The long and winey road

Enotourism on the rise in Lebanon

Summer 2015 saw a new trend emerge among Lebanese people’s weekend plans: instead of the traditional beach club or lunch at a Lebanese restaurant on a trip to the mountains, more and more people were opting to spend a day discovering a new winery followed by a leisurely lunch on the premises.

Enotourism is defined as tourism in which the goal is or at least includes the tasting or purchase of wine, usually close to the source. In Lebanon, the Massaya winery can be credited with bringing the concept of wine tourism into the limelight through its Sunday buffets which date back to 2002. “The buffet is our way of enjoying our Sundays. It used to be for our friends, and then our friends invited their friends and it became an organized activity, but it is essentially what my family, my parents, would spend their weekends doing,” recalls Ramzi Ghosn, CEO and winemaker at Massaya, in an earlier interview with Executive.

Michael Karam, author of Wines of Lebanon, sees it as the natural evolution of any wine producing country to have forms of wine tourism such as food and beverage (F&B), outlets in wineries or wine tastings. “It introduces consumers to wines and creates a wine culture, and I think any winery that takes itself seriously recognizes that it has to have some kind of F&B activity, even if sporadic, to highlight the beauty of their winery and wine culture,” explains Karam.

Indeed, interest in wine tourism among the Lebanese is on the rise, evidenced by many of Lebanon’s wineries diversifying their visitor services to include more than simply wine tasting. Several wineries have introduced restaurants in their premises within the past five years or are looking into developing one. “Wine tourism is relatively new in Lebanon though more and more people are expressing an interest in it. And you have more wineries opening restaurants, as people like the combination of drinking wine for a good price while enjoying a lovely view,” says Jean Paul Khoury, owner and winemaker at Château Khoury.

The main role of wine tourism, from the wineries’ perspective, is ultimately to promote their wines to visitors. “It is becoming one of the most important activities for wineries in the world because winemakers have discovered that your most faithful clients are the ones who visit your winery, taste your wine and see how you do it,” says Hady Kahale, general manager at Ixsir Winery.

Karam believes that wine tourism is all about capturing the consumer’s imagination. “Wine is a product which you associate with lifestyle and dining and if a winery can tap into the imagination of the consumer and give them that kind of lifestyle, it has to be a good thing,” he says.

Group Wine Tourism

Beyond promoting wine tourism at their own winery, the wineries of the Batroun region, with the support of the municipality, are working together to promote wine tourism in their area as a whole. A drive through the mountains of Batroun reveals signposts pointing out the nine wineries of the area, and a map with all the wineries and their contact information was developed earlier for those who want to plan their tour. “What people don’t always know is that Batroun is one of the most important and oldest wine regions in the world and so we, the wineries of the area, believed it is important for this to be known and so we came together to achieve this,” says Kahale explaining that the idea they are slowly working towards is for people to not only visit the wineries but also to discover Batroun and spend time there.

This route has inspired other regions to look into the idea, with the four wineries in the Bhamdoun area reportedly exploring and developing the same concept. While the wineries of the Bekaa valley interviewed for this article all believe such regional tourism is important and say they are willing to develop it, they cited various obstacles that so far have stood in the way, “We cannot do that in the Bekaa first of all because the area is much more spread out, and second of all because of the congestion on the main roads – while in Batroun, the drive is scenic. Despite these obstacles, we should dare to have an organized Enotourism in the region and we are working toward that with an expert who will come up with proposals,” says Zafer Chaoui, chairman and CEO of Ksara and current head of the Union Vincole du Liban (UVL), Lebanon’s official association of wine producers.

Whether at the level of a single winery or of a wine producing region, it is clear that wine tourism in Lebanon is growing and so Executive chose to highlight a selection of wineries with some form of touristic service on their premises to learn more about what they offer and the impact these services have on their core business of wine production.

Château Kefraya

Château Kefraya’s restaurant began, in 1999, by serving cheese platters as accompaniments to wine samplings at the winery. As the number of visitors increased, according to Château Kefraya’s director of Hospitality Development Assaad Abiad, the Château chose to develop their wine tourism sector starting with wine etiquette and kitchen crew training, and the diversification of the restaurant’s offerings through a customized menu of food and wine pairing.

