Sipping on a glass of Lebanese wine has value beyond the drinker’s enjoyment. As Edouard Kosremelli, general manager of Château Kefraya, puts it, drinking Lebanese wine supports the economy since thousands of people are either directly or indirectly employed by the wine sector. Lebanese wine encompasses three industries (agriculture, industry, and hospitality and tourism), and is among the country’s most successful exports, distributed in more than 36 countries, according to the wineries with which Executive spoke.
When sipping on homegrown wine, you are also getting a taste of a long history dating all the way back to the Phoenicians, who were the first civilization to trade wine. Many also believe that Lebanon’s Qana, in the south, is the biblical town where Jesus Christ turned water into wine.
In export markets, Lebanese wine is gaining market share every year and is appreciated for its history and quality. Locally, however, those in the wine industry tell Executive that wine consumption is still relatively low, outlining why this is the case and what they are doing to change it. “Today there is a momentum for Lebanese wines around the world—the world is interested in the ‘old wine’ producing countries such as Turkey, Greece, Georgia, Croatia, and Lebanon,” says Aurélie Khoros, marketing manager at Ixsir. “There is no reason why this should not be the case in our own country. Lebanon’s winemaking history is one of the oldest in the world, and we should take pride in that. The only way to get there is through joint efforts in educating customers.”
More wine please
Joe Assad Touma, winemaker at Château St. Thomas, places wine consumption in Lebanon at just one bottle per capita. “It should be more because winemaking is part of our ancient culture as is evident from research,” Touma says, adding that the good news is that this number is slowly but surely increasing.
According to Zafer Chaoui, current head of the Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL) and chairman and chief executive officer of Château Ksara, wine consumption among the Lebanese has increased only slightly due to the economic situation in the country. “Unfortunately, as was discussed during a conference at the Chamber of Commerce in mid-November 2018, the purchasing power of the Lebanese has gone down by 20 to 25 percent over the past five years,” Chaoui says. “This is very sad and affects not only the economy but people’s behavior as well. Since drinking wine is a luxury, and not a basic necessity, you would expect consumption to drop in such times. However, the consumption of wine in Lebanon has slightly increased—maybe people want to ease their minds in these stressful times.”
Kosremelli agrees that local consumption of wine is increasing in spite of tough economic times. “The local consumption is definitely increasing despite the economic crisis,” says Kosremelli. “If it were not for the economic environment, it [the increase] would have been more tangible. If you look around you, you see that the young generation is drinking more wine than their parents—you don’t need market research to prove that.”
Winemaker and co-owner at Domaine De Tourelles, Faouzi Issa, also believes that the younger generation, in their quest for authenticity, are driving up wine consumption. “Today ‘back to the roots’ is the motto of most of the young generation of Lebanese, who want to enjoy their country’s local traditions through its food, its villages, and its wine,” Issa says.
Ixsir’s Khoros agrees that wine consumption is on the rise and notes a change in consumption habits. “Wine was, for a long time, synonymous with special occasions or celebrations, but this has changed as it is now also being served more casually in homes and during nights out. Consumers no longer ask for a glass of wine, but most often specify, if not a brand, a style of wine they would like to have, which was not the case a few years back,” she explains.
It takes collective work
This slight increase in domestic wine consumption is the result of years of effort from wine industry stakeholders. However, they all believe there is still a long way to go before wine consumption in Lebanon is on par per capita with the rest of the wine drinking world. “Lebanese wine consumption [per capita] did increase, but today it is still one of the lowest for a wine producing country, hence we still have a long way to go,” Khoros says. “This is an opportunity that the entire sector should jump on, especially since the consumer is more receptive today than a few years back.”
Wine producers agree that the most important factor for increasing wine consumption among Lebanese is to raise awareness through various approaches, one of which is education. “We have to educate consumers,” Chaoui explains. “For example, Château Ksara has the exclusive Wine and Spirits Education Trust course, which is among the most well-known in the world. It is held in Lebanon three to four times a year for a reasonable fee, and people come to learn about wine and how to appreciate it. Although these courses are not limited to Lebanese wines, people who attend this course gain a greater understanding of how good the quality of Lebanese wine is.”
Touma also speaks about the importance of education, explaining that he gives a course on wine as part of the agriculture program at Holy Spirit University of Kaslik. Recently, he has noticed an increase in non-agriculture major students who just want to learn how to taste and serve wine.
Issa believes enotourism—tourism revolving around wine—is key to promoting Lebanese wine among consumers and says this form of tourism is on the rise as more people enjoy visiting and discovering the country’s wineries. He says the number of visitors to Domaine des Tourelles has increased over the past couple of years, and they now get an average of 30 per day.
