On a Wednesday evening in downtown Beirut, Wadih Riachi is carefully explaining to an engaged group the fermentation and maceration process that goes into the Joseph Drouhin Beaune Greves Premier 2006 that they will shortly be tasting at this evening’s wine course. The intimate group of around 20 professionals, most in their thirties, consists mainly of regulars at the weekly tasting event; most have developed a sophisticated enough palette to detect the grape and smoky blackcurrant tones of the wine and they can wax lyrical about its vintage. Some even boast of their own private cellars.
Guests to Riachi’s course are part of what the owner of Vintage Cellars in Saifi believes is a growing class of wine connoisseurs. Increasingly sophisticated in their taste and selections, they are driving a move away from spirits and towards high-end wines.
Riachi, who distributes to major restaurants, hotels and bars across the country, says, “wine has been elevated to the status of a luxury product [in Lebanon]”. But with more information and better availability of a vast range of good wines he says, “for wine to be luxury, the product must be flawless.”
“People can now read consumer reports and wine critics and they understand their wines more and more,” he added. That sentiment is echoed by Henri Debbané, owner of Enoteca cellars and alcohol distributors, who says Lebanon’s traditionally consumptive wine culture is increasingly discerning, evident in the mushrooming number of private cellars in homes around the country.
“Wine is becoming trendy — you find people have cellars now in boutique apartments,” Debbané said. “Drinking good wine is a sign of prestige — more than good spirits even —because of the connoisseurship.” Riachi agrees: “Lebanon until recently has been a purely consumption market; you buy,you drink, which is nice, but we are starting to see more people collecting wine like art.”
Wine sales in Lebanon have increased a solid 5 percent for both local and imported wine in the last year. The market, now valued at close to $6.5 million per year ,according to Debbané, has seen Lebanese increase their consumption from around half a bottle per person annually in 1993, to two bottles per person today. Heargues that the Lebanese are increasingly willing to spend more on a good drop. Rampant Chinese demand for top-of-the-range “brand” Bordeauxs and Burgundys has driven global prices through the roof in recent years. Debbané says he has seen Lebanese connoisseurs increasingly opt for mid to high-end wines in the same category, as taste has developed.
“The demand for luxury is growing,” Debbané says. “For the Bordeaux wines especially, prices are going up in a consistent way. Mid-range to high-end is going up 20-25 percent on already high prices, so what you used to drink for $50 you now drink for $200.”
Budgets for high-end wines have remained about the same he said, “so we are varying the range to propose wines in the same category but not necessarily of the same prestigious brands.”
Unlike other luxury products, said Riachi, price has little to do with prestige. “When it comes to luxury we are able to say there is a best in each category,” he said. “Once you develop an accomplished taste for wine, it is difficult to go back. What may have been drinkable yesterday is not drinkable today. That’s what is happening to the market now — they are demanding better wines.”
As co-directors of vineyards Chateau Marsyas in the Bekaa valley and Domain Bargylus in northern Syria, Karim and Sandro Saade have witnessed the same trend. “People around the world are drinking better,” says Karim Saade. “And in Lebanon the prestige culture around wine comes from an increasing awareness of its convivial, cultural and scientific value.” With the Syrian Bargylus red wine selling well at around $28 a bottle, and the white around $17, he says the price reflects the cost of production.
Michel Khoury of MK Holdings, distributor of Muscato Roseand premium 24-carat gold-plated Luxor Brut, rosé, and vintage from Champagne, came to similar conclusions when selecting his latest product range of Italian Barolos, which he will begin distributing through exclusive partnerships this year. Sales of the exclusive $1,060 to $3,000 Luxor Champagne are slowing, he admits, and while there is a “saturation” of alcohol in the market, “there is always room for a quality, well-priced wine.” The Barolos will retail for between $25 and $50 — a price deemed reasonable given the market’s willingness to spend the same on a quality Bordeaux.
“To tell you that sales of Luxor haven’t decreased would be a lie; even though we deal with the top-end clients, the top 5 percent of the market. Our private clients who used to order a case are ordering a bottle as a luxury gift instead. We used to sell about 150 bottles a year, so far this year we have sold around 35.”
Globally, demand for Champagne has taken a hit, although Debbané says Lebanon’s thirst for the bubbly, like wines, is also developing.
“In Lebanon we are seeing Champagne experience the same changes in consumption as wines; people are starting to see it as a wine that is not just consumed for the celebration of festivities,” he said.
Increasingly discerning as Lebanese wine drinkers or collectors may be, retail alcohol sales are closely linked to tourism which, with political unrest around the region, is set to take a hit. Expecting this summer’s peak season volume to be half of last year, Debbané says many of his hotel and restaurant clients are preparing for a downturn in wine retail sales.
Meanwhile MK Holdings’ Khoury says he has aborted plans to distribute to beach resorts in the troubled South Lebanon. “I am not going to invest a quarter of a million dollars and pay all the insurance when I have no guarantees — it’s all on hold,” he said.