VERITAS ET VITA

Lebanon 2013 | AGRICULTURE | FOCUS: WINE

As both wine producing and wine drinking become increasingly popular in Lebanon, the challenge now is to raise awareness of local brands in foreign markets.

Wine making in Lebanon has a long tradition that can be traced back to 6,000 BC, and was even mentioned in the Old Testament. Today, the local wine producers in Lebanon produce around 7 million bottles of wine per year. This largely comes from the Western Bekaa Valley, an area that enjoys long, dry summers, with cool nights and consistent rain in addition to an altitude of around 1,000 meters. Another advantageous aspect of the Bekaa region is that it has its own water table due to the snow that melts and runs down the mountains. All of these factors are ideal for wine making and help to produce a high quality of wine that Lebanon is beginning to earn a name for. In an effort to maintain this high quality wine, wine makers opt to produce a lower-yield rate at around five tons per hectare spread across 2,000 hectares of cultivated land. Although the Bekaa Valley is the most popular region for producing wine, vineyards are experimenting in new territories in areas such as Zahle, Batroun, and Jezzine, as well as moving across the valley to the Eastern Bekaa.

It has only been in the last couple of decades that wine making and drinking have become popular in Lebanon. The reason for the lack of popularity can be largely put down to the Ottomans. Even though wine was not forbidden, it was frowned upon, meaning the more socially acceptable arak was often the drink of choice for most citizens. In 1991, there were only four wine producers in the whole country, but by 2004 this had risen to 12, and in 2010 it had hit 40. Many experts believe this number could surpass 100 in the near future. However, per capita consumption remains the lowest in the world for a wine producing nation at 1.2 bottles, equating to around 4 million bottles. Still, of those bottles 80% are from local producers while only 20% is imported.

Two of the biggest wine produces in country are the Château Kefraya and Château Ksara, with an annual production of 2.2 million and 3 million bottles, respectively. Château Ksara is one of the oldest wineries in the country, established in 1857. Currently, it produces wine around the €6 to €40 per bottle range; “We do not have high-end wines with price tags over €1,000 per bottle," Zafer E. Chaoui, Chairman & CEO of Château Ksara explained to TBY. Apart from the Château Musar Gaston Hochar, a 1959 Bordeaux-style wine that sold for $1,790 at Christies International auction house in September 2013, this is largely true. If the Lebanese wine industry wants to maintain growth and increase its exports, it will have to overcome certain challenges and adapt to ever-changing regional politics. In the past, Syria, the UAE, and Jordan used to be the main export markets for Lebanon; however, since the conflict started in Syria, exporting by land has become significantly more expensive and dangerous. The conflict has largely cut off land exports to the rest of the Middle East, meaning its producers are looking for new markets. Exports to the UK rose by 33% in 2012 to $4.3 million, the second year in a row that Lebanon had experienced double-digit growth when it comes to exports to the UK when it recorded 26% growth to $3.2 million in 2011. While the UK has seen the biggest growth for exporters of Lebanese wine, total exports of wine also rose in 2012 by 7.9% reaching $14.3 million. The US also experienced growth over 2012 of 29.8%, which amounted to $1.9 million. The next largest market for Lebanon after the UK is France, which also saw growth of 4.8% to reach $2.4 million.

One of the reasons behind Lebanon's growth in the UK is a marketing campaign that was launched in 2010 by the Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL). The campaign aimed to promote awareness of Lebanese wine through advertising at both trade and consumer events. The UVL won the 2012 award for the generic campaign of the year at the International Wine Challenge. The growth figures that exporters are beginning to experience is evidence that such campaigns are working and able to produce significant rewards.

The UVL's campaign in the UK is not the only initiative in action to help boost the wine sector. In July 2013, local wine producers met with politicians to come up with creative ways to increase sales. During the meeting, winemakers were able to voice concerns and the challenges they face, as well as announce “Lebanese Wine Day" to be held in Germany in May 2014. The meeting also announced an International Wine Conference, which took place at the beginning of October 2013. After all the wine producers had spoken, two main problems became prevalent. The first is that local restaurants often don't stock Lebanese wine and often elect to buy from countries such as France, due to its more notable name. In an effort to reverse this habit, the Ministry of Agriculture is working on a media campaign to get local wine into restaurants, possibly by even shaming restaurants that don't carry local wine. Catchphrases such as, “Wine Not Lebanese?" “Make Wine, Not War," and “Al-Jouda Mawjouda (We Have Quality)" have been bandied around. Another issue producers are facing is the lack of reliable and affordable electricity supplies. Smaller vineyards are now looking into the possibilities of solar and wind turbines as the lack of trust in the national grid continues.

Since Lebanon is a small country, it must move toward producing higher quality wines if it wants to become a more prominent force in the world market. Land prices are expensive in the country, which makes establishing vineyards increasingly costly. Also, due to its small size, Lebanon does not have the space to produce enough wine of a lower quality to make it economically viable; therefore, producing higher quality wines is the inevitable way forward.