Lebanon’s fine wines merit state backing

What’s Lebanon’s finest export? Its human capital? Perhaps. The cuisine? Maybe. Olive oil? Hardly. Hashish? Possibly, but let’s stay with legal things.

How about wine? Its credentials are impeccable. With a 7,000 year pedigree, Lebanon today makes international class wine that is in demand, to which the world’s most respected critics have given their thumbs up. Lebanese wine has shaken off its image as an ethnic curiosity ordered to wash down kebab. It has entered the mainstream.

In fact, Marks and Spencer, that bastion of the English retail trade, wants to carry a range of wines from Lebanon to complement its hummus and tabbouleh offerings and add even more Mediterranean swagger to its famous food halls. Meanwhile, Arblaster and Clarke, the seriously superior wine tour operator, also from the U.K., is bringing its first group of tourists to Lebanon in October.

The thumbs up from Arblaster and Clarke, which takes its business extremely seriously and charges its members top dollar to be whisked around the wine country by a Master of Wine (of which there are 200 or so in the world), is a huge vote of confidence.

One might imagine that with such a product and blue-chip endorsements, the government would have made wine a priority. That would mean funding, or partly funding, marketing campaigns, offering subsidies, and ensuring that the necessary regulatory mechanisms are in place to guarantee quality and best practise.

Sadly, Lebanon’s winemakers operate alone. The state either can’t see the potential or is reluctant to get involved in a sector that might offend religious sensitivities. Admittedly, there have been several attempts to establish a National Wine Institute. The idea is to create a private-public entity that would be responsible for all areas of grape growing and wine production – viticulture, viniculture, legal issues, commercial concerns, quality control and analysis. It would also institute a system similar to, and inspired by, the French appellation d’origine controlee. However, every time such a project has come close to being looked at by the government it has been sent to the bottom of the pile.

And yet here is what we can read on the official website of Lebanon’s olive oil producers: “The Agriculture Ministry is presently in the process of developing national regulation for the production and marketing of Lebanese olives and olive oil.” Surely the time has come for Lebanese wine to also benefit from this patronage, especially given the fact that, however good our olive oil might be, it hasn’t captured the imagination or garnered the plaudits that our wines have.

And it’s not just that government support will ease the financial burden on the producer. A lack of support may actually damage the industry, as many small producers are finding it hard to make ends meet. Many might have to close shop or, even more alarmingly, cut corners in the knowledge that no one will hold them accountable.

For the record, Lebanon produces just under 7 million bottles each year. There are now around 40 producers, whereas a decade ago there were less than half that number. Most are small operations, producing between 20,000 and 70,000 bottles a year. Chateau Kefraya and Chateau Ksara are the main producers in terms of volume, accounting for just over 4 million bottles between them annually. If you throw in the production of Chateau Musar, Chateau St. Thomas, Domaine Wardy and Massaya you have over 85 percent of Lebanon’s total production.

Lopsided a sector it may be, but the emergence of the smaller boutique producer, or “garagistes” as they might be called in France, is a reflection of how the profile of Lebanese wine has developed – with limited quantities of high-quality wine sold at a premium. It is also an approach that offers great potential for breathing life into a moribund agricultural sector, not to mention one that may add another dimension to Lebanon’s still blurry international profile.

You see, the world still cannot make up its mind about Lebanon. Is it the home of Hezbollah, a land sitting on the edge of a terrorist abyss? Is it a slightly shabby and overpriced playground for vacationing Arabs? Or is it an edgy Middle East entrepot with cool people and places – a country into which those in the know can jet in for a quirky mini break?

Wine may not be able to totally erase the negative perceptions that cling to Lebanon, but it can tip the balance in favor of the positives. Look what wine has done for South Africa, a country that 20 years ago made us think of tear gas, rioting and discrimination. Ditto New Zealand, which used to make us all think of sheep. Now it’s all about rolling Sauvignon Blanc vineyards and achingly beautiful scenery.

Chile? No one even knew where it was. Many people still don’t, but they know they have drunk its wine.

With this in mind, the Union Vinicole du Liban, last year retained Coco, a British public relations company to promote Lebanese wines in the U.K. The current interest from Marks and Spencer was in part sparked by the extensive media coverage generated by that campaign. And yet in any other reputable wine-producing country the campaign would have been subsidized, as would the fabulous stand at the London International Wine and Spirits Fair last May.

Lebanese producers stood shoulder to shoulder with other major wine producing nations, most of whose stands were subsidized.

The campaign is set to carry on for a second year, one that will see more wine writers, buyers and sommeliers heading Lebanon’s way. Many will not know what to expect but they will all leave (and I know this for a fact) as fully paid up members of the “I Love Lebanon” fan club.

The wine, of course, speaks for itself. The question is when will government listen?

Michael Karam is the author of “Wines of Lebanon” (Saqi 2005), winner of the 2005 Gourmand Award for Best New World Wine book. At the London International Wine and Spirits Fair he gave a master class on Lebanese wine on behalf of the ULV, for which he received a fee. He wrote this commentary for THE DAILY STAR.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on September 16, 2011, on page 7.




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