla, Harb buys grapes from Zahle, Deir El Ahmar, and Riyaq from farmers whom he works with to establish quality control.
Harb launched his first vintages in October 2017 during Vinifest, the annual Lebanese wine festival, and says the positive response he received from fellow winemakers felt like validation for his difficult journey. He has produced 6,000 bottles of the 2016 vintage, and will produce 7,000 for the 2017 vintage. He expects to produce up to 12,000 bottles annually for the three years after that.
[pullquote]I know that the concept, and the way I do my wine, will appeal to the international niche markets that I know of[/pullquote]
Sept wine can currently be brought from 209 Lebanese Wine’s online platform and enjoyed in several niche restaurants, such as Bar Du Port in Saifi. Harb is working with Tire Bouchon, an importer, on a distribution strategy that includes training hospitality staff in wine appreciation so that they may in turn knowledgeably help customers make wine choices.
Harb is keen to distribute internationally, taking advantage of the strong network he developed from his master’s program days. “I know that the concept, and the way I do my wine, will appeal to the international niche markets that I know of. This will give great credibility for my project,” he says.
The name Vertical 33 stands for a latitude with rich soil ideal for red wine production. Eid Azar, one of the winery’s founding partners, chose the name to highlight the importance of terroir, which is the type of soil used for his wines. “It’s the geographic location that makes all the difference in wine; everything else is details,” he says.
Azar is a medical doctor at Saint George Hospital. He did his medical training in New York, where he learned to enjoy drinking and began collecting fine wines.
In 2011, during a hike in Bouarij—a village on the outskirts of the Bekaa, which lies between the eastern slope of Mount Kneisseh and Kefraya village—he came upon an old village called Remtanieh, which had been abandoned for nearly 50 years.
It was clear from the ruins, which included broken-down farmhouses and farming terraces, that the area had been agriculturally rich. “During the 1930s and 1940s, before the state of Lebanon came to be, this area was all planted,” explains Azar. “The village was left to decay because it didn’t make sense to have a cultivated area here when the Bekaa valley had opened up as a plantation; it was very difficult to compete with that economically in terms of scale. It’s also difficult to plant here because no big tractors can come in due to the narrowness of the roads. The area’s gradual revival began in 2005,” Azar said, when a few farmers started apple plantations.
While taking in the beauty of the land, Azar saw some live vines, which dated back to the pre-independence era. It was then that he thought of reviving the location as a vineyard. So he and two of his friends pooled their personal funds and brought nine hectares of land to set up a vineyard and winery.
In 2012, Azar and his partners met Yves Confuron, a well-known winemaker from Burgundy. They invited him to their property to study its potential, and he joined the project as their partner. After rebuilding the terraces and preparing the land, they began planting in 2014.
Azar says the idea behind the winery is to make the most of the area’s microclimates. “Our approach to winemaking is terroir-based, which means that you don’t drink grapes, you drink where the grapes are coming from. If you put the exact same grape in a different soil, it’s going to behave differently,” explains Azar.
As such, he planted each variety of grape in the climate where he thought it will grow best. For example, Azar planted the Pinot Noir in the land adjacent to the winery because of its high altitude (1,600 to 1,400 meters), which the Pinot needs, while they planted the Cinsault in Kefraya, since it is hotter in the valley, and that grape responds well to heat.
In addition to the vineyard around the winery, Azar and his partners bought additional land in Zahle (planted with Cabernet Sauvignon), Umol (planted with Obeidy), and Kefraya (two separate plots—one in the valley, and one on the slopes above it).
Vertical 33 released its first labels in 2017. Azar says he plans to have nine labels and will produce between 2,000 to 4,000 bottles of each depending on the yield. All the company’s wines are monovarietal, and the grape variety along with its area of origin is clearly labeled on the bottle.
Azar plans to distribute Vertical 33 in niche markets. Confuron, a distributor that is already present in 80 markets worldwide, will be facilitating the international distribution of Vertical 33.
Azar says they are planning to open their own wine shop and bar in Gemmayze before the end of 2017. The purpose of this venture, according to Azar, is to market Vertical 33 “one-on-one,” since, as a small winery is it easier for him and his partners to do their own marketing.
Vertical 33’s local distribution will be through two friends, one of whom works with Found’d Group, a holding company of several restaurants in Lebanon. Vertical 33 will be present in The Gathering and Kaléo, two restaurants managed by Found’d, as well as in high-end restaurants such as Liza, where customers appreciate good wine, Azar said. “My wine is $35 per bottle, so I’m not interesting for most restaurants because other wineries offer them a bottle for free for every two bottles they sell,” he says.
The wine will not be available in supermarkets, as Azar explains there is too much competition. “I’ll be smashed among titans, and I’ll have to compromise on quality, which I don’t want,” explains Azar.
Those interested in buying Vertical 33 can do so in the upcoming Gemmayze outlet, and at the winery itself. Azar and his partners are working on a restaurant and guesthouse project on the property, the construction of which is almost done. Azar says they are respecting the nature of the property and only using the stones and materials which are already on the land itself.