There is a lot to raise a glass to when it comes to Lebanese wine. 2017 saw several new wineries entering the market, with a few more slated to launch their first vintage in 2018, raising the total number of wineries to 49.
Demand for Lebanese wine has grown internationally as well, with over 40 countries indulging in it across the globe, as opposed to a decade or so ago. The popularity of local wines among Lebanese consumers is also rising as the enotourism trend has helped educate them about wine.
All the winery owners and managers that Executive spoke to said they had experienced growth in sales, markets, and production size. “Our market share grew to 40 percent—meaning 1.8 to 2 million bottles. Our premium portfolio is growing, and we’re appealing to more consumers,” says Dikran Ghazal, the general manager of Château Ksara.
Rise to fame
Exporting a portion of production is the natural path for agro-industrialists in a market as small as Lebanon. Lebanon has been doing so ever since the Phoenicians were shipping their wine off to nearby Mediterranean cities, but also more recently, since the late Serge Hochar took Château Musar to London during the Lebanese Civil War.
Wineries in Lebanon formed the Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL) in 1997, with the sole objective of “consolidating and building on Lebanon’s image as a wine producing country by highlighting its proud history and promoting its potential.”
As more wineries entered the market, it was understood that the only way to acheive growth was for wineries to work together on promoting Lebanon as a winemaking country. As such, starting six years ago, the UVL began to aggressively promote Lebanese wine abroad through generic campaigns—such as the one done in the UK in 2012—and participation in international wine fairs, such as Megavino in Brussels and ProWein in Germany, under one pavilion named “Wines of Lebanon.”
The public sector has played its part in promoting Lebanese wine abroad, through the Ministry of Agriculture’s organization of the annual Lebanese Wine Day—the first edition of which was held in Paris in 2013. The Chamber of Commerce, Industry, and Agriculture of Beirut and Mount Lebanon also contributes an annual sum to the UVL, which supports its budget for international fairs and helps the smaller wineries who do not have a budget participate in these foreign exhibitions.
Sipping on the fruits of success
These efforts have paid off. “For five to six years, we’ve been [making] lots of noise everywhere, and since today, people are bored of drinking the same [types of] wine, they find Lebanese wine exciting. Also, Mediterranean food and wine is now a global trend, and this helps us,” explains Faouzi Issa, winemaker and co-owner of Domaines des Tourelles, adding that his wine entered new markets in 2017, including Malta, Côte d’Ivoire, the Dominican Republic, and Réunion.
In agreement, Ghazal says there are a number of reasons why Lebanese wine is getting the international recognition it deserves. “There have been efforts made by the wineries’ export teams, and over the years, these pay off. On the other hand, the quality of Lebanese wine is getting better every year, due to the climate and manipulation of the soil and [developments in] how we store the wine and harvest the grapes. Plus, there are more activities happening in key markets abroad, such as trade events and wine tastings, which [spread] the word. There is curiosity [among international consumers] for wines of the new world, and Lebanon has a history with wine which big companies like us work on developing,” says Ghazal, mentioning China as a booming new market this year for Château Ksara.
Some producers feel that the international consumption of Lebanese wine would further increase if there was additional government support or subsidies, like the support available in wine producing countries like Argentina, South Africa, or Chile. “The market is huge outside Lebanon: If we just add 20 percent to the notoriety of Lebanese wine abroad, we would all run out of wine. Our market share is increasing, but we’re moving in baby steps because we need government support; private investment alone cannot create international recognition,” says Hady Kahale, general manager of Ixsir, explaining that for Lebanese wine to truly succeed globally, it needs to build a name for itself out of Lebanese restaurants and ethnic markets.
All in a day’s work
Growing exports takes more than shipping the wines off in crates, says Ghazal. “You have to follow up and build relationships, and it’s quite an investment of time and money. Thirty to 35 percent of our budget goes to exports, and there are less margins in it, since prices are competitive internationally,” says Ghazal.
“It takes more effort than the local market because you need to travel and promote the wine in order to support your distributors,” explains Edouard Kosremelli, chairman and CEO of Château Kefraya, adding that the winery exports 40 percent of its production abroad.
