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The big lesson from Lebanon

What can we learn from the troubled country’s success in the new World’s Best Vineyards list? In extremely challenging circumstances, they are doing something right. But what? What is their secret?

 

Guests enjoying a tasting at Karam Wines

The big lesson from Lebanon
  • Chris Boiling
  • 2021-09-21

I see Lebanon has been particularly successful in the 2021 World’s Best Vineyards list.

Yes, four of the country’s wine producers were voted into the Top 50. That’s as many as France and Spain, and more than Italy and Australia. One of them, Karam, is the highest new entry, coming in at number 14 – way ahead of Château Mouton Rothschild (36), Penfolds Magill Estate (37), and Robert Mondavi Winery (40). Karam was also voted the Best Vineyard in Asia.

Why is it such a surprise? Haven’t they been making wine there for thousands of years and possibly before the Romans?

Yes, but it’s still a relatively small player. The country only produces about 10 million bottles of wine a year, and there are only about 80 official wineries. They’ve also had a particularly tough year.

Lots of wine regions have had a difficult year.

We’re talking about an economic implosion, political turmoil, a devastating chemical explosion in the capital’s port, and the pandemic coming on top of all that.
Joanna Gerges, managing partner at Chateau Cana, told me: “It has been challenging to stay afloat and survive when all odds have been against us.”
Emile Majdalani, commercial director at Château Kefraya, describes it as “the most challenging year in Lebanon’s history”.
Eddy Naim, partner and winemaker at Chateau Qanafar, said: “I have never faced such challenges before. I was not in Lebanon during its 1975-1990 civil war, but many people who were have said the situation is worse now than then.”

On a practical level, what were the difficulties for wine producers?

Thouraya Karam, of Karam Wines, gave me a list of the everyday problems:


In the vineyard
  • Fuel shortages prevent us from operating the machinery necessary to perform our agricultural practices.
  • Due to the diminished livelihood in the country, most agricultural workers have fled, and therefore there is a lack of workers to farm and harvest our vines.
  • Due to capital control imposed by the banking sector as a result of the economic collapse, we are no longer able to purchase the necessary farming tools for our vineyards as the bill has to be footed in foreign currencies, which are hard to come by in Lebanon.

In the winery
  • As a result of the economic collapse, devaluation of our currency (the Lira), and capital control, we are unable to purchase production necessities such as oenological products, glass bottles, corks, capsules, barrels, etc.
  • Instability of raw material prices – such as the grapes from which we produce our wines and spirits.
  • The increase in emigration from Lebanon has resulted in a brain drain that affects the availability of specialised and trained candidates in the local workforce.

Distribution
  • The lack of fuel for our distribution network (ie. vehicles) impairs us from distributing our selection within Lebanon.
  • The lack of public transport prevents our employees from showing up for work.
  • The lack of electricity in the hot summer weather prevents our employees from giving their best due to lack of sleep.
  • In the past, most of our sales were local. With the devaluation of the currency, it has become difficult to sustain as the sales generated locally do not equate to the value of materials imported to produce our wines and spirits.
  • As we took the decision to diversify our clientele and export our Lebanese production, Covid-19 hit the world stage and businesses were not inclined to add new items to their portfolio and venture into new markets.

‘We have switched to using 300L barrels instead of 225L’


But they’re an adaptable people, right?

Yes. Somehow, they’re finding ways to turn out decent wines and offer amazing experiences. Château Kefraya’s Emile Majdalani explained: “Our nature is to adapt, so that at the end of the day, every solution has been found to obtain a great wine in a bottle, shipped to our 40 export countries. Considering our currency’s unbearable devaluation, we had to find export opportunities and it is going well thanks to the team’s daily efforts and passion.”
Chateau Qanafar’s Eddy said: “In terms of sales, we've tried to focus more on export sales which bring in hard currency. We have also tried to lower our costs wherever possible, while not compromising on our winemaking philosophy of producing the highest quality wine we can. As an example, we have switched to using 300L barrels instead of 225L. This not only helps lower the cost, but also helps tone down the oak which brings our intense fruit to more prominence.”
Wissam Touma, one of the three brothers running Château Heritage, said: “Lebanese businesses are designed, built, and operated in a way to allow for dealing with emergency situations and for staying alive in difficult and strange environments. Had this happened in other countries, you would find most businesses closing and not being able to operate.”

