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Lebanon's wine-makers keeping Bacchus alive

Rana Moussaoui

Agence France Presse

ZAHLE, Lebanon: In the heart of the Bekaa Valley, a few miles from a temple dedicated to Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, Lebanon’s vineyards are in full bloom as the country edges into the global wine market.

“After European wine and new world wine, the wine of the so-called old world is emerging” as a market favourite, explains Ramzi Ghosn of the Massaya winery.

“And Lebanon, with its culinary and viniculture traditions, is playing an avant-garde role in the region.”

Along with his brother, Ghosn is leading a new wave of Lebanese wines, using French grape varieties Merlot, Cabernet-Sauvignon, Syrah and Chardonnay, into the world market. From a mere five wineries in 1998, he says, the tiny Mediterranean country now boasts more than 30 labels.

Most of them are small or medium-sized establishments banking on quality to set them apart, and some have already landed awards in international fairs and are now featured on the wine lists of Paris and London.

“Lebanese wine is in fashion,” Frederic Bernard, CEO of French trading company Bordeaux Tradition, told AFP. “Lebanese wines are less standardised than those of the new world,” Bernard added, referring to wines produced outside Europe in countries such as the US, Chile and Argentina. “There is real variety in local wines.”

While the local market is still dominated by Ksara and Kefraya, which account for two-thirds of sales, names like Marsyas and Domaine de Baal are gaining popularity.

“It’s a niche market, so small that it piques people’s curiosity,” according to brothers Karim and Sandro Saade, who launched the Marsyas line in 2005 with the help of world-renowned wine guru Stephane Derenoncourt, a consultant for several prominent clients including film and winemaker Francis Ford Coppola.

“The future of Lebanon’s wine lies in small wineries,” Sandro Saade said.

“The fact that a country is famed for having produced wine since antiquity … is attractive to consumers and that is a major factor in relaunching these projects,” Derenoncourt told AFP.

The Bekaa Valley, a fertile region in eastern Lebanon, is blessed with the ideal climate for wine production. At 900 meters (2,952 feet) above sea level, it is rich in chalky soil, rain, and long, hot summers.

“There is an exotic aspect to Lebanese wine that many find appealing,” says Sebastien Khoury, who owns Domaine de Baal. The Saade brothers, for example, aim to highlight the “flavor of Lebanon’s Bekaa” through their Marsyas wines.

“The taste of the land should overpower that of a standard Merlot or Syrah,” Sandro said.

Khoury stands apart with his “organic” cellars which are located on a hill overlooking the city of Zahle, where legend has it that Noah, named in the Bible as the first winemaker, is buried.

Educated at Saint-Emilion, a famed wine-producing region in France, Khoury launched his winery in 2006, a mere two weeks before Israel’s devastating 34-day war on Lebanon that summer.

“It was hard,” Khoury told AFP. “But today we export 40 percent of our production.”

Around 15 percent of Lebanon’s wine – which brings in annual revenues estimated at around $30 million (23.4 million euros) – is exported, mainly to France and England.

But the drink of Bacchus, is also gaining popularity among the Lebanese, who view it as a source of national pride.

In 2003, Nicholas Abi Khater founded Les Coteaux du Liban in the Bekaa. When he passed away six years later, his wife and son decided to keep the name alive.

“I didn’t even know how to uncork a bottle of wine,” jokes Rula Abi Khater, who now runs the vineyard with her 15-year-old son and three employees.

“But today, we export 50,000 bottles of wine a year and hope to enter the Lebanese market soon,” she told AFP.

Carlos Ghosn, the French CEO of carmakers Nissan and Renault who is of Lebanese origin, this spring launched his Ixsir wine, the latest label from his Wines of Lebanon winery.

The success of Bekaa wine has also encouraged investors to turn to other areas of the fertile Mediterranean country.

In the hilly terrains of Batroun in north Lebanon, Jean Massoud hopes to see his Atibaia wines hit the market next year.

“This will be a premium wine, a boutique wine,” Massoud told AFP.

Back in the Bekaa, tourists are increasingly stopping by local cellars for a wine-tasting tryst. And 5,000 years after the Phoenician civilization domesticated wine along the coast, Abi Khater is happy that an age-old tradition is back.

“This paints a beautiful picture of our country,” she said.

 

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