Their complete enotourism program of a full day of activities in the winery was launched in 2010. It includes first a guided “train” ride through the picturesque vineyards and vines used in the production of Kefraya’s wine, with a stop at an ancient Roman hypogea. Then follows a guided tour of the wine cellar, museum and treasure room (a room where the majority of Château Kefraya’s main vintages are stored) along with a thorough explanation of the winemaking process. Then, finally, a wine tasting with the opportunity for wine amateurs to make their own “l’Atelier” bottles, by creating a blend from different grapes and choosing a name for their own cuvée.

A shady spot to dine at Château Kefraya

A shady spot to dine at Château Kefraya

This holistic tour can take up to four hours, explains Abiad, with visitors often following it with lunch or coffee at the restaurant. The vineyard train ride tour costs $6 per person while the cellar visit and wine tasting are complimentary.

The winery capitalizes on its huge premises by including activities such as walking and biking through the vineyards, and by opening up their lush gardens for visitors to lounge in (these gardens can be reserved for weddings or other private gatherings during the summer).

Aside from the a la carte menu available on weekdays, Château Kefraya has a “Mouton à la Broche”, buffet on Saturday and featured wine with complimentary specialty dishes such as Coq au Vin or Lapin au Vin, and an entrees buffet on Sunday. While parents linger over their food and wine, their children are kept busy through an entertainment program which includes arts and crafts activities. Buffets cost $50 and include open wine.

The winery’s tourism services remain operational in the winter, with only the ride through the vineyards cancelled when the weather worsens. The restaurant moves indoors to the chimney room, where the furniture and ceiling are made out of oak barrels and furniture (this room can also be used for corporate conferences).

According to Abiad, Château Kefraya receives 35,000 visitors per year with the tour of the vineyards, the cellar visit and wine tasting being the most in demand activities. “Ten years ago the key area of attraction for our Lebanese visitors used to be the restaurant, but now it is the more cultural and educational aspects as they want to learn about wine. There is a growing wine culture in Lebanon,” he says.

Abiad believes this educational message, as opposed to financial gain, is at the heart of Kefraya’s enotourism programme. “It is a pedagogical approach to wine tourism because when welcoming people to our domain, we share experiences and knowledge, and the more you understand the product, the more you understand its quality. The more we can communicate what we do with visitors, the easier it becomes for them to appreciate the quality behind our wines and our terroirs. It’s mainly a form of communication,” says Fabrice Guiberteau, Oenologue and Technical Director at Château Kefraya, explaining the winery’s perception of wine tourism.

Of course, when visitors have a good experience at the premises, they leave with a favorable impression of the wine, frequently buying bottles from the winery’s boutique or noting down favorite vintages to buy when grocery shopping at a later stage, explains Abiad.

Château Kefraya’s enotourism program is still growing, with Abiad saying that plans to build a hotel on the premises, with a beautiful view of the vineyards and the surrounding mountains to complete the experience, are being studied.

Château Ksara

Château Ksara’s claim to touristic fame is its 2 kilometer long stretch of natural caves which have been used since the Roman era and are considered among the eight biggest natural caves in the world. Zafer Chaoui, chairman and CEO of Château Ksara and current head of the UVL, explains that these caves were discovered by coincidence at the turn of the 20th century and were enlarged during the First World War by the men who came to hide at the Ksara winery (which was then a Jesuit convent) to escape joining the Ottoman army. “The Ottomans respected that it was religious property and did not search it and so it is said that 300 men from the Bekaa valley spent the whole war period there and were protected by the Jesuits,” explains Chaoui.

With such a history, says Chaoui, the caves were a natural tourist destination and, prior to the war in Syria in 2012, attracted 70,000 to 75,000 annual visitors, split between foreign tourists on their way to Baalbek on organized tours or Lebanese people coming specifically for the winery. “Sixty percent of the visitors we received were foreigners and the rest were Lebanese. Many of these foreigners came from Damascus and travelled by bus to Ksara and then to Baalbek, spending the night in Hamma before going to Aleppo. These represented around 10,000 visitors per year,” recalls Chaoui.

Entrance to Château Ksara

Entrance to Château Ksara

This high number of tourists led Château Ksara to enlarge their restaurant and tasting facilities, explains Chaoui, and today they have three tasting rooms receiving three different groups at the same time and a restaurant with a capacity of 130. The restaurant, which is open only for lunch, features, aside from main dishes such as meat, chicken and fish, a salad bar open for lunch with cheeses and salads which pair well with wine. The average bill at the restaurant is $30.

