Lebanon – Sunning grapes

Wine industry, distilled for years, presses new vintage

The $27 million, 6.5 million bottle, Lebanese wine industry is, after nearly half a decade of treading water, entering an exciting new phase of evolution. The change is coming from a group of boutique producers making low quantities of high-quality wines from a wider range of Lebanese terroir.

Less is more
The trend began at the turn of the new century, with the establishment of a clutch of micro-wineries, each producing 20-50,000 bottles. Genuine garagistes wanting to make wine from ancestral plots started small, often using plastic fermentation tanks and the most rudimentary equipment, calling on family and friends to help pick grapes at harvest. Crucially, they were not all from the Bekaa Valley, the traditional wine growing area. These wines offered variety.
Today, by and large they are thriving. Château Belle-Vue in Bhamdoun is currently doing brisk trade selling all its 24,000 bottles to online club members, of which 60% live abroad, mostly in the UK, the US, Dubai and Turkey. Owner Naji Boutros, a former Merrill Lynch executive, and his American wife Jill can now boast a wine listed in the Sotheby’s Wine Encyclopedia and a fistful of international plaudits. Jezzine’s Karam Winery, the only winery in south Lebanon — with a production of 50,000 bottles — can be found on MEA, Lebanon’s national carrier, as well as some of the best restaurants in Beirut and the Washington, DC, area. In 2006, it was featured in Decanter.
The Maronite Church, employing a French winemaker, is also getting in on the act, producing high-quality wines from eight monasteries throughout Lebanon. Finally, Domaine Kanafar in the Western Bekaa has just produced 3,000 of what will eventually be 50,000 bottles by 2010 and up to 200,000 bottles thereafter, from grapes grown on its own 15-hectare vineyard. At the moment, though, things are a bit rough and ready. “We are literally operating out of a garage,” said one of the partners cheerily.
Elsewhere, the celebrated Nissan CEO, Carlos Ghosn, is rumored to be involved in Wines of Lebanon, a new winery, which will eventually be based in Batroun, where three other producers — Batroun Mountains, Edde and Aurora wineries — are already established.
But the age of the Lebanese boutique winery finally arrived on a biting but sunny day in Paris on November 12, when at Le Georges V Hotel wines from two wineries owned by the Syrian-Lebanese company Johnny R. Saadé Holding were unveiled to the wine press. The first was the Syrian Bargylus, whose grapes are grown on 20 hectares of land at Jebel al-Ansariyeh on the outskirts of the port city of Lattakia and which produced its first harvest in 2006. The second was Lebanese Château Marsyas, which picked its first grapes one year later in 2007.
One doesn’t launch ordinary wines at the Georges V, nor does one get the backing of Stephane Derenoncourt, one of France’s most respected wine makers, if the product is not up to scratch. The approval from some of France’s most respected palates was unanimous and one sensed that Lebanese wine had moved into a new, sunnier place.

A post-war revival
The Lebanese wine sector flourished in the mid-1990s. Long established arak producers such as Ghantous Abou Raad, Touma, Le Brun, as well as a few determined entrepreneurs were inspired by a newly-whetted global appetite for wines from what was known in the trade as the New World — Australia, California, South Africa, Chile, New Zealand and Argentina — and saw an opportunity to position post-war Lebanon among these exciting new producers.
Lebanese wine was not unknown. The buccaneering Serge Hochar had planted the Lebanese flag on the wine map in the late 1970s, while Chateau Ksara, Lebanon’s oldest producer and relative newcomer Chateau Kefraya had established strong local brands with a loyal following, even during the 1975-1990 Civil War. But the 1990s saw new names and new labels. Domain Wardy, Clos St Thomas, Heritage, Fakra, Massaya (a bold Franco-Lebanese joint venture) and Cave Kouroum joined the established triumvirate. A new, sexier, more robust sector was born.

Souring times
Then things hit a bit of a trough. Massaya walked out on the Union Vinicole du Liban, Lebanon’s cheerful but notoriously ineffective grouping of wine producers, citing a lack of vision in the marketing of Lebanese wine. The OIV (Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et Vin) decided not to hold its 2005 congress in Beirut for security reasons and plans for a National Wine Institute were shuffled from ministry to ministry. The institute, if it ever becomes a reality, will be responsible for all areas of grape growing and wine production — viticulture, viniculture, legal issues, commercial concerns, quality control and analysis — as well as the eventual creation of a system similar to, and inspired by, the French appellation d’origine controlle; it would protect and guarantee the name and quality of Lebanese wine. Sadly, individual ministries with their own agenda often delayed or refused to sign-off on what is clearly an initiative designed to enhance and guarantee the quality and reputation of Lebanon’s most high-profile export.
Yes, Lebanese wine was a solid product with an equally solid fan base abroad, especially in the UK, where the groundwork laid down by Château Musar had given it an almost mythical appeal. And yes, both Châteaux Kefraya and Ksara were, and still are, steaming ahead and massaging their respective bottom lines by dominating the shelves of the local market and the wine lists of Lebanese restaurants all over the world.
But Lebanon should have been producing the world’s sexiest wine. High quality, scarcity and a great storyline should have seen to that. Yet, it appears a serious lack of vision, organization and negligible government support meant that the sector was punching well below its weight.

We will always have Paris
But back to Paris and the rarefied setting of Le Georges V. For the record, Bargylus and Chateau Marsyas will eventually produce 300,000 bottles between them — 50,000 from Bargylus and 250,000 from Marsyas — although current production is still only 20,000 and 50,000, respectively, 75% of which has been earmarked for export, primarily to France and the fiercely competitive UK market. The company has invested $15 million in the Château Marsyas winery and $4 million at Bargylus. A further $10 million has also been allocated to an on-site wine museum and hotel in Lebanon.

Family roots
The project, the latest venture for a family that has interests in real estate development, tourism and finance, is being run by Johnny Saadé’s sons Karim and Sandro. “My father wanted to buy a wine property in Bordeaux, but decided to go back to his roots and make wine in Syria,” said Karim, explaining that Bargylus was the name given to the Alawite Mountains in Greco-Roman culture. “We want to create a high-quality wine and we want to avoid certain practices such as buying grapes from other producers. We want to cultivate our own grapes. Wine is part of our family history.”
Sandro Saadé admitted that the project had faced many challenges. “To establish our Syrian operation, we needed a governmental decree,” he explained. “Other problems were in the size of plots that were very small, which made the process longer, as well as more expensive as local landowners increased prices when they heard we were interested in buying land. It took us three to four years to produce the first vintage. Unlike in Lebanon we had to start from scratch in Syria.”
Other problems stemmed from an inherent lack of wine culture. “Workers did not understand that they could not throw cigarettes on the land and there are no proper laboratories to analyze the wine,” Sandro said. “We are creating a wine culture in Syria and Lebanon, a culture that, through projects like the museum, will celebrate and promote our wine heritage.”
Derenoncourt, who is consultant for both wineries, concurred. “This project is very important,” he said in Paris. “I visited both sites in Lebanon and Syria with the Saadé brothers and fell in love. We discussed the projects and saw that we were faced with two options: either to create a mass [market] wine by irrigating the land or adapting the vines to the terroir over time and allowing nature to work. We chose the latter and have been able to make a good wine with very young vines.”

Michael Karam is the author of ‘Wines of Lebanon’, winner of the 2005 Gourmand Award for best New World Wine book