Khoros also speaks of enotourism and its importance in encouraging wine consumption. “We host around 40,000 visitors yearly and offer guided tours, wine tastings, and the possibility of having lunch at Nicolas Audi à la Maison d’Ixsir,” she says. “Enotourism is an important factor in promoting Lebanese wines, as wine is a culture. When you visit a winery and get to know more about the process and the people behind the wine, it sparks curiosity and educates the consumer.” She added that they are currently working on a rooftop bar on their winery’s premises to be launched in spring 2019.
Having a restaurant or hospitality offering has proven to be a successful tool for attracting enotourism and many of the recently launched wineries either have a restaurant on their premises, plan to develop one within a year, or have opened an outlet in Beirut where one can taste their wine and enjoy some nibbles (an example of which is Vertical 33’stasting room in Gemmayze).
Besides restaurants, seasonal harvest-related activities are also a way to engage consumers with wine in an entertaining way. “We at Château St. Thomas invite all our visitors and clients to our harvest event so they feel involved in the wine making process and thus more attached to Lebanese wine—they feel they are enjoying their own personal wine since they helped in the harvest,” Touma says. “We have this event two weekends per year and welcome around 200 people [each day], which is our maximum capacity, and we have to turn away many others.”
Kosremelli feels that the success of Lebanese wine abroad has a positive impact on local consumption. “Whenever our wine is recognized in an international contest or rated by international critics, it gives us credibility in the eyes of the Lebanese customer,” he says. “Ours is a dynamic industry that has proven to be successful abroad, and the younger generation who travel and study outside of Lebanon can see that Lebanese wines are appreciated internationally, and so they are becoming prouder of their local wine.”
Events like Vinifest—the annual wine fair organized by Eventions—and various other summer wine festivals also help to promote Lebanese wine, says Chaoui, but what still stands in the way is the Lebanese perception that foreign wine is better than local wine. “This patriotic feeling is missing in Lebanon,” he says. “Probably, with all respect to other industries, wine is the one product which is comparable to international level products. And yet despite this, people feel that if they offer Lebanese wines at a reception, it’s not sophisticated enough. This is something that we need to correct.” Chaoui adds that UVL wants to introduce a campaign to instill pride in local wine production—they are hoping for financial support from the Ministry of Agriculture for this project.
Kosremelli feels that competition from foreign wine is to be expected, since wine consumption is generally increasing. “It’s normal to see increases in the consumption of both local and foreign wine when overall wine consumption is increasing,” he says. “That is because wine lovers like to discover new wines—that’s why we export our wines to other markets, and that’s why we import wine as a country.” However, according to him, the problem lies with the unregulated import of alcohol in Lebanon, which makes for an uneven playing field between the local and foreign wines.
Touma elaborates further, giving the example of how some restaurant owners promote foreign wines over Lebanese ones since they make a larger profit from the imported variety. “A growing number of restaurant owners support Lebanese wine but unfortunately, because imported wine is cheaper, some prefer to sell imported wine over Lebanese wines because then their profit margins are bigger,” he says. “Also, there are a couple of restaurants and wine bars buying wine directly from abroad and selling them here so they can make even more profit from foreign wine. This is negatively affecting Lebanese wines.” These restaurants and bars keep prices down by avoiding purchasing wine through the local exclusive distributor.
Lebanon’s wineries have been lobbying with the Ministry of Economy and Trade to regulate alcohol imports. “We respect that Lebanon has a free economy, and we respect all deals with the European Union,” Chaoui explains. “All that we ask is that the import of wines be more organized, as is the case all over the world. Normally, you are registered as a wine importer and present permission for each individual lot you report—this is the case in the US and the UK while other countries, like China or Russia, are even more complicated. But here anyone can import wine. What we are asking for is a more regulated procedure and stronger control for the customs authorities.”
Clouds over the grapevine
Producing wine in Lebanon is no easy task. Lebanese producers often say that the only Lebanese item in their wine is the grape itself; everything, from the equipment to the bottle and cork, is imported. No company produces the needed materials in Lebanon, which drives the cost of production up. The cost and scarcity of land is another factor which increases production costs. As such, Chaoui explains that Lebanon only produces medium- or high-range wines, since production costs are too high to justify producing low-end wines.
While Lebanon’s wineries have the support of various ministries in promoting their wine in the international market, support to decrease the cost of production is still lacking. “It would help if we are supported by decreased taxes on the imported equipment we need to produce wine, be it the barrels, bottles, or corks,” Touma says. “We also pay an ‘alcohol grape tax’ to the Ministry of Finance of LL200 per kilogram—it’s a tax that has existed for years. The government could support us by either removing this tax or decreasing the amount.” He added that Lebanon’s other wineries are lobbying for this as well.
Lebanon’s winemakers work tirelessly to develop both local and international markets despite the challenges, and wine is one of the fastest growing agro-industry products in Lebanon, one that is building a positive reputation for the country. So the next time you fancy a glass of wine, pick a Lebanese label and enjoy it with pride—and in moderation, of course.