BEIRUT: Lebanese winemakers are anxiously monitoring their barometers, hoping that spring rains will hydrate the soil.
While it’s still too early to say how the exceptionally dry winter will affect this year’s harvest, Lebanese viticulturists and wine experts worry that unless there is significant rain in April and May, crops will suffer.
Meager snowfall this past winter has left the soil at Lebanese vineyardsmarkedly dry. While the vines are dormant this time of year, their deep root systems will soon awaken and begin pumping water from the soil. Without adequate moisture in the soil, however, the vines may fail to produce a decent number of grapes.
“Well call it stress hydrique [water stress] when the vines can’t find water inside the soil,” Carlos Khachan said.
The vine will have two or three grape bunches instead of having as many as 10, he said.
“The short rainfall this winter is definitely of big concern,” said Gaston Hochar of Chateau Musar.
“But it hasn’t affected us yet because the vines have not yet opened. There are no results that we can see or touch,” he told The Daily Star, adding that neither he nor his father had ever witnessed such a dry winter.
Still, a small yield will likely have a negligible effect on boutique wineries in Lebanon, and may even be an advantage.
“When the yield is low, the grapes are very concentrated,” Khachan explained. “The quality will be exceptional.”
For large wineries like Kefraya or Ksara that mass produce vintages each year, however, a dry season could be disastrous.
“The lack of rain, and moreover the lack of snow, could create problems” said James Palgé, Chateau Ksara’s resident enologist. “If this summer is hot, it will be a catastrophe. ... It’s not good for the vines to be stressed.”
Many Lebanese wineries eschew irrigation, preferring natural rainfall. Irrigation is generally frowned upon in winemaking as it alters the natural characteristics of a region’s wine. Most countries in the European Union have a ban on irrigation.
Taste wise, Khachan explained, irrigation tends to make the grapes swell with water and dilute the flavor of the wine.
Some Lebanese wineries might be forced to irrigate their vines this year, however, to ensure an adequate harvest, Khachan said.
Moreover, if the soil conditions remain dry, Khachan predicts that the price of grapes will increase around 50 percent, from approximately $1 per kilogram to $1.50.
“The price will be higher, but the quality will be less,” he said.
Jean Paul al-Khoury, Chateau Khoury’s enologist, is not particularly concerned about his grapes. Instead, the lack of rainfall will pose operational challenges to his winery, he said.
“The vineyards we are not so worried about, we are more worried about the availability of the water on our wells,” he explained.
“We use a huge amount of water, and if our wells get empty this would disturb our work especially if it happens during the harvest. The risk would be that we would have to adjust our working hours or at least pay more to buy water.”
Still, many winemakers say it’s not yet time to panic. The recent rain showers brought hope that spring rain would make up for a parched winter.
“We’re always concerned when there are dry periods, but the rains in March were reassuring to us,” said Fabrice Guiberteau, Chateau Kefraya’s enologist.
Jill Boutros, the co-owner of Chateau Belle Vue in Mount Lebanon, echoed a similar sentiment. “We were very concerned until about 10 days ago, when we had a wonderful week of rain,” she told The Daily Star.
“Last year it rained until May 16. Hopefully there will be another few rainstorms coming,” she said.
“We’ve had a dry winter, but I don’t know how it’s going to come in spring,” agreed Gaston Hochar of Chateau Musar.
“There are three things that are unpredictable: weather, wine and women,” he concluded.