The Lebanese wine industry seems to be flourishing, despite the floundering economy, and has enjoyed a year full of celebrations and achievements—with more yet to come. In the last week of October, as Executive went to print, representatives of Lebanon’s wineries were returning from a series of celebratory events in London that were hosted by the Lebanese Embassy. Zafer Chaoui, the chairman of Château Ksara and the president of Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL), tells Executive: “We had three events over two days organized by Ambassador Rami Mortada, who has been a huge supporter of our sector: a tasting at the houses of Parliament on day one; and a trade tasting at the Lebanese Embassy, followed by a party for friends of the ambassador on the evening of the second day. It was a wonderful opportunity to fly the flag, and once again show the UK trade [community] and consumers the quality of our wines.” Such events help spread a positive image of Lebanese wines abroad, and help support the opening up of new markets for the country’s wineries.
Of awards and anniversaries
Winning international awards is another way Lebanese wineries are making a name for themselves—and for Lebanon—abroad. Faouzi Issa, winemaker and co-owner of Domaines Des Tourelles, says 2018 was a great year for his winery: “Our 2014 red won the Great Value Champion award in the International Wine Challenge. This is a big deal for us, and for Lebanon. And as such, the UVL honored us with this first award for Lebanon.” He adds, “Winning this award opened four new markets for us: Norway, Finland, Malta, and Hong Kong.”
Other local milestones were celebrated this year, with Château St. Thomas marking its 20th anniversary, Ixsir its 10th, and Domaine Des Tourelles its 150th. In celebration, the family-run winery Château St. Thomas hosted a big gathering for friends and family in October, which was attended by a representative of President Michel Aoun, and during which the winery’s founder, Said Touma, was also honored for his contribution to the Lebanese beverage sector, specifically for arak production. A special edition bottle of wine was produced to commemorate the occasion. Meanwhile, Domaines Des Tourelles screened a video detailing their brand’s rich history in a special ceremony held during Vinifest, Beirut’s annual wine festival, in early October. Invitees were also able to visit the stand and meet the owners and distributors of the label.
Not only do these awards and celebrations benefit the reputation of Lebanese wine abroad, they also paint the sector in a more positive light among local consumers. This is important, given that some Lebanese still prefer international wine over homegrown labels.
Edouard Kosremelli of Château Kefraya says that, based on his experience, wine consumption per capita among Lebanese consumers has increased. This increase could be attributed to Lebanese wineries’ efforts to organize events that serve to familiarize the local public with the winemaking process and terroir in a fun way. Kosremelli says their annual wine harvest events are growing bigger and more successful with each year. “It is key to have consumers become familiar with, and to enjoy the vineyards and harvesting. Winemaking is all about terroir,” he says.
The more the merrier
The Lebanese wine industry differs from most of the country’s other industries, in that its key players have learned to work together to achieve common goals. Through their cooperation, and by producing a high-quality product, they are managing to build a name for Lebanese wine, both locally and abroad.
While there is a lot left to do, these efforts have created a flourishing wine sector in a challenging economic situation. “The industry is booming, and lots of new wineries are entering the market on an annual basis, although many are boutique sized,” young winemaker Peter Skaff says. “People are investing money and time into this, although it is a long-term return on investment—but the good thing is that wine is not a trend and will not lose its popularity. It’s timeless.”
Local and proud
The use of indigenous grapes continues to be a trend in winemaking, both locally and abroad. Joe Assad Touma says he annually increases the production of his Obeidy white wine, a local varietal, and it continues to sell out rapidly after its release. Touma was the first Lebanese winemaker to launch a 100 percent Obeidy grape wine, back in 2015. “Wine connoisseurs are beginning to talk about Obeidy as the local variety of Lebanon, and I am very proud of that,” he says. “Also, the idea of using indigenous grapes is spreading locally and is gaining support internationally from wine critics and connoisseurs.”
Other wineries have been encouraged to experiment with local grape varieties, with both Château Kefraya and Château Ksara releasing a Merwah vintage within the last two years. “It received extensive press coverage, especially in the UK, where we have practically sold out,” says George Khalil Sara, coowner at Château Ksara. “It was voted by The Independent newspaper as a Best Buy, and rated one of the best 12 wines under £20 ($25.50).”
Innovation continues in Lebanese wineries. Château Kefraya is preparing the first wine in Lebanon that is vinified and aged in amphorae jugs, as was done in ancient times. Other wineries are successfully experimenting with imported grapes, such as Cinsault, which have become a part of Lebanon’s heritage. Issa says Domaine Des Tourelles’ Cinsault vieille vigne (old grapes) was selected among the 14 best Cinsault in the world by Decanter Magazine.
There is a lot to be proud of when it comes to Lebanese wine, and as new wineries continue to enter the market, and existing wineries experiment with old and new winemaking techniques, it seems we will always have reasons to toast.