WHERE Is The Local Wine Industry Heading?
By Hani Bathiche
Small boutique wineries making small quantities of high quality wine that sells at a premium in local and international markets, are the future.
Recognizing that smaller wineries do not have the know how to market their wines the government along with local wine makers set up the National Wine Institute, to support the local wine industry through regulation and control of the sector by extending expertise to small wineries. Elections for the institute’s eight member council were held last week. Four members were drawn from the ministries of agriculture, industry, economy and trade, and finance, while the remaining four members were drawn from among local wine producers.
A COUNTRY OF SMALL PRODUCERS
Lebanon is a small wine producing country even by regional standards. Roughly 2,000 hectares of land are devoted to growing grapes for making wine by around 40 local wineries. The national annual output is between seven and eight million bottles, with around four million bottles produced by the two largest producers Ksara and Kefraya. Wine expert and writer of two books on Lebanese wines, Michael Karam, said that even if production increased to 20 million bottles it would still be a small amount compared to Cyprus (35 million bottles), Israel (50 million bottles) and Turkey (70 million bottles). “We can position ourselves as a boutique producer. We won’t see another Ksara emerging,” Karam said. The smallest producers make between 10,000 to 30,000 bottles a year, but their focus is on producing the highest quality wine. “We are a small country, what is the purpose of producing large quantities of poor quality wines, why not gather all our knowledge and produce high standard, high quality wines that sell for a high price” said Fawzi Issa, a member of the National Wine Institute, Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL), and owner of Domaine des Tourelles, a winery established in 1868 making it the oldest commercial winery in Lebanon. Domaine des Tourelles produces 250,000 bottles of wine a year and has not plans to increase production beyond 300,000 bottles.
CREATING A MARKET
Karam said that a lot of small producers are successful professionals in their forties, such as doctors and lawyers, who see making wine as a good idea but they do not necessarily have a marketing background. “The Lebanese have a very fuzzy idea about Lebanese wine. Unless you are out there marketing your wine it’s not going to sell. What we need is a generic campaign to promote local wine,” said Karam. Issa said that the main challenges facing local small producers are the marketing prowess and financial muscle of the large producers that dominate the market: “These large producers use trendy marketing tools, they offer rebates and discounts, they have better shelf placement in supermarkets and exclusivity arrangements with restaurants that offer only their wines.” Another challenge facing the sector is the shortage of technically skilled oenologists as most local wineries rely on external technical experts, and competition from heavily subsidized French wines.
THE ORGANIC SELLING POINT
The strength of local wine lies in the suitable local climate and the right quality soil. “Most Lebanese wines are organic. Thanks to our climate our vines are disease free and we rarely use pesticides. While only a few local wineries have been certified organic, the rest are on their way to being certified,” said Issa. Domaine de Baal, a small winery in Zahle, is among two or three local wine makers that have received organic certification for their vineyards. “We have been certified organic for two years now since 2011. There are two kinds of certification, one for vineyards, which certifies that grapes are grown organically without pesticides or chemical additives, and one for the wine,” said Sebastian Khoury, owner of Domaine de Baal. The first fully certified organic local winery is Adyar owned by the Maronite Church. Chateau Musar vineyards are also certified organic. “We are certified for our vineyards and we are in the process of being certified for our wine,” said Khoury. Wines that are certified organic use only natural yeast, have no acidity added and have very low sulfur content. Sulfur is added to wine to slow down oxidation, but some wine makers can add too much. Domaine de Baal, which produces just 12,000 bottles a year, produces high quality wines that sell at a considerable premium compared to its mass market competitors, at $30 per bottle for their reds, and $20 per bottle for their whites. Khoury does not sell his wine in supermarkets only through high end specialty stores and through high end restaurants locally and abroad.
VINE AND SOIL
“You have to produce a top quality wine if you have a small quantity. To produce high quality wine 90 percent of the work has to be done in the vineyards producing top quality grapes,” said Khoury. He said that the right yield per vine to produce high quality grapes is between 800 grams and one kilo of grapes, whereas commercial vines yield two to three times that amount. He said that vines need very poor soil, ideally gravelly, lime soil, and they need to be stressed to produce the right quality grapes. Ecologically speaking, land that is unsuitable for other forms of staple agriculture would be ideal for vines. Issa said the institute will help create an international market for small wines. “We have plenty of small niche terroir, beautiful wines that are facing many problems, while wineries producing commercial wines are successful.” He explained that when a winery produces a lot of bottles it needs to reduce its prices to sell all its volume which affects smaller wineries producing high end wines that cannot reduce their price.
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