Lebanon Wines Bring Villages Back to Life and Emigrants Home

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A grape picker harvests grapes in a farm at Taanayel Monastery, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley
A grape picker harvests grapes in a farm at Taanayel Monastery, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley, September 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi
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By Lisa Barrington
BEIRUT (Reuters) 

Lured by Lebanon’s winemaking potential and nostalgia for his homeland, Maher Harb left a Paris consultancy job in 2010 and dug vines into the soil of family land unused since the country’s civil war

Seven years later his Sept winery launched its first commercial vintage and is now looking to export as a number of European countries take an interest.

 

Maher Harb, owner of Sept wine shows the label of the white wine at Sept winery, in Batroun, northern Lebanon
Maher Harb, owner of Sept wine shows the label of the white wine at Sept winery, in Batroun, northern Lebanon, October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

 

The 36-year-old is part of an expanding wine industry which is bringing life back to land abandoned during Lebanon’s 1975-90 civil war and waves of economic migration. It is also bringing Lebanese – and their money – back home.

“Giving up a career in Europe… is very hard; it is all because of how much we love this land and how much Lebanon deserves this,” said Harb, speaking in the hills above the coastal town of Batroun.

 

Joe Assaad Touma walks next to stored wine in barrels at Chateau St Thomas winery in the town of Qab Elias
Joe Assaad Touma walks next to stored wine in barrels at Chateau St Thomas winery in the town of Qab Elias, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, September 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

 

And as Lebanon wrestles with stagnant economic growth, heavy debts and political inertia, the industry’s success could serve as a model for other sectors looking to export.

Lebanon, where winemaking dates back to the ancient Phoenicians, lies further south than most northern hemisphere wine-producing nations. But the mountains that rise up from its hot, humid Mediterranean coast provide the cooler, drier altitudes grapes need.

 

Labourers harvest grapes in a farm at Taanayel Monastery, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley
Labourers harvest grapes in a farm at Taanayel Monastery, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, September 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

 

Since Lebanon’s civil war ended, a handful of wineries has expanded to around 45 commercial enterprises and a number of small-scale producers.

Global interest in Lebanon’s wines is growing, but output is low – a mere 8-9 million bottles annually compared to 5-6 billion bottles from the world’s largest producer Italy – and production costs are high.

 

 

So producers are striving to create a distinct, marketable identity for Lebanese wine based on quality, not quantity.

Lebanese wine is already good quality, but it still lacks uniqueness,” said Harb.

 

“STORY TO TELL”

Producers are seeking that identity in the diversity of Lebanon’s terrain, creating wines which carry the unique taste of the small patch of soil and air in which the grape is grown.

 

Joe Assaad Touma holds a glass of red wine at Chateau St Thomas winery in the town of Qab Elias
Joe Assaad Touma holds a glass of red wine at Chateau St Thomas winery in the town of Qab Elias, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, September 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

 

“If you want to be competitive you have to have a signature and to show some form of your tradition… You cannot impress a guy who had the best wines on the planet with another Chardonnay,” said Eid Azar, a U.S.-trained doctor and co-founder of Vertical 33, which grows grapes across the Bekaa valley and sold its first commercial wine in 2017.

“Each winery should have a story to tell,” he said from his tasting room in a hip Beirut street, next to a wall display of soil samples and grape names.

 

Maher Harb, owner of Sept winery holds bottles of wine at Sept winery, in Batroun, northern Lebanon
Maher Harb, owner of Sept winery holds bottles of wine at Sept winery, in Batroun, northern Lebanon, October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

 

The wine industry’s success means the agriculture ministry wants it to be a model for improving the olive oil and arak sectors. Arak is a traditional aniseed-flavored liquor.

Producers are also looking to indigenous grapes for a Lebanese identity, moving away from imported, well-known French vines.

 

A wine bottle cork and a wine opener are seen on a table at Sept winery, in Batroun
A wine bottle cork and a wine opener are seen on a table at Sept winery, in Batroun, northern Lebanon, October 3, 2018. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

 

“People used to ask me: You in Lebanon have been making wine for more than 4,000 years, why do you use foreign grapes?” said Joe Assaad Touma of family-run Chateau St Thomas in the Bekaa, which is celebrating 20 years of wine-making.

Touma’s family had been making arak from local Obeidy grapes for 130 years and proved through genetic testing it was indeed indigenous.

 

Grapes are pictured at Bhamdoun town, in the Mount Lebanon Governorate
Grapes are pictured at Bhamdoun town, in the Mount Lebanon Governorate, Lebanon September 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

 

Chateau St Thomas made its first all-Obeidy wine in 2012. Both Sept and Vertical 33 also market an all-Obeidy wine.

 

IMPACT

Although the industry’s size is estimated by Lebanon’s wine production association UVL to be only around $500 million a year, the local impact of new wineries can be transformative in a country with poor regional development and job prospects.

 

Jill and Naji Boutros carry boxes of grapes at Bhamdoun town
Jill and Naji Boutros carry boxes of grapes at Bhamdoun town, in the Mount Lebanon Governorate, Lebanon September 6, 2018. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

 

Almost 20 years ago Naji Boutros gave up a finance career in New York and London and returned to his birth village of Bhamdoun to raise his family and grow wine. The village, a former summer tourism hotspot near the capital Beirut, had been decimated in the war which drove him and many others abroad.

“When we returned to Bhamdoun there was nobody here,” said Boutros. “The school used to have 30 students and now it has above 200, the town is full.”

 

Labourers harvest grapes in a farm at Taanayel Monastry, in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley
Labourers harvest grapes in a farm at Taanayel Monastry, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, September 15, 2018. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi

 

He started with three plots of inherited land. Other expatriates began offering their unused land for planting and the Chateau Belle-Vue winery, restaurant and guesthouse developed, bringing life back to the hills and attracting tourists.

Although Lebanon’s wine industry often uses cheap Syrian labourers for harvesting, the workers picking grapes in the cool September dawn air were all local.

“We are proud… that the sons of Bhamdoun are on their land,” said Boutros.

 

(Reporting by Lisa Barrington; Editing by Gareth Jones)

More photos ahead …

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