Attracted by Lebanon’s potential as a wine-producing region and nostalgic for his homeland, Maher Harb left a consultancy firm in Paris, fixed up a disused family farm and recently launched his first vintage, which he aims to market to Europe.
36-year-old Harb is part of Lebanon’s growing wine-making industry, which has breathed new life into land that was abandoned during the Civil War of 1975-1990.
The industry is also attracting interest from Lebanese emigrants who, after earning money abroad, are investing this money back into their native lands.
“Giving up a career in Europe is very difficult. We do it out of love for this land and because it is what this country deserves”, says the economist.
In Lebanon, which has a stagnating economy, public debt exceeding $83 billion and political inertia, the success of the wine-making industry could serve as a model for other sectors looking to develop.
Lebanon has a five-thousand-year-old wine-making tradition that dates back to the Phoenicians. Although it is further south than the majority of the northern hemisphere’s wine-producing countries, Lebanon’s mountains, with their dry, cold climate, coupled with the warmth and humidity of the Mediterranean coast provide the appropriate altitude and temperature for vineyards.
Since the end of the Lebanese Civil War, a handful of wineries supply 45 commercial companies that are entering the national market, which is currently led by more well-known brands.
However, interest in Lebanese wine is on the rise, although its expansion is restricted by a low yield of 8 or 9 million bottles a year and uncompetitive production costs.
Of course, Italy produces 5 or 6 billion bottles a year. For this reason, Lebanese wine producers are focusing on cultivating a unique, special identity in their determination to produce quality and not quantity.
Wine producers are trying to achieve this unique identity using the diversity of the land; blends have unique flavours depending on the ground in which the grapes grew and the air that surrounded them.
“It’s about trying to showcase your tradition in some way… you can’t impress someone who samples the best wines on the planet with another Chardonnay”, says Eid Azar, a doctor who trained in the United States and cofounder of the winery Vertical 33.
“Each winery should have its own story to tell”, he explains from his tasting room in Beirut, next to a shopping centre showcasing soil samples and types of grape.
The success of the wine industry implies that it is possible to use this model to improve other agricultural sectors, such as in the production of olive oil and arak, or araq, a distilled anise spirit from western Asia.
Producers also seek Lebanese character in local grapes, and to distance them from well-known, imported French grapes.
“People used to ask me, ‘If you have been producing wine in Lebanon for over 4,000 years, why do you use foreign grapes?”, says Joe Assaad Touma, from the family-managed winery Chateau St. Thomas, located in the the Beqaa Valley, which has been fermenting grapes for 20 years.
The Toumas family have used Obeidi grapes to produce arak for 130 years, and they have proved that they are indigenous Lebanese grapes through genetic testing. In 2012, Chateau St. Thomas produced its first wine made completely from Obeidi grapes. Lebanese wineries only generate a profit of around $500 million a year, but their effect could transform the situation of a country that has low labour supply and lacks a strong national industry.
An example of this development is illustrated by Naji Boutros, who abandoned his financial career in New York and London two decades ago to return to his native village of Bhamdoun in order to be with his family and to become a wine producer.
Bhamdoun was a popular town for summer holidays that was decimated in the war. “When we returned, there was no one here”, recalls Boutros. (PL)
(Translated by Zosia Niedermaier-Reed – Email: firstname.lastname@example.org) – Photos: Pixabayu