Lebanon seeks to be a regional Napa Valley
Beirut - Lebanon might be known to the West as a country marred by wars and violence, not as one of the oldest sites of wine production in the world, dating to biblical times. Its burgeoning wine industry and award-winning wines exported to a wide Lebanese expatriate community in the Gulf, Europe and the United States are only starting to attract the attention of international consumers.
Selling Lebanon as a wine-producing country is the challenging task given Lebanese-British wine expert and journalist Michael Karam, who was commissioned by the Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL) to raise awareness of Lebanese wines, particularly representing six labels: Ixir, Chateau Kefraya, Chateau Ksara, Chateau St Thomas, Domaine des Tourelles and Domaine Wardy.
“Trying to get international consumers to buy Lebanese wines entails first of all selling the idea of Lebanon as a wine-producing country,” Karam said. “Once they understand that Lebanon makes wine then they will be more persuaded to buy Lebanese wine.
“You can’t sell a wine without selling the country. In any marketing campaign it is going to be wines of Lebanon not wine of Ksara, Kefraya, St Thomas, etc…. If consumers don’t know the country, they are not going to buy the wine.”
Backing up his marketing argument, Karam said: “You can stop anyone in the street in London, for instance, and mention Chile. I bet you that the first thing they would say is wine. They might not know any Chilean producers but they know that Chile produces wine. This is the big challenge but, once you achieve that, selling Lebanese wines will be much, much easier.”
Lebanon produces about 9 million bottles of wine a year, a small amount compared with other Mediterranean countries such as Turkey at more than 70 million bottles annually or Cyprus with 45 million bottles.
“It (production) is microscopic. Even by regional standard we are very small and we only export approximately half of that, the rest being consumed locally,” noted Karam, the author of Wines of Lebanon.
With the Middle East becoming overshadowed by raging conflicts and gaining notoriety for exporting Islamic jihadism, promoting wines from the region can cause surprise.
“In the West, people are surprised that Lebanon produces wine but when they think about it a bit more they see no reason why we should not, because we are a Mediterranean country after all,” Karam argued.
“When they taste the wines they are always very pleasantly surprised because these really match the taste profile of international consumers. We use many of the same grapes that you find in other wines. However, our wines tend to be a bit stronger because we are a hotter country.”
The challenge for Lebanese wine in the export market remains making the transition from Lebanese restaurants abroad into international venues and retailers.
“We don’t want the people to only drink Lebanese wine with Lebanese food,” he said. “Ideally, we would want them to drink arak [a Levantine alcoholic drink distilled from anise] with Lebanese food, while Lebanese wine would be drunk [with any food] like any other wine, be it from Chile or California.”
In addition to France and the United Kingdom — prime markets for Lebanese wines — bottles are finding their way to Germany, Sweden, Dubai and the United States. “We really have such small amounts that we can’t go everywhere. With four-and-a-half-million bottles to export, establishing Lebanese wines in five or six markets is just great.”
Another challenge for marketing Lebanon’s wine is its price. In a country such as Britain where the price tag for a bottle of wine starts at 4 pounds ($5.75), the cheapest Lebanese wine sells at 10 pounds ($14.50).
“To convince the consumer to go into that 10-pound market segment is very difficult. To do this, Lebanon has to market itself as a boutique producer. In other words, if you want that wine, which we make in a really small amount, you have to pay a little bit more,” Karam explained.
Wine production is part of Lebanon’s history. Many believe that Qana in South Lebanon is the setting of Jesus’s first miracle, in which he is said to have turned water into wine. Before the time of Jesus, Phoenicians traded wine across the Mediterranean. When the region fell under Ottoman rule, winemaking was forbidden, except in monasteries.
The sector was revived to some extent with the French mandate over Lebanon in the early 20th century, with the French’s demand for wine, but the sector decline again with the onset of civil war in 1975.
“It is very important that people understand that Lebanon was one of the first countries to make wine. It was definitely the first to export wine,” Karam said.
“It is no exaggeration to say that the Phoenicians gave wine to the world.”