This October saw the return of Lebanon’s much-beloved Vinifest, the Middle East’s largest gathering of regional winemakers, with dozens of small and large wineries eager to present their wares to industry insiders and the general public.
Despite being unable to hold physical events since 2019 due to restrictions imposed by the coronavirus pandemic on travel and large social gatherings, the 13th edition — with support from the Netherlands, USAID and the QOOT Lebanon Agrifood Innovation Cluster — is their largest yet, bringing together more businesses and eventgoers than ever before at the Beirut Hippodrome.
“I started in 2004,” Vinifest organizer Nada Farah told Al-Monitor. “[At] that time, there were not more than 10 wineries. Now we have more than 30, and the program is very rich with workshops [and] masterclasses.”
She said, “I am happy to be doing 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 legacy of Lebanese wine stretches back to the ancient Phoenicians, who were responsible for introducing both wine and viticulture to much of the Mediterranean through trade. Lebanon possesses the highest 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 grapes, including Obeidi, Merwah and Mekssesse.
However, Lebanese wine production is comparatively small scale. In 2019, Lebanon was producing around 8 million bottles (75cl) of wine per year, most of which come from a single region — the Bekaa Valley. By comparison, Italy — the largest wine-producing country in Europe — manufactures 5.5 billion liters a year.
Because of this, Lebanese producers must focus on quality, rather than quantity, to stand out in the global market.
Emile Majdalani, commercial director at Chateau Kefraya, told Al-Monitor, “We are a small country, but we are known as a wine-producing country. Any restaurant worldwide that has a quality menu knows that this country called Lebanon has been making wine for 5,000 years, and that it has a very [high-quality] product.”
Founded in 1946, Chateau Kefraya is one of Lebanon’s largest and most successful wineries, producing dozens of premium wine varieties and exporting to 50 countries all over the world.
Local demand has significantly diminished in recent years as the purchasing power of the collapsing Lebanese lira continues to fall, making reaching foreign markets, like Europe and the United States, essential to the survival of the Lebanese wine industry as a whole.
“We cannot downscale production,” Majdalani said. “We [do not] buy grapes, so our production is something that is fixed. But we cannot multiply [our prices] and make the same income as before, because people cannot afford it. We had to develop [our exports] to avoid being stuck with a lot of stock.”
Most wineries and vineyards are still dependent on foreign goods and resources, due to Lebanon’s lack of manufacturing capabilities and infrastructure. This issue has become especially biting in recent years, as imported materials must be paid for using increasingly valuable fresh US dollars.
The entire agri-food sector in Lebanon has also been hit by massive increases in operational costs, driven by rising import prices as well as severe shortages of both fuel and electricity.
“Selling wine in Lebanon right now is not profitable,” Farah said. “The [biggest] problem is the price of the [packaging] materials, because everything except the wine itself is coming from overseas — the bottles, corks and labels.”
Majdalani noted, “We are moving forward, but we need stability for our industry to develop, and we are not finding the stability. Every few years, we have a new constraining factor. If we found the right quality locally, we would not import. Unfortunately, Lebanon is not ready for that — not yet.”
These difficulties are exponentially more disruptive to smaller wineries, which struggle to meet the quantities necessary for commercial export. For those virtually unknown outside of Lebanon, events like Vinifest are a vital opportunity to show the quality of what they have to offer.
“We are the only winery in the villages from [our] area,” owner and founder of Chateau Wadih, Peter Abi Younes, told Al-Monitor. “It has special soil and the grapes give you a different taste of wine.”
The small winery — located in Akoura in Mount Lebanon — is most famous for its striking "Blue Wine," available in both dry and desert varieties. These wines are given their striking coloration by the addition of anthocyanin, a completely natural pigment extracted from the skins of red wine grapes.
Chateau Wadih has also begun to produce a variety of apple-based alcoholic beverages, including beer, sparkling cider, brandy and calvados, in an attempt to diversify the company's portfolio by exploring newer — as yet untapped — local markets.
“In the past, we used to make about 10,000 to 20,000 bottles,” said Abi Younes. “[Due to the] crisis over the past few years, we were forced to slow down production. We anticipated that it is going to be very hard, [but] I love wine. We export small quantities to Quebec [and we] hope to do more.”
As Lebanon’s wineries look toward foreign markets to secure their future during this period of uncertainty, they remain determined that they will not abandon the domestic wine trade, even 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 is about patriotism — if you're not strong in your own country, it is difficult to shine in the world.”