— A Brief History
The history of winemaking in Lebanon dates back to Phoenician rule, and like the many waves of settlers and colonizers that came after, it’s had its ups and downs. After the war ended in 1990, much of the Lebanese economy was in ruins and though many industries struggled to get back on their feet, the wine sector did comparatively well.
Five house were established and operating in the early 1990s (Château Ksara, Château Musar, Château Kefraya, Domaine des Tourelles, and Château Nakad), seven new wineries were added to the roster over the course of the decade, and a private institution protecting wineries’ common interests called the Union Vinicole Du Liban (UVL) was established.
In the last ten years, there has been a noticeable boom in wine production with approximately 23 new wineries opening up and introducing their vintages on the market.
Lebanese wine has created a name for itself in international markets and is considered a quality ambassador to the country abroad. That said, its production remains rather small in comparison to neighboring countries’, with approximately 8 million bottles being exported annually according to UVL statistics, the majority of them by the older, big wine houses.
The main export destinations are Europe and the United States, with the United Kingdom taking the lion’s share of 32%, according to the Lebanese Ministry of Economy. The 2014 Annual Report by BLOM Bank shows that exports have been on the rise since 2013, with the wine sector witnessing a trade surplus of approximately $4 million in 2014.
Despite these positive indicators, the wine industry still faces many challenges that include the political instability from the Syrian crisis, the influx of Syrian refugees in winemaking areas, and competition from imported wine.
— Challenges & Hurdles
Lebanon has the unique advantage of many microclimates, which allows for wine production in different regions across the country. Most wineries are located in the Bekaa Valley and Chouf region, where a natural water table and clay-calcareous soils—respectively—offer appropriate climates for wine production. More recently established wineries are veering towards Batroun, where vineyards are planted either sea-facing or further inland. According to the UVL, this diversity can position the area as a “boutique hub of Lebanese wine”.
That said, the majority of grape varietals used for winemaking are imported, with Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, Grenault and Syrah among the most popular varieties of reds; favored types of whites include Sauvignon Blanc, Ugni Blanc, and local varieties Obaideh and Merweh. Since most producers export 40-50% of their wine abroad, they are driven by foreign, rather than local, demand, which is why the majority of wine production uses non-native grape varieties. Whilst this may be economically viable for the time being, it places Lebanon’s future wine production at a disadvantage.
According to Maher Harb, a young winemaker and founder of Atelier 20: “Lebanese wine has a good reputation internationally due to the established houses. [That said], there’s no particular identity for Lebanese wine, as few are looking to develop the [Lebanese] terroir. Most are following consumer wants, which may not always work abroad”.
The lack of government funding and intermittent political struggles hamper investments in wine production, which consequently limit supply. Whilst it’s important to focus on increasing government support of winemakers, it’s just as necessary to play up Lebanon’s comparative advantage by developing a quality, niche wine sector.
This primarily involves the creation of a unique Lebanese identity using the local terroir, which some boutique wineries like Clos St. Thomas have done with the release of Obeidy, a white wine blend. As such, it appears that a diversification of the wine sector, with focus on boutique productions and more traditional wines is a necessary mix to ensure longevity and competitiveness of Lebanese wine abroad.
What about local demand? An important question to consider given the repercussions it has on production. Wine consumption in Lebanon is still rather low, despite a slight increase over the past couple of years. There are two main reasons for this: firstly, the decrease in tourist activity due to political instability; secondly, foreign wine is often preferred to local varieties for its greater brand recognition and lower cost, the latter of which was aided by a customs reduction on European products, according to BLOM Bank’s 2014 Annual Report.
— Opportunities & Future Perspectives
Despite many challenges, Lebanese wine remains a quality product for the country whose industry has grown steadily over the years. In order for production to increase, it is important that sufficient funds and effective budgeting are carried out, which requires a public-private partnership between governmental organizations and the UVL.
With constant debate and talks surrounding quantity versus quality, it is just as important to develop the Lebanese terroir and create unique wines that are recognizable abroad. Finally, whilst the UVL worked hard to create supply for Lebanese wine abroad, it is just as important to establish a strong consumer culture within Lebanon.
Despite certain challenges, Lebanese wine production remains on a steady course and the many opportunities for growth and development—when realized—predict a promising future.