x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 18 January 2018

Lebanon reluctant to recognise a big local success story

Lebanon's wine producers could be ignored because the sector never really captured the public. That is changing and the idea that Lebanon makes world-class wine is beginning to filter through

Ixsir is the most glamorous newcomer to the Lebanese wine industry. One of the partners in the US$12 million (Dh44m)project is Renault-Nissan's chief executive, Carlos Ghosn. M&C Saatchi did the branding, and the winery at the northern coastal town of Batroun was designed by Raed Abillama, who won the 2011 Green Good Design award for its eco-sensitive architecture.

At first glance, however, the property, which appears to be nothing more than a 300-year-old stone house sitting alone on a hill, is not that spectacular. Where did the money go, you might ask?

But descend into the basement and you enter a state-of-the-art winery built into the hill. Brutalist concrete sits with gleaming steel and seductively lit rooms lined with barrels made from the finest French oak.

It is a neat concept and one that the owners say reflects both Lebanon's heritage and its sense of innovation.

Ixsir is a testament to the growing optimism within the industry and the burgeoning reputation of Lebanese wine in the world's markets.

The winery's first major international outing was at the London Wine Fairlast May - an event in which nine other Lebanese producers gathered at a "wines of Lebanon" stand.

The wines of Lebanon campaign, now in its second year, is the brainchild of Madeleine Waters of Coco, a PR agency in the UK. The retailer Marks & Spencer has expressed a strong interest in carrying a range of Lebanese wines, and next month a band of producers will be hitting the road again taking their wines to tastings in London, Bristol and Manchester.

Ms Waters, who has worked for Napa Valley producers in California, says she is thrilled with the idea of working with such a niche industry with a terrific heritage.

Lebanon may have been producing wine for 7,000 years, but the modern industry, which can be traced back to 1857, is tiny, turning out a mere 7 million bottles annually.

World production last year stood at 34.7 billion bottles. France alone produces about 4 billion, while neighbours Cyprus and Israel outstrip Lebanon nearly five times, producing about 35 million bottles each.

But the concern of Lebanon's producers is quality, and their aim is to play on scarcity.

To do this, they still have to position Lebanese wine as a product with an aura.

It will not be easy, especially for a sector that regulates itself, but assuming what is in the bottle stays up to scratch, they have some wonderful additional assets at their disposal with which to promote their product.

These include beaches, mountains, big men with walrus moustaches holding bunches of grapes - and of course the magnificent Bekaa Valley, the hub of the wine industry and home to the awe-inspiring temple of the wine god Bacchus in the city of Baalbek.

All these can erase the negative images with which Lebanon is all too often associated and sell the country as a Middle East gastro hub. Wine has, after all, done wonders in helping South Africa to shed the decades-long stigma of apartheid.

All very encouraging, you might think, but the problem is that the Lebanese government is reluctant to go out on a limb for this powerful ambassador.

No one has officially said so but the reason is surely religious considerations. Lebanon consumes a vast amount of alcohol across all religious communities, but the country's Sunni and Shia leaders cannot be seen to endorse alcohol even in such a liberal nation.

No such trouble for Lebanon's olive oil makers, which are reportedly soon to benefit from a $150,000 grant from the agriculture ministry for a publicity campaign. It is not a fortune but the same amount would cover most of the costs of a one-year wine campaign.

This reluctance may soon be forced to become acceptance.

Lebanon's wine producers could be ignored because the sector never really captured the public imagination.

That is changing, and the idea that Lebanon makes world-class wine is beginning to filter through. And with the arrival of the likes of Ixsir, the state may not be able to shut the door on a 7,000-year-old industry.


* Michael Karam is a freelance writer and communication consultant based in Beirut. His book Wines of Lebanon won the 2005 Gourmand Award for Best New World Wine Book