Late August and September were harvest months for Lebanon’s wineries, and the energy across vineyards, whether in Batroun or the Bekaa valley, was palatable. From grape picking at dawn to Fête des Vendanges brunches (post-harvest celebrations) that stretched until sunset; from gathering around a table de tri (sorting table) for destemming to tasting that first sip of young wine, the country’s wine regions were alive with the sounds of production.
And the energy does not cease with the end of harvest season. So far in 2019, the wine sector has already seen developments for existing wineries, such as the release of a new wine variety, or plans to open a winery-side restaurant. There is also a new winery that has entered the market (see box below).
These are dynamic times for Lebanon’s wine industry. The significant increase in the number of wineries in the past decade—there are 54 wineries currently registered at the Ministry of Agriculture, up from around 20 in 2009—has brought with it young, mainly Lebanese, winemakers eager to experiment with different techniques or grape varieties in wine making. This has led to more debates as to what makes Lebanese wine unique and what differentiates it from the competition.
Dare to create
Indeed, 2019 has seen the release of several new wine varieties. B-Qa de Marsyas by Château Marsyas has marked its first venture into the rosé world on June 19, releasing a limited quantity of Rosé B-Qa de Marsyas. According to Karim Saade, co-owner of Château Marsyas, the winery had hesitated at first to produce a rosé, discouraged by the perception among some wine professionals that rosé wine lacks depth and complexity. However, they decided to go ahead and produce one that would stand out for its high quality.
Because of the limited production this year, the Rosé B-Qa was largely pre-sold to Château Marsyas’s hospitality industry clients who had heard about the release. It is available in some restaurants, wine shops, and supermarkets’ wine sections, and retails at $14.
Inspired by the demand for indigenous grapes, in 2016 winemaker and owner of Sept Winery, Maher Harb, decided to produce a mono-varietal Merwah, a local variety grape that was mainly used for arak and in blends. Knowing that Merwah tends to grow in the Lebanese mountains, Harb searched for Merwah vineyards in the areas surrounding his winery in Nehla, Batroun.
What he found he calls his “secret vineyard,” as he refuses to disclose its location and has even used the wider kaza Zgharta on the bottle’s label instead of giving away the name of the specific village. Harb says he felt a connection with the 99-year-old man who owns the vineyard and tends to it with his son. Each of the seven vineyards Harb works with were chosen not only for the grapes, but also the story behind the vineyard, he says. The Merwah vineyard produces 4 tons of grapes, and while he produced 600 bottles of 2016’s vintage, this year Harb is producing 4,000 bottles of the Merwah. This is the first year Sept Winery’s Merwah is being sold directly to the public. Costing $30, it is available at the Sept Winery and two other locations (Ashrafieh-based wine bar Vinothèque, Tawlet on Commodore street, and 209 Lebanese wine). Harb plans to export it to the United States, Canada, and London.
Meanwhile Château Qanafar has experimented with a German grape variety, Riesling, which originated in the Rhine region. Riesling is thought to need a cold climate to thrive, and so it is uncommon for this region. Aside from Château Qanafar, only Château Khoury and Batroun Mountains have Riesling vineyards, with the latter producing a mono-varietal wine from it. But Eva Naim, marketing director and co-owner of Château Qanafar, says that the limestone soil, the difference in daytime and nighttime temperature in Qanafar, and the position of their vineyard—the sun only directly shines on the grapes for a few hours in the morning—are all ideal conditions for Riesling growth. She says her brother, Eddy Naim, the winemaker at Château Qanafar, chose to work with Riesling as “it is a winemaker’s dream because of its complexity and depth.”
Eleven years ago, Château Qanafar planted half of a hectare of their vineyards with Riesling, and, in 2017, produced 1,000 bottles of mono-varietal Riesling. Regarding the limited number of bottles, he explains that Riesling vines have a low yield. The wine was aged in stainless steel tanks for two years—Naim explains that although white wines are normally not aged, Riesling’s high acidity allows it to age well—and was released into the market earlier in 2019. It sells for $18 in their boutique in Sioufi and in a few select restaurants and wine shops. “I am not in a hurry to sell it because it can age very well, and so it is a pity to drink it now,” Naim says.
Food for thought
There is a perception among some Lebanese, usually older generations, that Lebanese wines are of lower quality when compared to foreign wines. However, according to those interviewed in the article, the increase in the number of wineries, and the parallel increase in enotourism, is slowly changing this perception. “I decided to have a restaurant [in my winery] because of the increase in demand for such projects,” says Sebastian Khoury, winemaker and owner of Château Baal. “When visitors call to book winery visits, they always ask me if there is a place they can eat in afterwards.” Along with a silent partner, Khoury will be investing $70,000 to turn the terrace next to his fermentation area into a 40-seat steakhouse and tapas restaurant.
Khoury says he was planning to have the restaurant year round, but because of the dismal economic situation the country is in, it will be a seasonal venue that operates from April/May to October. Down the line, especially if the economic situation improves, he is planning to have a few bungalows for overnight guests and to venture further into enotourism.
Khoury believes that having a restaurant on site has several advantages to the winery. “We will benefit from an increase in sales because of the wine we will be selling in the restaurant, and because people are more likely to buy wine from our winery store,” he says. “I can also make a small profit from the restaurant which is, at the end, a small business.” Château Baal’s restaurant will be operational by summer 2020.
Atibaia is another winery planning to have a restaurant by summer 2020. Its owner, Jean Massoud, explains that he wants more people to visit the winery in Batroun and thought of having a cozy restaurant overlooking the vineyards. The restaurant will be operational year long, albeit only on weekends in the winter.
Despite this dynamism and activity, there is still room to grow Lebanon’s wine industry, especially if there is more collaboration among winemakers, and if this spirit of experimentation continues to be fostered. The energy felt during harvest can carry the industry through to bigger successes.