What now for Lebanese wine?

Innovate to capture the foreign market

Photo by: Greg Demarque/Executive

Lebanese wine is at a turning point in its long and proud history—and it is a positive turning point too. But first, a little context: For those who do not know, Lebanon, or what is now Lebanon, has been making wine for thousands of years. Only the people of the Caucasus have been making wine for longer. But even if they made it first, it was our ancestors the Phoenicians who, courtesy of their vast trading fleet, gave wine to the rest of the world, and at one point—in the height of Phoenician commercial dominance between 900 and 330 BC—wine from Byblos was among the most sought-after wines in the then-known world. It was the Pétrus of its day.

But it was the Jesuits at what is now Château Ksara, making a modern, dry wine in the Bekaa Valley in the mid-19th century, who upped our game, while the subsequent arrival of the French after World War I ensured that a wine culture endured. If Lebanon had been run by the British, I would not be writing this article.

The local wine industry, as we know it today, really began in the early 1990s, after the civil war, when five wineries, Château Kefraya, Château Ksara, Château Musar, Château Nakad, and Domaine des Tourelles, dusted themselves off after 15 years of fighting and looked toward a bright future. They were joined by half a dozen exciting new producers and, by the mid-90s, we had around 14 wineries. Today, we are nudging at 60, with Lebanon firmly on the world wine map.

But there is much work to do. At home, we need to protect our industry, not necessarily by taxing the hell out of imported foreign wines, but by encouraging everyone to “Buy Lebanese” and convincing them that home-made bottles can be as good, if not better, than one of the very ordinary—not to mention overpriced—Bordeauxs on the local market.

We also need to admit that we are too dysfunctional to ever activate the National Wine Institute, the so-called public-private body created to run the sector, which has been gestating for nearly 15 years and does not look likely to be born anytime soon. We should leave the running of the industry to the Union Vinicole du Liban, Lebanon’s official association of wine producers, which has done more than any other body to build and promote the sector in the last three decades.

Selling our wares

But abroad is where our fortunes lie. We make roughly 10 million bottles each year, but we still only drink a shade over 1 liter per capita, compared to 45 liters in France and Italy, 36 in Germany and 24 in the UK. The few tourists we do attract do not knock back wine in the quantities we would like—certainly not enough to ensure we drink all of our output at home.

So how do we move forward in the international market? We need to be different. We need to highlight indigenous white grapes like the white Obeideh and Merwah, and what I call the red “heritage” grapes, such as Cinsault, Grenache, and Carignan. If you give the international market something it has never seen, the wine will fly off the shelf. You do not believe me? Just ask Château Ksara, whose hugely daring Merwah varietal is now selling out wherever it goes, likewise for Domaine des Tourelles with its Vieille Vigne Cinsault. Vertical 33, a boutique winery, is doing great things with Obeideh, as are Château St. Thomas, Domaine Wardy, Château Kefraya (in limited quantities), and Coteaux du Liban. And get this: Latourba and Batroun Mountains have made Lebanon’s first sparkling wines, released in 2018 and 2016 respectively. Innovation, enthusiasm, and adventure are essential in our business.

The superstar grapes, the grapes we all know courtesy of the emergence of New World varietal wines in the last 30 years, such Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc to name a few, are all brilliantly suited—Cabernet, Syrah, and Chardonnay especially—to Lebanon’s terroir. The trouble is that everyone else, from the Australians to the Chileans, use them. We have to learn to compete better in an increasingly competitive global market.

Throwing another Cabernet Sauvignon onto an already huge global pile without telling the consumer why he should buy it over, say, a Californian or a South African one, will not work. It’s all down to basic marketing, and it is essential we revive the award-winning, but prematurely terminated, “Wines of Lebanon” campaign. It must be, at least in part, state funded and rolled out across strategic markets, even if the rewards take years to show up on the bottom line. It cannot be stressed enough how important it is to keep reinforcing the idea of Lebanon as a winemaking country. Stop anyone in the street in the UK and ask them what they know about Chile, and I wager they will mention wine before naming the capital, Santiago, or the Andes. Meanwhile, wine has helped boost a positive reputation for post-apartheid South Africa, and could do the same for us. I think you will agree that we need all the beneficial PR we can get.

Quality wins out

But the wines still have to be good. No one would be going crazy about Syria’s Domaine de Bargylus, which comes with exciting war stories to rival that of the late, great Serge Hochar of Château Musar, if what was in the bottle was not truly sumptuous, approved by the best palates in the world.

And while it is one thing to make good wine, it is another thing to sell it. Bargylus’ Lebanese brother, Château Marsyas, as well as a handful of other dynamic producers, such as IXSIR, the aforementioned Château Kefraya, Château Ksara, Domaine des Tourelles, and, of course, Château Musar, have shown that well-positioned, premium Lebanese wines can survive at a brutally competitive price point in some of the most sophisticated markets—as long as the brand is compelling. At Château Marsyas, the wines are beautifully-packaged, while the owners, Karim and Sandro Saade, are young, likeable, attractive, and able to tell a good story. It is a basic formula, and if you get it right, you’re halfway there.

So, let us nurture a new generation of Lebanese winemakers who can make beautiful, thrilling wines that evoke a sense of place and can excite an increasingly well-informed modern consumer. If we can do all these things, then we can, once again, conquer the world of wine lovers.

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