Lebanese wine has been filling many a glass both locally and globally as the country’s winemakers continue their efforts to grow their market share and as new boutique wineries are launched.
Coming out of the Lebanese Civil War with just eight wineries, the wine industry in Lebanon has grown to over five times that number, with 42 wineries registered with the Ministry of Agriculture in 2016.
Of this total number, 23 wineries are members of the Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL) and account for 95 percent of Lebanon’s total wine production, which is around nine million bottles per year, according to Zafer Chaoui, current head of the UVL and chairman and chief executive officer of Château Ksara.
And yet, Lebanon’s production numbers remain a drop in the ocean in comparison to neighboring wine-producing countries. “Growth is needed. We produce nine million bottles, while Cyprus produces 27 million bottles and it doesn’t have the wine we have because our climate is better,” says Chaoui, explaining that while Lebanon might never be able to compete internationally in terms of volume of production, and therefore in prices, it does produce quality wine and should compete in that category.
All that glitters
Locally, wine consumption has been on the rise for the past four years, following a global trend due to it being perceived as “healthier” than other types of alcohol, according to Paul Choueiry, general manager of Les Caves De Taillevent.
Unfortunately, there are quite a few Lebanese who assume that imported wine is of better quality and taste than the local variety, although the country’s wine producers insist that this is often not the case. “Lebanon has incredibly good wine, and sommeliers and wine specialists who visit Lebanon are really flabbergasted by this. Lebanese have to know this because we have this kind of snobbery that we should only drink foreign wine. It is not wrong to enjoy foreign wine, but if you do a blind test, the Lebanese wine tastes just as good,” says Hady Kahale, general manager of Ixsir.
The perception of foreign wine being better than local wine is not helped by the many restaurants in Lebanon that boast an extensive imported wine list with only a few local varieties – often at almost the same price as the imported ones – according to the winemakers Executive spoke to. “This is very dangerous because you don’t see it anywhere else in the world, and what also happens is that when customers pay $60 for a bottle of French wine in a restaurant, they think, ‘Why should I pay almost the same amount for Lebanese wine?’” says Kahale, explaining that for a foreign wine to be priced at a high-end restaurant for $60, it would have left the winery at $1.50, making it very unlikely to be high quality.
Although consumption of wine is increasing in Lebanon, many wineries feel more could be done to promote local wine. “Unfortunately, we still find some restaurants that offer more imported wines than Lebanese wines. We should work more on promoting Lebanese wines in Lebanon together with the UVL,” says Joe Assaad Touma, winemaker and co-owner of Château St. Thomas.
It starts at home
Wine producers have indeed been working to improve the perception of local wines among their fellow citizens with the goal of increasing its consumption, which is still relatively low. “If you look at the consumption of Lebanese wine per capita, it’s two to three bottles per year compared to French wine which is 60,” explains Edouard Kosremelli, director general of Château Kefraya.
Their efforts are slowly but surely bearing fruit with an increasing number of Lebanese feeling pride in their local wine.
The rise in the number of boutique and small wineries also added a much needed dynamism to the sector. “Many small and medium-sized wineries are being established, and they are most welcome because healthy competition improves quality and pushes us to do better, both locally and internationally,” says Chaoui.
Having more wineries also increases the chances of people becoming aware of Lebanon as a wine-producing country, thereby increasing consumption. “With more wineries, consumers have become more curious about their wine and want to try new wines,” says Kosremelli.
Despite struggling to find distribution channels and to make a name for their wine, boutique winery owners have managed to create a niche market where those curious about wine can find a lot to be occupied with. “When you become known, established distributors will ask for the product. But if you want to build a brand, they will never help you out or push it unless you give them incentive; so you do your own marketing and hope that people will ask for it,” explains Jennifer Massoud, co-owner and communications manager at Atibaia, adding that they have seen sales of Atibaia pick up the most in outlets where managers put in the effort to educate consumers on boutique wineries.
A wine tour
The growing trend of enotourism (visiting wineries) has also helped Lebanese discover their country’s wineries and wines.
Château Ksara, with its well-known caves which sheltered those escaping the Ottoman army during World War I, received 27,000 visitors in summer 2016 alone and expects the total number of visitors for 2016 to be around 60,000, according to George Sara, Château Ksara’s Chief Commercial Officer and board member.
Meanwhile, Château Kefraya reports an increase in visitors to its winery when compared to 2015. Ixsir, too, has done well, having welcomed more than 30,000 visitors in 2016 to its winery and its accompanying Nicolas Audi catered restaurant in the hills of Batroun.
Not only does enotourism help consumers understand how wine is made, it also makes them associate the wine label with the good time they had at the winery, making them more likely to select it next time they go wine shopping, explains Kahale.
