When Jesus turned water into wine, he didn’t use chemicals. When ancient Phoenicians tended to their vineyards, they didn’t use synthetic pesticides. And when Lebanon’s Maronite monks produced their 2008 vintage, they didn’t look to modern agricultural methods, but instead to the methods of the past.
Since 2003, monks from eight of Lebanon’s monasteries have embraced age-old practices to produce Adyar wine, Lebanon’s first organic-labeled wine in a growing market for such products. The wines are produced free of the chemicals and pesticides used in most vineyards around the world.
“Wine is part of the Christian history,” said Frederic Cacchia, who oversees production of Adyar wines. “The monks have been making wine like this for centuries.”
But there is more to it than just avoiding possibly harmful chemicals. Realizing that natural production is more than just a philosophy, Cacchia found a niche in the market. “Today, if you want to enter the market, you need to be different,” Caccia said. Fifty thousand bottles of Adyar wine were produced in 2009, with the plan of expanding to 120,000 or 130,000 in two years’ time.
Once a company like Adyar decides to grow grapes in organic vineyards, it applies to the Europe-based Mediterranean Institute of Certification (IMC), which is responsible for certifying organic products in Lebanon. After a three-year waiting period, during which vineyards are supposed to become free of pesticides and chemicals, a wine can officially be considered organic by EU law. Adyar received its approval in 2008, and the company’s bottles, adorned with crosses, hit the shelves with organic labels a year later.
“Aged wine with pesticide residue just doesn’t make sense,” said Youssef Al Khoury Hanna of IMC. “It’s not only healthier for people, but for the environment. It’s important for sustainability, for preserving the soil and for the health of people working in the field.”
The people working in the Adyar fields are monks. Approximately 25 of them work on vineyards at eight different monasteries, producing a variety of wines that sell for $10 to $18 a bottle. Their locations range from Kfifane to Mar Moussa in the Metn, where the former lounge area of their 18th-century monastery has since turned into a winery. “They have to both pray and work the land,” Cacchia said.
There are three important elements when it comes to making certified organic wine: soil fertility, plant protection and book keeping. Soil should be fertilized with animal manure, rather than with synthetic chemicals and fertilizers. Sulfur and copper can be used to protect plants from insects, and producers should record activity in each plot regarding the types of products used.
Organic products first came under the spotlight in Lebanon last November, when reports about pesticide misuse surfaced, creating a health scare that prompted people to buy organic foods. But wine makers saw the need for organic products long before that. Domaine de Baal owner Sebastien Khoury said he’s been producing organic wine since 1995, although he didn’t apply for official certification until two years ago. His business, like that of the monks, started with a philosophy. “I was raised in a family where protecting nature was very important,” he said.
Chateau Khoury is also close to receiving its certification, while Chateau Sanctus and Nabise Mont Liban are just beginning the three-year process, according to IMC. “People and consumers want to be sure about what they are buying is organic,” Khoury said.
But beyond the marketing strategy, natural production makes sense for Lebanese wine makers. Experts say Lebanon’s hot climate and direct sun make for great grape-growing conditions. “Drought in summer allows a lot of potential, opportunity for organic wine to be made in Lebanon, as opposed to places like France or Italy,” Hanna said.
But not everyone views nature’s way as a useful marketing tool. Chateau Musar, which has had its organic production certification since 2006, is saving the organic labels for a rainy day. “We don’t need to create a niche,” said oenologist Tarik Sakr, who has overseen production at Musar since 1991. “We have our market and everyone knows Chateau Musar.”
Those who are taking advantage of the new niche, however, may need to be patient. “Organic is something that is still new to Lebanon,” said Layane Makaram, co-owner of the organic shop New Earth in Achrafieh. She says that organic wine and vodka sales have yet to take off. “People still associate organic with weight loss.”
While drinking too much of this natural nectar of the gods will not likely lead to any weight loss, it may have another upside: after a night of drinking, headache and all, at least the hangover’s free of pesticides.