Initially, the war in Syria caused a significant drop in the number of tourists to the Bekaa region, with the number of tourists to Château Ksara dropping to 25,000, consisting of mainly Lebanese residents and expats. Following the wineries of the region’s encouragement of the media to differentiate between the different areas of the Bekaa, this year the number of the visitors to the winery until July exceeded 30,000 visitors with Chaoui expecting the number to increase in the peak months of August, September and October. “While it’s true that there are security issues at the borders, the rest of the Bekaa region and the road from Beirut to Zahle is calm and safe. Many people don’t dare come to the Bekaa because of reports of conflicts by the media but the Bekaa is huge and one small area in turmoil is not the whole region,” says Chaoui.

Château Ksara aims for an even bigger number of tourists but it says that the goal is not to make profit out of the restaurant or visits but to emphasize the name and reputation of Château Ksara. “The people who visit our wineries talk about our wines to their friends and also buy from our boutique so it is profitable in that sense but what we work for is to maintain our image which is directly related to our history and size,” concludes Chaoui. 

Domaine Des Tourelles

Looking at the heavily congested Chtaura highway you wouldn’t imagine that tucked amidst all this sound and air pollution is an oasis of calm vineyards, greenery and a few charming houses which is Domaine Des Tourelles.

Domaine Des Tourelles prides itself on being a family owned winery as opposed to a corporate structured one and thus shies away from mass wine tourism. Having said that, Faouzi Issa, co-owner and winemaker at Domaine Des Tourelles, still recognizes the value of wine tourism in communicating the winery’s message and vintages to the public. “We usually keep a low visibility in the sense that we don’t have billboards and advertisements everywhere so we need to have people discover our wine through our version of wine tourism,” says Issa.

For the past five years, the winery has held an annual Fetes Des Vendanges (Harvest Festival) every September which is essentially a full day celebration of the year’s harvest including lunch on the winery’s premises. This event, which is open to the public through ticket purchases (price $60 for adults, $30 for children) has gained momentum over the years, and last year 400 people were going to attend before the event was cancelled due to the blockage of Dahr El Baydar road. This year, 350 visitors are expected to attend the event, to be held on September 13, 2015.

Domaine Des Tourelles receives individual or group visitors to their winery by request which, according to Issa, allows them to give more personalized tours and also reflects the visitors’ seriousness. “By mass tours, visitors won’t feel the passion of the winemaking because the employees who are hired to give tours don’t care that much. We want to keep our free time for the 10 percent who are really excited to know more about our wine,” says Issa, adding that the winery receives 5,000 visitors per year. The tour ends with a breakfast of raw meat if the tour was for arak making, or vertical tasting if it was a wine tour.

Issa says the family will be launching a five room boutique guest house on their premises before the end of the year 2016 which will be housed in a newly renovated building dating back to 1868 and containing all the charm of that period in its architecture and little artifacts. This private hotel will not be open to the public but used by the winery’s guests from distributors to clients to the media. “It will not be for commercial use because it is small. We see it as more for communication because we have a huge space on our premises and the hotel will ensure it stays alive,” says Issa.

Domaine Des Tourelles is also considering launching a restaurant next year. The concept they have in mind is a cozy authentic restaurant with home food cooked by the same lady who prepares the meals for the team during the grape harvest. Issa says the main goal for the restaurant will again be the promotion of their wines and not any financial profit. “We will not have a big operation for little profit therefore we went to the other end of having an experience similar to the villages of Greece where people drop by, have a meal for a small fee, enjoy good wine in a beautiful setting, have a nice experience and leave,” enthuses Issa, adding that wine will be sold at retail price in the restaurant.

After the events of last year in the Bekaa, Issa says this project was put on hold but that they are reconsidering it for this year: “last year was a turning point for the Bekaa and we were demotivated. This year we got more encouraged and excited because the situation is a bit better: we are waiting until the beginning of 2016 and then we will assess the situation in terms of starting the restaurant as we have the most practical location for those coming from Beirut,” explains Issa.

Château Khoury

Nestled between acres of vineyards at the outskirts of Zahle, with the backdrop of the beautiful Bekaa valley and it surroundings, lies the idyllic Chateau Khoury winery owned by Jean Paul Khoury and his parents.