To Issa, penetrating new markets where Lebanese wine is relatively unknown, such as the US, requires an investment of time and energy. “It’s been three years that I have been investing in the US market, and today, my wine is in 15 states, including New York. It requires a lot of effort and mobility, though, since you have to be there personally and consistently. They don’t know what Lebanon is, so you need to introduce the country, and what you’re doing, and then it snowballs,” he says, comparing it to the UK market, where Lebanese wine is already established and where, he says, Domaines des Tourelles is highly appreciated.
Nothing like home
Although Lebanese wine is widely acclaimed internationally, the same cannot easily be said for its popularity here at home. Lebanese consume two liters of wine per capita, according to those interviewed for this article, which is significantly lower, than, for example, the US, where consumption is 13 liters per capita.
Of those domestic consumers, many prefer foreign wine, assuming it is of better quality than the Lebanese—which frustrates Lebanese winemakers. “It’s unfair to say that imported wine is better than local wine because our grape varietals are largely French, our terrior is as good as Europe, if not better, and we have the right climate. The local market should appreciate this,” says Ghazal.
Kosremelli notes that if Lebanese wine was not of high-quality, it would not be so successful in export markets. “The more the consumer in Lebanon becomes wine-educated, the more they will see and understand that these are misconceptions. Our success with exports helps with the Lebanese market, since local consumers see Lebanese wines being promoted abroad. Also, the recent increase in wineries also helps increase consumption because it evokes curiosity,” he says.
To Ixsir’s Kahale, a generic campaign is needed to promote Lebanese wine locally. “The way forward is really working on the image of wine, both locally and abroad. I’m one of those who believe a generic campaign in Lebanon should be done, although it needs a time commitment from us. We have great wine, but people have preconceived notions about ‘made in Lebanon’ not being so good, which will take time to change. People have to know: We have some of the best wines in the world,” he insists.
Joe Assaad Touma, winemaker at Château St Thomas, says the UVL is considering such a generic campaign. “As UVL, one of our aims is to promote Lebanese wine, not only abroad, but in Lebanon itself. We really have great wines that can compete with the imported wines that exist in Lebanon. We’re planning to promote this more as a generic campaign. At the same time, we try to encourage all restaurants to have at least half of their wine list be Lebanese. We can see this is improving, but still, there are [a] few restaurants that don’t have any Lebanese wine on their list, which is shameful,” he says.
The increasing popularity of enotourism in Lebanon goes a long way into promoting its wines. “Wine is about a way of life, and you have to meet the people who are making the wine to understand it—no wine producing region is successful without enotourism. When people visit our wineries, they see the level of sophistication we have in them, and they understand much more about wine. When they understand wine, they will consume Lebanese wine happily,” explains Kahale, noting that visits to Ixsir’s winery increased by 20 percent in 2017.
Kosremelli says Château Kefraya had a 7 to 10 percent increase in the number of visitors to its winery, explaining that more foreign visitors are now interested in such experiences and ask their tour operators to help them book enotourism excursions.
Château Ksara benefits from its 2000-year-old cave in attracting visitors who are interested in both history and wine. “We expect to close the year at 80,000 visitors. This is the case for two reasons: the brand is 160 years old and has a solid reputation where trust has been built, and no one has a natural cave like ours in Lebanon or in the world. Once people visit the winery, they almost always buy [our wines] because they see the story behind it,” says Ghazal, adding that their sales in the winery shop have increased by 20 percent in 2017.
Having a winery restaurant not only complements the enotourism experience, it also increases sales. “One year into our opening, Château Khoury restaurant became and still is the biggest client for my wine. Most of the people who come here drink wine with their meal, and for us, this is the best way to promote our wine. Tourists who come to eat here buy wine from our winery shop and Lebanese do so during the Christmas period as gifts,” says Jean Paul Khoury, winemaker and co-owner at Château Khoury.
Wine-related activities such as grape harvesting also help consumers experience winemaking in an enjoyable way. “We have the harvest event that we have been doing since 2000. It’s getting more popular, and lots of people come on an annual basis. This year, we had around 200 people, mainly families. The idea behind it is to educate people on what it takes to produce a bottle of wine. People want to experience this and get involved in the process of winemaking. When they leave here, they appreciate more every glass of wine they drink because they know the labor that went went into it,” says Château St. Thomas’ Touma.
Lebanon clearly has the potential to take its place among the best global wine producing countries slowly, but surely, and with more governmental support. If anything is worth raising a glass to, that would surely be it.