In search of Lebanese wine’s identity

Kefraya Amphora Photo by Greg Demarque | Executive
Reading Time: 8 minutes

Although Lebanon has a rich history of wine production, dating back to the Phoenicians who used to trade it, it has only recently reached a high level of maturity that often leads to introspection and a questioning of identity. The last decade saw the number of wineries in Lebanon go up from about 20 to 54 registered wineries at the Ministry of Agriculture in early 2019, according to Zafer Chaoui, current head of the Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL) and chairman and chief executive officer of Château Ksara. The more than two-fold growth in the number of wine producers vying for local and international markets has led to self-reflection regarding the competitive value of Lebanese wine when compared to international wines.  

What has also led to this self-examination is an increase, albeit slight, in Lebanese winemakers as opposed to foreign winemakers, which remain the norm for the majority of wineries in the country. “While 20 years ago it was very normal [to have a foreign winemaker], today there are more Lebanese winemakers educated abroad and working in Lebanon,” says Hady Kahale, a wine consultant who will be heading Atibaia winery as of October 15. “Although the majority of those work in wineries they or their parents own, or are somehow related to winemaking, it’s still exciting times.” Kahale explains that because of this ownership, Lebanese winemakers can take risks, experimenting with winemaking techniques, or exploring alternative grape varieties. A foreign winemaker with a contract is more restricted.  

Obeidi Château St Thomas
Photo by Greg Demarque | Executive

French winemaker and technical director at Château Kefraya, Fabrice Guiberteau, says that this relatively new generation of Lebanese winemakers want to do wine differently, and so have introduced international grape varieties that were previously uncommon to Lebanon, such as Merlot or Pinot Noir. “This is pushing the industry forward, and this is why we have such a huge diversity of grape varieties in Lebanon,” Guiberteau says.

Meeting market demands

The identity of Lebanese wine has also been shaped by a consumer trend to embrace a country’s heritage and originality. “Our identity would have developed anyway with time, but what is accelerating this is the market,” Kahale says. “It is the international market that wants a clear identity for Lebanese wine.”

Several winemakers interviewed for this article—speaking from their own experience—confirm that the international press and critics’ appetite for Lebanese wine has certainly been whet. Guiberteau explains that it is ultimately those players who dictate what is defined as a good wine, and so offering them a competitive and unique product becomes even more significant.

“Today there are more Lebanese winemakers educated abroad and working in Lebanon.”

Maher Harb, winemaker and owner of Sept Winery in Batroun, echoes Kahale, explaining that both local and international consumer habits have moved toward demanding unique products that tell a story, and Lebanese wineries should capitalize on that. “If I open a bottle of Lebanese wine in Paris, and it tastes like Bordeaux or Burgundy or Australian wine, what is Lebanese about it?” Harb asks. “If Lebanese wine starts being called Lebanese Bordeaux, what have we done other than copied Bordeaux?” 

Old and proud

For some, the identity of Lebanese wine is entrenched in its history. As Guiberteau explains, there is a common misconception that Lebanese wine is new to wine production, while in fact it is an ancient wine producing country. This misconception is brought on by the fact, Guiberteau continues, that wine production was severely restricted during the long Ottoman rule over the region, only to be revived again with the Jesuits coming from north Africa and bringing with them the grape varieties common to the hot Mediterranean climate such as the Cinsaut.

UVL’s Chaoui says they are working on, and have come very close to, proving that Lebanon is the first country from where wine was traded outside of the country of its production with the Phoenicians. They are also trying to determine whether it is the oldest country to produce wine, but here there is uncertainty as Georgia, Armenia, and Iran are also possible contenders to that claim. Currently, Georgia says it is the oldest wine producing country, and refuting this would prove difficult. The hope is that by forging this narrative, Lebanese wine production and sales will benefit. In Lebanon, the total production of wine, according to UVL figures, is only 9 million bottles and total turnover of the wineries of Lebanon is $55.3 million to $66.3 million.

To Guiberteau, celebrating Lebanon’s viniculture also means reviving ancient methods of wine production, such as aging wine in clay amphoras (a tall ancient Greek or Roman jar with two handles and a narrow neck) à la Phoenicians—Château Kefraya experimented with this technique and released its first vintage of Amphora 2017 Special Cuvee early in 2019. “The identity of Lebanese wine needs to be marketed under the story of their viniculture, and the fact that they are the oldest country to trade wine,” Guiberteau says. “This is followed by the diversity of our wines borne out of the diversity of the country’s soil, micro-climates, and grape varieties.” 

Sept
Photo by Greg Demarque | Executive

A beautiful land

Indeed, highlighting and bringing out a winemaking region’s terroir—defined by Wine Folly, an online platform for wine knowledge and appreciation, as “how a particular region’s climate, soils, and aspect (terrain) affect the taste of wine”—is seen by some interviewed for this article as a crucial element of a country’s wine identity. “We need to celebrate our terroir,” says Sept Winery’s Harb. “Wine is an expression of the land, and the country is land so, for me, this is the only way to put an identity for your wine.” 

Harb believes Lebanon is blessed with highly diversified micro-climates and terroirs. To illustrate this diversity, he gives the example of the same grape variety he plants in his vineyards, which are spread across Lebanon, having completely different tastes depending on the micro-climate and terroir in which they are grown.

A grape like no other

For consumers, perhaps the most easily recognizable aspect of a country’s wine character is the grape variety used in a mono-varietal wine. Joe Assad Touma, winemaker and co-owner of Château St Thomas in West Bekaa, gives the example of how Greek wine is synonymous with the Assyrtiko, and Argentinian wine is known for the Malbec, saying that this model of identity creation should be recreated in Lebanon.