Led by their desire to share their beautiful landscape with others, Chateau Khoury launched their restaurant last year, opening just for weekends and serving a buffet which Boutros says was quite successful. So far this year, and as Khoury is still recruiting to complete his team, the restaurant has only been open for lunch on weekends, but Khoury says they plan to become operational year long and in the evenings by mid September, 2015.

Catering for the restaurant is under the supervision of executive chef of the Mar Mikhael restaurant L’Humeur Du Chef, Jad El-Hage. The menu, explains Khoury, is both international – with traditional French dishes such as tarte flambe native to Alsace, France, where his mother is from – and local, with some Lebanese mezza dishes. “I cannot rely only on the people from Beirut and the coast to come here and so I have to cater to people from the Bekaa valley who are traditional in their cuisine taste,” says Khoury.

Khoury explains that ingredients for the restaurant’s dishes are organic and sourced from their own land, including rabbits, chickens, herbs and vegetables. “We promote the organic way of thinking and eating because this is who we are. This is the idea all around,” says Khoury.

The goal of the restaurant is to promote the winery and the scenic area they are located in which people should discover, explains Boutros. “We first thought of having a restaurant at the winery because people in Lebanon like to eat. They won’t think of visiting a winery just for tasting the wine but if they can eat, they will come. So we combined both of the activities and for me it is the best place to promote my wine and have people discover it and taste it while enjoying a beautiful view,” enthuses Khoury.

Khoury does not expect to make any profit from the restaurant before the third year of operation, given the situation in the region, and says they were doing very well last year before the problems with the Dahr El Baydar road blockage occurred.

Amongst plans for the future is a 15 to 20 room hotel divided between the winery itself and a little chateau, also on the winery’s premises, which will further Khoury’s plan to spread the beauty of their winery and surrounding land. Although the hotel has already been constructed, Khoury says the opening date has not yet been determined. “The investment for this (restaurant) is from my father, who owns a medical laboratory, and from the winery itself which is performing better each year. But for now, we will be waiting until the area calms down before we open the hotel,” explains Khoury.

Ixsir

Hady Kahale, general manager at Ixsir, defines wine tourism as the following: “Wine tourism is an experience, every single person who comes here to Ixsir and leaves happy is for me part of wine tourism. So wine tourism can be a restaurant, tasting, visit, hotel or even spa. I define it as welcoming people and providing them with a very good experience. I hope when they leave they understand a bit more about wine.”

Arriving to Ixsir winery, one is greeted by a 17th century seigniorial house surrounded by lush gardens and vineyards underneath which are three floors dedicated to winemaking and storage cellars. Having been named one of the greenest buildings in the world by CNN, and having also won the architectural international A+ Popular Award, the winery garnered a lot of attention from tourists, media and the Lebanese alike when it opened to the public in 2012.

In 2014, Ixsir launched their winery’s restaurant on the ground floor of the winery, next to their wine boutique and in their gardens which were initially used for hosting special events and gatherings. The restaurant is in partnership with executive Chef Nicolas Audi in his first venture into cooking for a restaurant rather than catering. “We work with Nicolas Audi because we know him from our private events and have seen how he works. We are great winemakers and are passionate about wine but the restaurant business is a passion by itself, food is a passion and Nicolas is passionate about food,” says Kahale explaining that in line with the philosophy of Ixsir wine being the wine of the mountains, the restaurant’s cuisine is Audi’s take on the traditional dishes cooked by Lebanese mountain folk, with whom he spent a lot of time discovering their recipes.

Dining at Ixsir's lush outdoor patio

Dining at Ixsir’s lush outdoor patio

Starting off indoors with a capacity of 60, the restaurant quickly expanded into the garden and to a final capacity of 200 which, according to Kahale, they will not go over in order to preserve Ixsir’s spirit. According to Kahale, the restaurant has been very successful so far and is almost always fully booked for lunch during weekends. “The first two months we had a huge success but I wasn’t satisfied because I was worried that people are just trying the latest new place, but now that they continue to visit and come back again and recommend it to each other, I am satisfied. I hope it becomes a classic place because we are on the right track,” says Kahale.

