BEIRUT: Vinifest, Lebanon’s premier wine expo, opened Wednesday evening, welcoming wine aficionados and novices alike to discover the diversity of the country’s burgeoning wine industry.
“The culture of Lebanon is very important and wine is the basis of culture,” Serge Hochar, president and director general of the eminent Chateau Musar, said. “Vinifest helps to develop this culture, spread it to the young generation and brings out the taste of Lebanon.”
Vinifest has gathered 24 producers from across Lebanon for the fifth year of the festival, which runs through Saturday at the Beirut Hippodrome.
The event originated to support the growth of Lebanese wineries, in terms of economic development and tourism, explained Neda Farah, the organizer of Vinifest.
But today, the main purpose is to showcase Lebanon’s rich wine heritage to the Lebanese themselves.
“The Lebanese people are always tasting French and other European wines before trying their own wines,” Farah said. “It’s the job of Vinifest to introduce the Lebanese to their own wine culture.”
In this vein, the festival added a number of new activities this year, including a wine tasting school and cooking demonstrations, which follow this year’s theme of pairing wine with food.
The “VinEcole” wine tasting school, organized by the Association of European Sommeliers, will run throughout the festival with classes led by the ASE Vice President Brigitte Leloup.
Visitors to Vinifest can also enjoy live cooking demonstrations each night as well as musical performances. They can even “Wine in the Sky” for a special tasting journey sponsored by Dinner in the Sky, which lifts diners high above the grounds of the Hippodrome in a floating restaurant suspended from a crane.
While Vinifest is an expo for Lebanese wine producers, guests can also wander into the Spanish pavilion to sample a rioja with a slice of Manchego cheese. Each year the festival features the wines of another country in a separate pavilion, this year with support from the Spanish Embassy in Lebanon.
Aside from the buzzing activities, the evidence of growth in Lebanon’s wine industry, as demonstrated by the strong showing of producers at the festival, is impressive.
Visitors can sample the variety of Lebanese terroirs – from the Bekaa, Mount Lebanon and even Jezzine – by making a circuit of the festival grounds.
“Since 1990 Lebanon has stabilized, many people came back to their homes and thought it was an opportunity to become a winemaker,” Hochar said of the resurgence of the wine industry. “From four or five wineries in the 1990s we are today 40 wineries.”
Hochar’s Chateau Musar has played an integral role in the development of the industry, as one of the largest producers, and has carved out a large export business, introducing Lebanese wine around the world.
Aside from the big producers on the block – including the ubiquitous Kefraya and Ksara labels – Vinifest is a rare chance to discover Lebanon’s boutique or “garage wineries,” many of which produce less than 10,000 bottles a year and have no marketing operation to speak of.
Since the winemakers themselves are manning the stands at Vinifest, guests can sample and discuss each wine with the producer.
“[Vinifest] is the best chance to meet these small winemakers, because not everyone knows about them,” explains Salim Heleiwa, a wine consultant associated with Cave du Monastere St. Jean.
Founded in 1690, this monastery houses Lebanon’s first Arabic printing press and has made wine for the use of the monastery for hundreds of years.
The monastery began producing wine for the Lebanese market in 2006 from its 13 hectares of grapes in Khonchara. Starting from a first vintage of only 5,000 bottles, they currently produce around 35,000 bottles a year.
Heleiwa believes that there is growing interest in these boutique wineries as the Lebanese look to preserve and explore traditional foods and culture.
“Beginning with the slow food movement and Souk El-Tayeb,” Heleiwa said, “there’s a trend now toward this [interest in] going to the little, traditional producers, organic producers. It’s good.”
“Ksara, Musar, Kefraya, they are here and they are making the market but we also have little wineries, these garage wineries.”
Hochar agrees and hopes everyone can enjoy Lebanon’s rich wine heritage, not just wine connoisseurs.
“Vinifest is mostly for Lebanese people, not for tourists, not for business people, it’s just for normal people. People who are interested in discovering this drink that has been famous in this country for thousands of years,” he said.
Vinifest runs through Saturday from 6 p.m. to midnight at the Beirut Hippodrome with entry for LL20,000. For more information and a schedule of events visit www.vinifestlebanon.com.