Lebanon: a snapshot of a modern industry

(This text has ben adapted from Michael Karam’s Lebanese Wine Guide 2011)

The modern Lebanese wine industry began in 1857 when the Jesuit missionaries at Ksara (today the site of Château Ksara) introduced new viticultural and vinicultural methods as well as new vines, from French-governed Algeria.

Around the wine press at Ksara in 1910

Over 60 years later the French civil and military administration that governed Lebanon between the wars created unprecedented demand for wine, while Lebanon’s post-independence role as a cosmopolitan, financial hub saw the country enter something of a golden age that offered further opportunities for the new wine culture to take hold. This lasted until 1975, when the country descended into a 15-year civil war that stunted all economic development.

French customs mark on a vat circa 1923

Although only two harvests were lost to the fighting, only Château Musar, which had quickly recognized the need to penetrate new markets if it was to survive, genuinely thrived during this turbulent period.

At the Bristol Wine fair in 1979, owner Serge Hochar won over British drinkers with his distinctive claret-style reds and told stories of derring-do in the face of war and occupying armies. Thus for nearly 20 years, Château Musar was Lebanese wine.

The barrel room at Chateau Musar

With peace, came new opportunities and growth. The success of Château Kefraya, which began producing wine in 1978, after decades of being a grape supplier, and the popularity of New World wines, galvanized Lebanon’s few established wineries and inspired a new generation, many of whom had been established arak producers, to exploit the potential of the Bekaa Valley’s formidable terroir.

Chateau Kefraya aerial view

Today Lebanon’s biggest (and oldest) producer is Château Ksara. In 1973, the Jesuits sold the winery to a consortium of Lebanese businessmen after the Vatican encouraged the sale of all profitable concerns, but teething periods and the civil war meant that the winery only really started to perform in the mid-90s. It now commands 35% share of the local market, producing over 2 million bottles annually.

Château Kefraya has become Lebanon’s second biggest winery. It produces around 2 million bottles annually and gave the world the Comte de M ‘96, one of Lebanon’s most talked-about wines of the post-war era, one that convinced the wine community, including Robert Parker, who gave it a score of 91, that there was more to Lebanese wine than Château Musar.

But if one winery can be said to have lit a fuse under what was, until the mid-90s, a sector that lacked a competitive edge, it is Massaya. Founded in 1997, the Franco Lebanese alliance between the Lebanese Ghosn brothers and heavyweight French partners that include Daniel and Frédéric Brunier of Domaine le Vieux Télégraphe, and Dominique Hébrard, formerly of Château Cheval Blanc has spread a new Lebanese wine gospel to the UK, the US and France.

Massaya's Ramzi (top left) and Sami Ghosn (center) with French partners

Other new producers to make an impact during this period included Clos St. Thomas, Domaine Wardy, Château Fakra and Heritage, while in recent years, they have been joined by exciting micro-wineries such as Château Marsyas, Domaine de Baal, Château Belle-Vue, the Karam Winery, a resurgent Domaine des Tourelles, Ixsir, Coteau de Botrys and Château Khoury to name a few.

Today, Lebanon’s modest stock within the global wine community is finally beginning to perform. The sector is enjoying a period of unprecedented growth and international interest and this momentum should continue as long as professional standards are imposed and maintained.

Vineyards at Domaine Wardy

In total, there are nearly 40 wineries of varying size at work in Lebanon today, producing nearly 7 million bottles. It’s a microscopic amount by global standards (the sector generates modest annual revenues of around $30 million) but with the right marketing and positioning Lebanon can compete by playing on scarcity and premium quality. It must do so because Lebanon lacks the economies of scale to compete with the New World giants. This is partly due to the high cost of land in the Bekaa and the absence of local industry for secondary materials.

A happy harvest

There is also more diversity of terroir. The northern region of Batroun now has eight wineries, while Mount Lebanon and the south have also demonstrated that they can grow excellent wine grapes that should add more variety to what is Lebanon most high profile and exciting export.

From our vines to your glass

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