The winery received 17,000 visitors last year and already had 25,000 visitors by the end of July 2015. While it is hard to quantify the impact of wine tourism on sales, Kahale says the important thing is for visitors to have a good time, as that way they develop a strong relation with Ixsir and become brand ambassadors “We had baptisms, birthdays, wedding proposals, weddings among other life events at Ixsir. We cannot quantify its impact, like we cannot quantify anything in marketing, but it is indispensable not only for marketing but because we believe in that,” says Kahale, acknowledging that wine tourism surely influences sales, but not being able to place an exact price tag on that influence.

Wine tourism for Ixsir is an ongoing project and plans for the future include the further beautification of the gardens surrounding the winery and the introduction of signage in the vineyards to allow for guests to walk around and discover on their own instead of relying on hostesses. “We have one of the few botanical vineyards in the world, with 21 different grape varieties. And so we are developing signs to showcase the different varieties as it is rare to have these grape varieties side by side,” explains Kahale adding that these this will allow for a fuller experience in the winery.

Belle-vue

At the heart of Naji Boutros’ wine, Belle-vue, his restaurant and his hotel Le Telegraphe De Belle-Vue, is he and his wife Jill’s love for Bhamdoun, his mother’s hometown – and their desire to keep natives of Bhamdoun living and working in it.

In outlining how the winery came to be, Sandra Haddad – general manager of the restaurant and hotel – says Boutros’ maternal grandparents used to own the Belle-Vue Hotel, one of the oldest hotels in the Middle East, which was destroyed during the Lebanese civil war.

After being abroad during the war, Butros returned in the early 1990s for a trip to Lebanon and to show his wife the country. They went up to visit Bhamdoun and found it abandoned. It was then that Boutros decided to return to Lebanon and invest in Bhamdoun and its land, with the full support of Jill who had found a well preserved tile in Belle-Vue and presented it to Boutros on Christmas as a sign of her commitment to the area’s revival.

Boutros, whose background is in finance, found the concept of a winery to be the most suited to the job of both saving Bhamdoun’s land from being sold and also keeping the people in the area working the land and assuming administrative posts within the winery. So Chateau Belle-Vue winery was launched in the year 2000, and currently employs 10 people in the winery full time, with others on contract basis during harvest season. He used his own land, and rented more in Bhamdoun to grow organic grapes for their wine.

As visits to the boutique winery for tasting began to increase, Boutros felt the need to have a restaurant for visitors to pair their wine with food. So around four years ago, explains Haddad, Boutros bought an old estate which used to be the French Ambassador’s residence, and renovated its guard house into a restaurant – Le Telegraphe de Belle-Vue which opened two years ago in the autumn.

The restaurant started out small with a capacity of 20, and developed to serve a hundred with both interior seating and additional terrace seating during summer. Open both for lunch and dinners during summer, the restaurant does not serve less than 70 covers per weeknight and is full on weekends, says Haddad. During winters, covers average 40 per weekend night, and full capacity during lunches (they only open on weekends during winter).

Following the success of the restaurant, which Haddad says has already returned its investment, customers began asking for options to spend the weekend at Bhamdoun, and so came the idea of a bed and breakfast in the French Ambassador’s house. Haddad says the hotel, which has seven rooms in total, opened in September 2014 and was fully booked this summer starting May. Next year, the hotel will also feature a pool with a bamboo leaf filtration system. “We are an ecofriendly restaurant and hotel, with organic food usually from our gardens or land, and solar power,” says Haddad proudly.   

The hotel and restaurant property also features a study room for corporate conferences or training, a little shop where people can buy traditional food products made by Bhamdoun natives as well as Belle-Vue wine, and an outdoor wedding venue with a capacity of up to 300. In the future, Jill Boutros plans to launch a public library for Bhamdoun’s residents in the study room. The project employs an average of 25 people, all from Bhamdoun according to Haddad.

While Boutros has certainly diversified his business, the core of it all remains the winery, with the other businesses offshoots of it. “Because we are a boutique business, people usually hear about us by word of mouth or recommendation and sometimes they only hear about our restaurant or hotel, and not about our wine. We make sure to explain to all our guests that we are first of all a winery,” explains Haddad, adding that since Belle-Vue wine is not sold at supermarkets and is available solely in select restaurants and at the Telegraph shop, where the majority of visitors also buy wine.

Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut.

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