Often times, such popular grape varieties are native to the country and are called indigenious grapes. “Indigenous grapes are today very much in fashion, and some countries are trying to emphasize on their native grapes,” Chaoui says. “In Lebanon, we have two indigenous grape varieties, the Obeidy and Merwah which, following a global trend, have been well developed by some producers who sell 100 percent Merwah, or 100 percent Obeidy wines.” 

Initially, Obeidy and Merwah were thought to not stand well on their own, and as such were used in wine blends or to make arak. Château St Thomas was the first winery to produce a 100 percent Obeidy wine in 2015, as part of a collaboration with the Wine Mosaic project, a nonprofit organization championing vinodiversity by promoting and protecting original grape varieties of the Mediterranean. In explaining what led him to experiment with native grape varieties, Touma says: “What gave me the idea was that we were always asked why we use international grapes for our wines when we are an ancient wine-producing country.” He says both local and international response to Château St Thomas’s Obeidy have been extremely positive, as is evident by the increase of production from 3,000 when it was first launched to 20,000 bottles in 2018, all of which are sold out halfway through the season.

Following St Thomas’s success, several wineries began producing mono-varietal wines with native grapes, and Harb believes even more wineries will do so with time. “I think it is coming,” he says. “The Obeidy grape was the first native grape to be used in mono-varietal wines around five years ago, and I remember we faced doubt and resistance back then, but now there are more than 20 wineries experimenting with Obeidy in winemaking.” Harb has recently released a mono-varietal Merwah (see overview).

“We are always asked why we use international grapes for our wines when we are an ancient wine-producing country.”

Château Ksara has also released a mono-varietal Merwah, the 2017 vintage, to great success in 2018 (the second vintage, 2018’s, has recently been released in the market). “Merwah gave the world the opportunity to taste a rare and ancient grape,” says George Sara, Château Ksara’s Chief Commercial Officer. “Most of it was sold abroad as there is greater awareness of, and demand for, such esoteric wines. It has helped push the Lebanese wine narrative in the UK, and hopefully will do the same in other markets in the coming year.”

In search of the native

While the Obeidy and Merwah seem set as the indigenous darlings of white grapes, a native red grape variety is yet to be found, and the search is on, according to winemakers interviewed for this article. “The Wine Mosaic has around 40 varieties of grapes registered as native Lebanese, but many of those are table grapes,” Touma says. “Of these 40, if only five work for wine, it would be great. We need to have some native red winemaking grape varieties.” He explains that there is more room for experimentation when working with red wine as opposed to white wine, since it has to be aged, and hence a variety of techniques can be used (aging in oak or stainless steel, deciding how long to age it, etc).

Just as our own

Some wine producing grapes have been used in Lebanon for so long, they are considered heritage or adopted grapes and can be used to identify wine as Lebanese. “We can adopt Cinsaut because it has great potential and has been planted in Lebanon for more than 100 years with the Jesuits. So we can say that it is an adopted grape and can be used in Lebanese blends,” Touma says.

Sept
Photo by Greg Demarque | Executive

While Cinsaut is typically used in light wine blends such as rosé, Domaine Des Tourelles’ winemaker and co-owner Faouzi Issa challenged this notion and produced a mono-varietal red wine Cinsaut in 2014 that was well-received internationally and is the winery’s top performing wine in New York, London, and Budapest. In recounting what made him think of using Cinsaut in a mono-varietal wine, Issa says: “Being an old winery, Domaine Des Tourelles had 70-year-old Cinsaut vineyards which I used in my blends, but every time I would taste the Cinsaut tank during harvest, I would be impressed by its taste. So I thought it would be a good idea to give it a try as a mono-varietal wine and bring Lebanese wine back to its roots,  since the Cinsaut was the king of red wines before the introduction of noble grapes (Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon) by French winemakers in the 1960s and 1970s.” Domaine Des Tourelles started out by producing 6,000 bottles of Cinsaut in 2014, and today has reached maximum production of 25,000 bottles and has prompted Issa to call his Cinsaut “the passport” of his wines “as it offers international distributors a unique and special product.”

Together we grow

There is a lot of energy and enthusiasm around indigenous or adopted grapes in Lebanon, and around finding an identity for the country’s wines, but both Guiberteau and Kahale say this will take time and requires patience—as Guiberteau points out, it took Burgundy three centuries to develop its reputation for wine.

Government support through the Ministry of Agriculture would serve to push this quest for an indigenous Lebanese grape forward, as it has done in other wine producing countries. “In France and other countries, there are privately funded institutions, or government-funded ones, that have all the tools to test and experiment indigenous grapes, and then help winemakers grow their grapes,” Harb says. “What we lack in Lebanon is this. There is no support, and it is based on individual initiatives, which is very hard.” 

It took Burgundy three centuries to develop its reputation for wine.

Kahale believes this search for local grape varieties and an identity for Lebanese wines could be sped up if winemakers work together. “Making a new wine variety is at least 15 years experiment because you only get one yield per year, so you need Lebanese winemakers with experience ready to share the results of their experimentations with their peers in order to cut this time down; we have to cultivate this spirit. This will make the giant leap, otherwise it will take time, but the identity will develop,” he says.

Whether through local and adopted grapes or international ones, and whether through ancient winemaking techniques or more modern ones, the Lebanese wine industry has reached a level of maturity where debates about its identity and competitive edge are more common. As such, we raise a glass of local variety white wine—and soon hopefully red—to a rosy future for the wine industry in Lebanon.

Nabila Rahhal

Nabila is Executive's hospitality, tourism and retail editor. She also covers other topics she's interested in such as education and mental health. Prior to joining Executive, she worked as a teacher for eight years in Beirut. Nabila holds a Masters in Educational Psychology from the American University of Beirut.

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