Lebanon in London: What a difference a decade makes

The calm before the storm: The Wines of Lebanon stand waits for the doors to open on the first day of the London Wine fair 2012

The first time I went to the London International Wine and Spirit Fair was in 2003 when five Lebanese producers – Chateau Musar, Chateau Ksara, Chateau Kefraya, Chateau St Thomas, Domaine Wardy and Massaya – exhibited together on one stand.

Wine presenter Christina Pickard who shared her memories of Lebanon in a Masterclass with Lebanese wine writer, Michael Karam

The “Lebanon stand” wasn’t the most inspiring venue. The ‘décor’ was minimal, even though Massaya, presumably in a bid to inject some rustic charm, had found a park bench while someone else hoisted a token Lebanese flag. Still, getting the normally uncooperative Lebanese to share a stand was an achievement and the event was seen as a landmark of sorts.

Madeleine Waters of Wines of Lebanon chats with Sarah Jane Evans MW

In 2003, Musar was still Lebanese wine and Lebanese wine was still Musar. Ksara and Kefraya held the high ground in the Lebanese restaurant on-trade and Massaya, who had just been taken on by UK distributors Thorman Hunt, was beginning its modest assault on the independent wine merchants. The only way others could break into the then £10 billion UK wine market was to follow in the vapor trail of Ksara and Kefraya and find a home on what space was left on the wine lists of Lebanese restaurants.

Back in Lebanon, Domaine des Tourelles was still recovering from the death of Pierre Brun and a change of owners; Coteaux de Botrys was a work in progress, overseen by a retired army general with a vision to create a new wine region in North Lebanon. The Karam Winery was waiting for its first harvest, as was Batroun Mountains. Chateau Ka and Ixsir were nothing more than ideas.

Double act: Michael Karam and Tim Atkin MW give the first of their three joint talks on Lebanese wine

In total there were fewer than eight serious producers. The country may have been making wine since 7000 BC; it may have been home to the Temple of Bacchus, built by the Romans in 250 AD and the first ‘foreign’ modern vines may have been planted in 1857 by the Jesuit monks at Ksara, but in cold reality was that the modern industry began in 1991, one year after the end of the 1975-90 civil war.

Ten years on

What a difference a decade makes. Today, three Lebanese wines – Chateau Ksara, Chateau Ka (eventually established in 2005) and Domaine des Tourelles – can be found on the shelves of Marks and Spencer and two – Chateau Musar and Chateau Ka again – are in Waitrose. The others are making headway as distributors, sommeliers and buyers are waking up to the fact that it may be time to have a Lebanese wine or two in their portfolios, wine list or shelves.

Spreading the word

The park bench, the stand up banners and the little flag have gone. In their place is a stand (see above), typical of the modern generic campaign needed to take a fledgling wine country into the international consumer consciousness, all funded by the Union Vinicole du Liban, Lebanon’s association of wine producers. We have a brand, the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin “Wines of Lebanon” and a smart garnet livery.

In the last 12 months, the campaign has held road shows in Manchester, Bristol and London, while the results of three successful press trips have made it clear to anyone listening and reading that there is more to Lebanese wine than Chateau Musar.

In the thick of a masterclass tasting

Which of course there always was. Musar is a quirk, one of the great wines of the world, but its wines – Tim Atkin calls them “Marmite wines”: you either love them or hate them – are not typical. They have their following and Lebanon, in Serge Hochar, has a magnificent ambassador.

In 2011, we held our first Lebanon masterclass given by Tim Atkin MW and myself. This year, it was decided to hold the masterclasses on the stand, three a day over the three days of the fair (including three with Tim and one with wine presenter Christina Pickard). The result was that not only the stand created its own source of energy, but attendees only had to walk a meter or so in any direction to taste the other Lebanese wines. It was simple but effective way to “kidnap” your audience.

Yes, as you can tell from the photos, we had a good stand and everything was slick and professional. But Lebanon still has a long way to go. For every wine critic and buyer who gets Lebanese wine there is another who says “yes but so what?” or “the reds are a little too cooked” or “There’s a bit too much oak”.

At the end of the it’s all about what’s in the glass

Are they right? I have been a fan of the Chateau St Thomas Pinot Noir since it was launched in London last year. I have shown to who ever will listen to the extent that I am sure many people thought I must be on the pay roll. Some of the best palates in the world have given it the thumbs up, but a leading supermarket buyer tasted it and in less than 10 seconds dismissed it as “too oaky”.

Naji Saikali from the Ixsir winery in Batroun, North Lebanon

Was he right? Who cares? The point is that Lebanon, despite the huge steps made in the last decade, still has to fight tooth and nail to get our wines on the shelves and that means listening to the trade and the consumers to make the wines they can sell and want to drink. The good news is that if we can, then our 7 million bottles will be gold dust.

Next stop Turkey!

Next stop Izmir

Lebanon wines next major outing is the European Wine Bloggers Conference in Izmir Turkey on November 10. Another step on the journey to regional domination.

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