Captain Habib Karam - Wine Maker

What about at Karam? Did they find solutions to all their problems?

They found a way around most of them. They are quite resourceful and resilient. But the key thing for them (and most of Lebanon’s high-quality producers) was not to compromise on quality. As the company founder, Captain Habib Karam (above), said: “Quality is never to be compromised, our clients trust us. It is our mission to maintain this bond.”
His daughter, Thouraya, outlined some of their solutions this way:

In the vineyard
  • We devised new ways of farming with the aid of animals to eat the grass instead of weeding it, for example.
  • We travelled across Lebanon to find new farming crews and accommodate them near our vineyards in order to secure steady farming services. We trained the crews to the letter based on our specific agricultural practices.
  • For items that we were no longer able to import, we found substitutes in the local market.

In the winery
  • We negotiated agreements with our farmers and reached a fixed price for grape intake.
  • We relied on the long relationships that we established with our suppliers abroad to receive grace periods and repay them in due course.
  • As quality is of the utmost importance to us, cost cutting and changing the raw materials used was not an option. Instead, we decided to increase our grape intake and increase our production. This improves farmers’ livelihoods and allows us to achieve better economies of scale, thus reducing our unit cost with no bearing on our quality.
  • We applied for grants and cooperated with NGOs that would aid our expansion, sustainability, and secure hard currencies to meet our production needs and improve our efficiency rate.

Distribution
  • We put in place a rotation schedule for securing fuel, so as not to disrupt the flow and effectiveness of our work.
  • Throughout Covid-19, we focused on supermarkets and specifically increasing shelf space and visibility in all outlets to attract new customers, as restaurants, bars, clubs and cafes were closed in the lockdown.
  • Also, we showcased our wine range on several online delivery platforms and focused on engaging with export clients across the globe.

Ok, I get the picture – so tell me about the four vineyards in the Top 50. Why are they so special?

They are family-run businesses, with family members often conducting the tours and tastings.
Karam Wines, in Southern Lebanon, is a high-flyer in more ways than one. Started by airline pilot Captain Habib Karam, Karam Wines is the only wine producer in this part of Lebanon, and they are growing vines at altitudes up to 1,400 metres.
Château Oumsiyat (up from 38 last year to this year’s no21), in the Bekaa Valley, is now in the hands of the fourth generation. Their 78ha of vines lie at altitudes of 1,000-1,300m.
Château Héritage (no39), the only Lebanese winery to be in the Top 50 every year since the list’s inception three years ago, is owned and operated by the fourth generation of the Touma family who settled in the Bekaa Valley in 1888. They have 64ha of vines spread throught the valley.
Château Cana (a new entry at no48), also in the Bekaa Valley but closer to Beirut, was founded by Dr Fadi Gerges, a dentist by trade and an avid human rights activist. He wanted to encourage people back into the region’s villages after the brutal 15-year civil war. He managed this by buying up land and teaching families how to grow grapes, which he would later sell for them and, unsurprisingly, this venture led him into winemaking himself. The business is now run by his daughter, Joanna.

Lebanon - Atibaia
Lebanon also has three wineries in the 51-100 list:

  • Atibaia (above) at 65
  • Château Qanafar at 70
  • Château Khoury at 82

No Château Musar?

Château Musar is still the most famous winery in Lebanon and its late owner, Serge Hochar, is still the most famous winemaker in the country, but you have to be a member of Club Musar to book an appointment. The academy voters appear to favour the newer boutique wineries. Karam was founded in 2002, Château Cana in 2001 and Château Héritage was formally established in 1997. Château Oumsiyat is the exception. It was founded in 1950.

Elsewhere you’ve talked about the six pillars for a successful wine tourism business. Do they have them?

