MAR MOUSSA, Lebanon: Verdant vines grow vigorously along fertile terraces descending from the Metn outcrop atop which the Monastery of Mar Moussa sits.
The sky is a pure blue and butterflies languidlyflap in the afternoon heat. “It’s easy to make organic wine in Lebanon,” says winemaker Frederic Cacchia, surveying the vineyards and adding that the Lebanese climate means the vines do not really require much treatment to thrive.
Yet, Cacchia’s wine, produced from grapes grown at eight different Maronite monasteries across the country and sold under the label Adyar (which means “monasteries” in Arabic), is the only fully certified organic wine in Lebanon.
The label was born in the early 2000s, when monasteries’ monks, who have a history of self-sufficiency – they produce their own meat and vegetables – decided to return to one of their oldest traditions: winemaking.
Monasteries across three regions – Jbeil, Metn and Chouf – joined a wine-producing cooperative, which last year centralized all its actual winemaking at the Mar Moussa site.
Cacchia left France in 1999 to work with the Massaya winery in the Bekaa and has been connected to the Adyar project since 2003.
He says the decision to produce organic wine was almost instinctual for the monks, because of the manner in which they have worked their land in the past. However, Cacchia is also forthright in saying that the wine, as a newcomer to the market, needed something to set it apart from its competitors: “When you want to go on the market, you have to be different ... [The decision to go organic] is marketing, of course.”
And while he is convinced that organic production, which forbids the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, chemical weed killers and soil disinfectants, is healthier both for the land and those working on it, Cacchia’s response to the question of whether the difference can be tasted in the wine is delivered without hesitation: “Of course not.”
Rather, the French expert describes organic wine production as a philosophy for winemakers and drinkers, one that in the Lebanese context is more easily realized.
“I don’t know if I would do it in France tomorrow,” he says, citing the climate there as being less accommodating to the technique.
In the mountains of Metn, Cacchia appears in his element. He readily praises the monks for their commitment to the project, and eagerly discusses Adyar’s catalog of wines, each labeled according to the monastery at which its grapes were grown, a white (Inspiration) and a rose (L’Aube). The reds are heavy and dark, while the white and rose are light and fresh.
“For [local] consumers,” Cacchia says, “the wine is surprising. They expect sweet wine from the monastery [like] they used to drink at Christmas.”
However, he adds that the Adyar wines have become a popular after-mass purchase in stores near the monasteries. The products are also sold at Adyar’s outlet in Monnot and at a variety of organic food shops and markets, as well as from the Mar Moussa winery.
Adyar began its organic certification process with the Mediterranean Institute of Certification (IMC) in 2005 and produced its first certified vintage in 2008.
According to the IMC, Adyar is unique in Lebanon insofar as the label is certified organic both in terms of grape growing and wine production.
The IMC has certified other domestic vineyards as organic, but the processing of the grapes at these wineries has not received certification and therefore their products cannot carry an organic label.
Wineries with IMC certified organic vineyards are: Chateau Sanctus, Batroun Mountains, Chateau Khoury, Chateau Musar, Les coteaux d’Heliopolis and Domaine de Baal.
With approximately 40 wineries across the country, and the purported simplicity of organic farming in the sector, it is perhaps surprising that the list is so short. Cacchia explains the reluctance to convert to organic growing as based on fear, contending that small grape-producers who sell their harvests to winemakers are compelled by pesticide and chemical companies to treat their land and crops in order to maximize their yields. Moreover, being more manual-labor intensive, organic production is ultimately more expensive.
Further challenges present themselves in producing a wine that is organic, rather than one that is simply made from organically grown grapes. Chemical substances used to stabilize conventional wines must be avoided. This means that balancing the wine’s taste becomes more difficult.
Up until now, the European Union has not had explicit regulations governing the production of organic wine beyond the use of organic grapes, the IMC’s Veronica Pecorella explains. However, as of Aug. 1, more extensive regulations will be introduced.
Sulfur dioxide, to which some people are allergic, occurs naturally in wine, but additional quantities are generally added for their antioxidant effects and to keep the wine fresh and balance its taste. Under the new regulations, in organic wines sulfur dioxide levels will be strictly limited to less than 150 mg per liter for white wine and less than 100 mg per liter for red.
Producers that meet the new requirements will be able to carry the “organic EU logo” on their bottles, the IMC has announced. Where evidence is not available that wine complies with the new rules, bottles can be labelled as “wine made from organic grapes.”
Adyar uses no added commercial yeasts for fermentation and its wine, which is tested monthly, has average sulfur dioxide levels in the region of 85 mg per liter.
Even though the process is tricky, Cacchia says: “We really try to make the best [wine] we can.”
The winemaker is currently endeavoring to really focus on the actual winemaking process at Adyar. But with the monks eager to keep planting more and more vines – in the past nine years, Adyar has increased its number of vines 18 fold – this, he says, “is a bit of a problem.”
“I tell them, ‘OK, you want to plant, but we have to do the wine too!’”
The Frenchman’s one criticism of Lebanese wine is that “you don’t really feel a Lebanese taste [to it].”
“Really when you taste a wine you should feel the soil, the grapes, the climate, the country, the region,” he says.
He describes Lebanese wine as “very modern, very technical” but points out: “[When] experts come they say, ‘the wine is good but everyone has the same.’”
“You have to find something different,” he says, “with the grapes, the work,” adding that perhaps this difference might be found through the organic production process.
Cacchia knows that finding this elusive difference will take time. Adyar’s vines are young; the oenologist compares them with the 100-year-old specimens used to produce the famous wines of France’s Bordeaux region.
But, for the monks, time is not an issue. “They say, ‘we have eternity,’” Cacchia says, smiling.
However, the winemaker, a mere mortal, does not: He would like to produce a unique, truly Lebanese wine in the next 10 to 15 years.