Lebanon’s Vinifest returns as local vineyards face uncertain future

This October saw the return of Lebanon’s much-loved Vinifest, the largest gathering of regional winemakers in the Middle East, with dozens of small and large wineries eager to showcase their products to industry insiders and the General public.

Despite not being able to organize physical events since 2019 due to restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic on travel and large social gatherings, the 13th edition – with the support of the Netherlands, USAID and QOOT Lebanon Agrifood Innovation Cluster – is their largest to date, bringing together more companies and visitors than ever at Hippodrome Beirut.

“I started in 2004,” Vinifest organizer Nada Farah told Al-Monitor. “[At] at that time, there were no more than 10 cellars. Now we have more than 30, and the program is very rich with workshops [and] master class. »

She said: “I am happy to do this event again. We are back to show the good face of Lebanon. The cultural part of the event is much more important than before.

The heritage of Lebanese wine dates back to the ancient Phoenicians, who were responsible for introducing wine and viticulture to much of the Mediterranean through trade. Lebanon has the largest proportion of arable land in the Arab world – over 200,000 hectares (494,000 acres) – with excellent conditions for wine production and offers several unique varieties of regional grape varieties, including Obeidi, Merwah and the Mekesse.

However, the Lebanese winemaking is relatively small scale. In 2019, Lebanon produced around 8 million bottles (75cl) of wine per year, most of which came from a single region, the Bekaa Valley. By comparing, Italy — the largest wine-producing country in Europe — produces 5.5 billion liters a year.

For this reason, Lebanese producers must focus on quality rather than quantity to stand out in the global market.

Emile Majdalani, Commercial Director of Château Kefraya, told Al-Monitor: “We are a small country, but we are known as a wine-producing country. Any restaurant in the world that offers a quality menu knows that this country called Lebanon has been producing wine for 5,000 years and has a very [high-quality] product.”

Founded in 1946, Château Kefraya is one of Lebanon’s largest and most successful wineries, producing dozens of premium wine varieties and exporting to 50 countries worldwide.

Local demand has declined significantly in recent years as the collapsing Lebanese lira’s purchasing power continues to fall, making access to foreign markets, such as Europe and the United States, essential for survival. of the Lebanese wine industry as a whole.

“We cannot reduce production,” Majdalani said. “We [do not] buy grapes, so our production is something fixed. But we can’t multiply [our prices] and make the same income as before, because people can’t afford it. We had to develop [our exports] to avoid being stuck with a lot of stock.

Most wineries and vineyards still depend on foreign assets and resources, due to the lack of manufacturing capabilities and infrastructure in Lebanon. This problem has become particularly acute in recent years, as imported materials must be paid for using increasingly valuable fresh US dollars.

The entire agribusiness sector in Lebanon has also been hit by massive increases in operating costs, driven by rising import prices as well as severe shortages of fuel and electricity.

“Selling wine in Lebanon right now is not profitable,” Farah said. “The [biggest] the problem is the price [packaging] materials, because everything except the wine itself comes from overseas – bottles, corks and labels.

Majdalani noted, “We are moving forward, but we need stability for our industry to grow, and we are not finding stability. Every few years we have a new constraining factor. If we found good quality locally, we wouldn’t import. Unfortunately, Lebanon is not ready for this, not yet.

These difficulties are exponentially more disruptive for smaller wineries, which struggle to meet the quantities needed for commercial export. For those virtually unknown outside of Lebanon, events like Vinifest are a vital opportunity to show off the quality of what they have to offer.

“We are the only wine estate in the villages of [our] region,” Chateau Wadih owner and founder Peter Abi Younes told Al-Monitor. “It has a special soil and the grapes give you a different taste of wine.”

The small winery – located in Akoura in Mount Lebanon – is best known for its striking “blue wine”, available in dry and desert varieties. These wines receive their striking color from the addition of anthocyanins, an all-natural pigment extracted from the skins of red grapes.

Wadih Castle also started to produce a variety of apple-based alcoholic beverages, including beer, sparkling cider, brandy and calvados, with the aim of diversifying the company’s portfolio by exploring new and untapped local markets.

“In the past, we produced around 10,000 to 20,000 bottles,” Abi Younes said. “[Due to the] crisis in recent years, we have been forced to slow down production. We expected it to be very difficult, [but] I like wine. We export small quantities to Quebec [and we] I hope to do more. »

As Lebanese wineries look to foreign markets to secure their future during this time of uncertainty, they remain determined not to abandon the domestic wine tradeeven if it means making a loss on the wine they are able to sell.

“We want to stay strong in Lebanon and adopt prices that the Lebanese can afford,” Majdalani concluded. “You have to adapt and make sacrifices, because there is a kind of solidarity with your people. It’s about patriotism – if you’re not strong in your own country, it’s hard to shine in the world.

Edward N. Arrington