World-class wines?
The dry, sunny conditions are ideal for low-intervention grape-growing (although climate change is adding another challenge). Most of the grapes – predominantly French varieties from Bordeaux or the Southern Rhône – are grown at high elevation (typically between 1,000 and 1,800 metres in the Bekaa Valley). Cinsault is one of the country’s signature reds, but many of the wineries in the Top 50 are also championing native varieties.
The Lebanese wines I’ve tried have certainly been very enjoyable, of a high quality and represent excellent value for money.
Because of the altitude and Mediterranean breezes, Karam’s excellent Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon marry concentration with freshness and acidity. Karam’s white blend, Cloud Nine, is one of the most awarded wines in Lebanon. The Captain also produces an intriguing line of varietals called ‘Raretés’, which features an Albariño, Touriga Nacional, Saperavi, and Lebanon’s rising star, Meksassi. In the coming year, he will add a new wine to the line – from an indigenous white grape called Hifawi.
Château Oumsiyat’s fourth-generation winemaker Joseph Bou Sleiman produces an acclaimed Assyrtiko, called ‘Cuvée Membliarus’, to remind people the variety may have originated in Lebanon before being transported elsewhere by the Phoenicians. This wine is blended with small amounts of Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier to produce a fresh, fruity white with a characteristic saline edge. Joseph’s other stand-out wines are a Bordeaux blend, a peppery Syrah and a Blanc de Blanc, made from Ugni Blanc, Clairette, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. Château Oumsiyat also uses indigenous varieties such as Obeidy, Merwah and Meksassi.
With a PhD in food and beverage science, Château Héritage’s Dr Dargham Touma has focused on the terroir’s potential for deep-fruited, age-worthy reds. As is common in the Bekaa Valley, blends are dominated by Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah, with the ‘Nine’ cuvée featuring all the estate’s black grapes (Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Cinsault, Mourvèdre, Carignan, Grenache, Tempranillo, Merlot and Cabernet Franc). Château Héritage will be launching an eagerly-awaited Pinot Noir soon and a blend of Chardonnay and Obeidy.
Château Cana is reviving the highly tannic indigenous Sobbaghieh, which features in its ‘Jardin Secret’. Full of black berry fruit aromas, maturation in old oak for six months adds a layer of sweet spice and occasional hints of forest floor from bottle age. It is rich, sumptuous, and entirely evocative of its place. In this day and age, what more do you want?

A stunning building?
See what you think. This is Château Cana (below).

Lebanon Chateau Cana building
And this is Château Oumsiyat (below).
Lebanon - Oumsiyat

Amazing views?

Many of the wineries are based in Lebanon’s wide and rugged Bekaa Valley, where it is believed vines were first planted more than 5,000 years ago. Tastings are against this backdrop of endless mountains. It’s not most people’s image of Lebanon, so it’s a very memorable experience. But a picture is worth a thousand words…

Lebanon Karam view 2
The views at Karam Wines (above and below).

Lebanon Karam view
The view at Château Héritage (below).

Lebanon - Heritage
A fantastic restaurant?
If you stay at Karam into the evening for mesmerizing sunsets out over the Mediterranean, you are likely to be treated to a home-cooked meal. The Captain is a firm believer in wine’s place on the dining table and his suppers have become a popular attraction in his hometown of Jezzine.
Château Héritage has its own farm, where guests can help to pick vegetables and hens’ eggs that will be used in the winery’s restaurant – the culinary ethos here is to provide an array of Lebanese foods that one’s mother and grandmother would take pride in preparing. It may not be Michelin-starred but it’s fun, exciting and tasty.

A great tour?
Most of the tours and tastings are conducted by members of the families. At Karam, guests are actively encouraged to state what they are interested in hearing about so that information and tastings can be tailored accordingly. Their tutored tasting goes through the full range of 12 wines.
Château Héritage’s guided tours take guests through some of the vineyards and then into the winery. At Château Oumsiyat, samples are tasted right next to the tanks with spectacular views across the valley.
One of the academy judges told me: “You cannot spend a lunch or a stay or a tasting in any vineyard or winery without falling in love either with the nature surrounding the place or the generosity of the people in relation to food, hospitality or entertainment!”