Promoting wine locally does not stop with potential customers lunching at wineries, but also involves engaging the consumer with wine production. As such, some wineries have been inviting consumers to help out with the grape picking and to celebrations at the end of harvest season. “Château St. Thomas has been hosting an annual harvest event since 1999, and the idea is to live the experience of harvesting grapes and making wine. It’s very important to have this experience and meet the people who produce the wines,” explains Touma.
Participation in local wine festivals such as the annual Vinifest, which takes place at the Beirut Hippodrome, or others held during the Christmas season also help to increase local consumers’ awareness regarding the quality and variety of Lebanese wine. “It’s important to maintain market presence and grow the consumption per capita level in Lebanon, and Vinifest is typically an event that helps in this direction,” explains Kosremelli.
Kahale thinks that marketing efforts at the local level should be directed at making Lebanese wine trendy in the eyes of consumers, especially when it comes to marketing and advertising. “Exporting is very important, but it is the Lebanese market which is extremely important for us all. Local consumption is very small in Lebanon, but this is the market we have to work with. We need sexy ideas; we need to up our marketing as this will increase the market,” enthuses Kahale, giving the example of Ixsir’s collaboration with young Lebanese artists to design the bottle of their entry range wine brand, Altitude – the first time this was done in Lebanon – and the positive response it drew from consumers. Château Kefraya also mentions their collaboration with local artists to design their labels as a marketing activity, citing Lara Khoury’s label design of the Les Breteches limited edition in 2016 as an example. Meanwhile, Château Marsyas collaborated with designer Nada Debs for their 2017 gift pack.
Sara also speaks of the importance of finding fresh ways of marketing Château Ksara, but says they have to balance that with their long history of winemaking. “We want to bring generations together around our wines, and social media is a great tool to cultivate a following among younger wine lovers. Moving forward, we have to tread a fine line between constantly reminding consumers that we are still here – through our new interactive website and seasonal billboard and radio ads that reflect the Lebanese lifestyle of wining and dining and fun in the sun at the beach – and maintaining our position as Lebanon’s most venerable winery with a history steeped in tradition going back to the Jesuits in the mid-19th century,” explains Sara.
Lebanese wine first went global with the late Serge Hochar, winemaker and founder of Château Musar. He took Château Musar to the UK amidst the Lebanese Civil War – and garnered a lot of recognition both for Lebanon as winemaking country and for his label as “the wine of the war.” Ever since – and especially now that they are spurred by the challenges brought forth by local and regional instabilities – Lebanon’s wine producers have been seeking greener markets across the globe.
In doing so, wine producers understood that by working together under a common umbrella, they would have a bigger impact than if they marketed their wine individually. “I always say to my colleagues that with exporting we have to overcome small competition. When people talk about Chilean wine, or South African wine, who talks about individual wineries? We all have the same climate, same quality of grapes and we are professionals,” says Chaoui.
In this case the umbrella is the UVL, which for the past few years has concentrated all its efforts in making a name for Lebanese wine abroad. Their efforts caught the attention of the Ministry of Agriculture and the Chamber of Commerce, who have both given the industry their support. “The new dimension that UVL has been taking for two to three years is marketing. Everything that is being done out of Lebanon is being done through UVL, with the support of the Ministry of Agriculture and [the] Chamber of Commerce,” says Kahale.
Recounting the UVL’s activities in 2016, Chaoui speaks highly of the Wines of Lebanon event that took place in New York in November 2016, under the patronage and financial support of the Ministry of Agriculture, and organized by Hospitality Services. “[The organizers] hired a PR company which succeeded in getting local wine professionals to attend this event. For us, this is the key to success because the Lebanese already know our wine. All those who attended were extremely satisfied,” says Chaoui.
The second major event for the UVL, and hence Lebanese wine abroad, was being the guest of honor at Megavino, the biggest wine fair for professionals in Europe which takes place in Brussels. “Megavino was a great event for us because we had the chance to be a guest of honor. The exposure was huge, and many people who have followed the news in the region didn’t even know that Lebanon produces wine,” says Chaoui with a quiet pride, explaining that the 80 percent of the budget for Megavino came out of the annual sum which the Chamber of Commerce gives the UVL, with the wineries covering the remaining balance (including airfare, transport costs for wine and accommodation).
These efforts, coupled with the individual marketing initiatives and follow-ups by individual wineries, has led to Lebanese wines being served at tables as far flung as China, which Château St Thomas cites as a market, or Mexico, where Ixsir recently sent a shipment.
Whether locally or abroad, Lebanese wine is certainly carving a name for the country’s grapes and producers. That’s something we can all toast to.