BEIRUT: Enthusiasts descended on the Beirut Hippodrome Wednesday night to taste wines produced around Lebanon at the opening night of the annual Vinifest Wine Festival. The event, which runs until Saturday, is now in its 10th year and has grown steadily since its first edition. “When I started in 2004 I had nine to 10 wineries who participated in the event. Today we have 37,” organizer Neda Farah told The Daily Star. Farah, whose interest in wine was first sparked when she visited a wine festival in Greece at the age of 14, has been running Vinifest since its inception. She cites changes in the culture of wine drinking as the reason for the industry’s growth. “I noticed that 10 years ago wine was not accepted while [people] were having lunch or dinner. Today, when I go to restaurants, I find that almost all the tables have a bottle of wine.”
Equally important has been a shift in the perception of Lebanese wine. While previously Lebanese consumers considered local wines to be inferior to European wines, events like Vinifest have encouraged consumers to try home-grown offerings.
Increasing interest has also caused the demographics of the festival attendees to shift. “The audience is becoming younger and younger,” Farah said. “[They] are becoming more alert to the culture of wine.”
Perceptions of Lebanese wine are not just changing domestically – exports are on the rise, with more than 40 percent of wine produced in Lebanon being sold abroad. For the vineyards who have already established an international reputation, that proportion can be significantly higher. Fadi Kalaani of Chateau Musar told The Daily Star that 90 percent of their 600,000-bottle annual output went to the international market. Their biggest market is the United Kingdom; Kalaani claimed that the vineyard’s Gaston Hochar red blend is favored by Queen Elizabeth II.
Farah thinks Lebanese wine is growing in popularity abroad because, and while it is possible for Lebanon’s winemakers to produce a wine of similar quality to those in France, the country’s geography makes Lebanese wine unique. “They like our wine because if you take a Lebanese chardonnay or a French chardonnay, they are different – because the soil is different and the sun is different.”
These sentiments were echoed by Jean Paul al-Khoury, a winemaker and production director at the family vineyard Chateau Khoury. Khoury studied winemaking in France. “[When] you come back to Lebanon, it’s completely different,” he said. “This is a very dry country, the sun is very strong.”
The Bekaa Valley, where Chateau Khoury is situated, is perfect for winemaking. “We have high mountains, we don’t need to irrigate the vineyards – the Lebanese climate is just right for that.” Khoury also feels that the industry is thriving. “The whole industry is growing. People are getting more interested in wine, they are drinking more wine, which is fantastic.”
He sees the industry as beneficial to the valley’s ecosystem, with the vines providing some foliage for the otherwise barren land.
Unlike Chateau Musar, the majority of Chateau Khoury’s wines – 70 percent – is sold on the domestic market. The chateau, which started producing wine in 2004, produces 50,000 bottles a year. While the industry is healthy and enjoys good support from the Agriculture Ministry, Khoury notes that winemaking is his passion, and tends not to be immediately profitable. “The person who told you the wine business is lucrative is lying,” he said, although he added that it is possible to turn a profit by a vineyard’s third season. He certainly would not discourage others from entering the industry. “It’s a very nice business [and], in Lebanon, it’s easy to grow a vineyard.”
The diversity of both the wines at the festival and its audience attest to the fact that a growing number of local consumers and producers share Khoury’s passion. Farah hopes that Lebanese wine can continue to grow in stature on the international market.
The festival is being attended by a number of overseas visitors, she told The Daily Star, and she has plans to take her love of Lebanese wine across the Atlantic. “I am organizing a Lebanese wine day in San Francisco in November. ... We are going to present the wine to the American people.”
For Farah, this is clearly an exciting time to be in the industry. “It’s booming,” she said.