Something extra?
Château Héritage has a 12-bedroomed bed and breakfast, a short walk through the village. Château Cana, a winery overlooking the Lamartine Valley, is also a wedding venue, and has a one-bedroomed guesthouse – an isolated escape with epic mountain views.
Cana is marking its 20th anniversary this year with plans to create “a proper tasting room”, according to Joanna Gerges, and, if the economic situation improves, they are “hoping to open a few more guestrooms to increase local wine tourism and help with the economy of the surrounding areas”.

But why do you really think they have done so well in the World’s Best Vineyards list this year? Is there an element of sympathy because they keep producing in adversity?

There may be an element of wanting to help. South Africa, another wine country that suffered at the hands of its government and the pandemic, has three wineries in the Top 50, from one last year. Delaire Graff Estate (no30), which has been in the Top 50 for three years, has been joined by new entry Klein Constantia Winery (no44) and Creation, which appeared at no45 in the first year, missed out in 2020 and rejoined the Top 50 at an impressive no10 this year. (You can read how they survived the pandemic here.)
The tough times we’ve been reading about in these two countries may have brought their wineries to front of mind. But I think it’s something else propelling them into people’s hearts.

What?

Passion. The passion of these producers shines through. It’s almost infectious.
The family members at Château Héritage, for example, are intent on conveying their fierce passion and enjoyment for what they do in every tour, and guests routinely come away “charmed”.
The voters’ comments were scattered with compliments to the “friendly, generous people who make you feel welcome all the time”.
On a tour of Karam you will hear the Captain’s story, which illustrates the role passion played in the creation of the winery and how it’s been passed on.
In the late 1950s, in a small town in the south of Lebanon, a young boy would help his grandmother pick grapes to make arak, Lebanon’s national drink, an aniseed-based eau de vie. He would gaze at the sky, watch aircraft pass by and dream about flying.
The dream turned reality. “I flew for 43 years and never worked a day in my life,” Captain Karam says. “During my years of service, while flying over the southern mountains of Lebanon, my passion for vineyards made me long to be amongst the vines. And so, Karam Wines was founded in 2002 in my beloved hometown of Jezzine. We were the first to plant wine grapes in the south and are the only winery located in this region of Lebanon.
“This passion was passed on to my children, John and Thouraya, who spent their summers as teenagers in the vineyards harvesting grapes. John’s first love was the vine; he is an agricultural engineer and an oenologist from Université de Bordeaux. After those milestones, John worked under the tutelage of Château Angelus and is currently working with the prestigious Château Latour. At only 26 years of age, John is already a linchpin for Karam Wines on the international stage. We are proudly, and solely, a family business.”

That’s lovely.

His daughter, Thouraya, also said something else which is worth reflecting on.

Do tell.

I asked her if she thought winemakers were a bit like vines – the more they have to struggle, the better the wines?
She replied: “Yes, I do. Every winemaker wants to showcase the beauty of their terroir. Currently, Lebanese winemakers are facing obstacles while trying to communicate that. We believe that behind the struggle there is passion, drive and unconditional dedication to the craft that is the production of Lebanese wines and spirits, and that is what makes them great. To have the ability, despite all the challenges, to persevere.”
Château Heritage’s Wissam Touma adds: “We have managed to cope with the problems. In some areas, we have managed to re-organise our operation to become more efficient, more practical, more sustainable, and a lot faster.”

A positive note to finish on.

Here’s another from Eddy, at Chateau Qanafar: “We are hopeful that Lebanon will pull through. It has faced many challenges in the past and has always recovered, and we remain convinced of the Lebanese people's resourcefulness, adaptability and endurance!”


Are winemakers a bit like vines – the more they have to struggle, the better the wines?
What do you think?
Email your views to me: chris(dot)boiling(at)wrbm(dot)com

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