Yvan Jobard is one of several French viticulturists to have come to Lebanon out of passion for wine. He befriended a Lebanese while working in his homeland and landed an opportunity in the Land of Cedars’ viticulture in 2004.
Six years later, he can not imagine leaving the home of the famous Temple of Bacchus. He currently oversees production at Batroun’s the Coteaux de Botrys, one of Lebanon’s 33 commercial wineries. Though Lebanese wine is not very well known on the international market, it has an enormous potential, he says.
François-Eugène Brun also saw glittering potenial for the local wine industry and in 1868, the French railroad engineer founded Domaine des Tourelles, Lebanon’s first commercial producer, when he settled in Chtaura. At present, the company exports an estimated 200,000 bottles per year, explains co-owner Emile Issa el-Khoury. It’s more of a niche market, he adds, noting the bulk of his production is exported to France, the UK, Canada and the US.
From Chtaura to Batroun, the Bekaa Valley to Jezzine, tiny little Lebanon is peppered with more wineries that one might think. Anyone who waltzed around during last week’s Vinifest could taste a wide range of Lebanese wines.
The third installment of annual festivities took place at the Hippodrome de Beirut. From the industry’s pioneers like Ksara to the nascent Ixsir, passing through small family owned productions like Najm and uber chic, internationally known Chateau Musar, wine lovers and experts alike had both quantity and variety of aromas over which to toast.
Event organizer Eventions estimated that during Thursday’s launching alone, an estimated 4,000 guests trickled in with complimentary glass, ready for tasting, cheese, and live entertainment.
“We’ve only been getting positive feedback, and the event is taking on a national magnitude,” said one representative from Eventions. “Every year, we like to include a special theme that helps develop the local wine scene,” she added. This year, the focus was on the concept of terroir, the French word used to describe the grape growing conditions of any given region. Hence, the festival area was divided into the Bekaa, Batroun, Bhamdoun, Jezzine, Kfardebian, and Keserouan. “Our ultimate goal is to make the festival international, like the one in Bordeaux,” which draws a crowd of around a million French and international visitors” she said.
Likewise, the Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL) a partner in the event, is focused on promoting Lebanon’s image as a global wine producer, states UVL’s Nada Richa. The organization recently launched a campaign in the UK, part of which includes the first international tasting of Lebanese wine in London next week. “People don’t associate Lebanon with wine yet, and we want to change that,” says Richa.
“Breaking into the UK is very challenging because it’s one of the most competitive world markets,” explains Lebanese wine enthusiast and author of the Wines of Lebanon Michael Karam. “Musar paved the way 30 years ago and now new labels like Massaya are carrying on the tradition.”
But Karam feels there is still work to be done “Lebanese should be the sexiest wine in the world,” said the writer, whose latest book, Michael Karam’s Lebanese Wines 2011 was launched at the festival. “But when people think of Lebanon, they still think of street fighters with Kalashnikovs, because the country has yet to have created itself a wine identity in the international consciousness,” he says. “The quality is definitely comparable to that of New World producers like Chile, Argentina and South Africa.”
“We also need to break out of our comfort zone and sell to venues other than Lebanese cafes and restaurants abroad,” he adds. This is the typical Lebanese mistake, echoes Hady Kahale , general manager of Ixsir, whose wine hit the market last year. Inspired from the Arabic word elixir, “secret potion,” Kahale says the vision behind the wine is to cultivate grapes from all over the country and blend them into one unique concoction. Markets in Northern Europe and Japan, where they already have an opening through a partnership with CEO of Renault-Nissan Carlos Ghosn, are among their major targets.
For Lebanese lawyer, Elie Klimos, a regular at the annual Vinifest, Lebanese wine has a special value: “It is in the Bible, it was served during the last supper, it is even a tradition for Maronite monks,” who under the name Adyar have produced Lebanon’s first certified organic wines. “I am a wine lover, especially for Lebanese wine, because it has a historical dimension and dates back to the Phoenicians,” one of the oldest ancient cultures to have impacted the history of wine.