Lebanon wine sector responds to Covid-19 crisis with typical resilience

The Covid-19 pandemic has wrought havoc on the global drinks industry presenting business owners with a formidable set of challenges. Yet for winemakers in Lebanon it represents just another obstacle in a long list of trials and tribulations they have overcome in recent times.

Hezbollah controls much of the Bekaa Valley, and winemakers have grown accustomed to hearing gunshots and explosions while they work. They talk about relatives being kidnapped and navigating bomb craters on their way to work, but they still find a way to make great wine in difficult circumstances.

On October 17, 2019, there were riots on the streets as the Lebanese protested against sectarian rule, a stagnant economy, unemployment, corruption in the public sector, and banking secrecy. Capital control was enforced, meaning wineries had to quickly set up accounts abroad and find a way to fund them in order to buy barrels and other necessities.

They were still negotiating this complex new financial landscape when the coronavirus crisis hit, forcing a temporary halt to activity on exports as the port of Beirut was shut. Yet they remain confident in their ability to shift the wine sitting in their cellars.

“Historically the Lebanese have always had to do business – be it trading or making wine – in very difficult circumstances, with instability, conflict and occupation, so crisis management is in their DNA,” says Michael Karam, the country’s pre-eminent wine critic. “While the double whammy of the economic impact of the so-called October revolution and the financial implications of the banks collapsing, and now the coronavirus, if there’s one nationality or race of people who can roll up their sleeves and say, ‘well, we’ve been here before,’ it is the Lebanese. That doesn’t mean they’re going to breeze through this, but they’re more used to it.”

Chateau Ksara is Lebanon’s oldest and largest producer. “It’s not easy, because we’ve been under capital control in Lebanon since October 17 and under lockdown for almost two months, but we’re adapting,” says co-owner George Sara. “We’re resilient, because we’ve been through a lot.”

Around 60% of the wine produced in Lebanon is sold domestically. Winemakers have been forced to increase their focus on the local market this year after the port of Beirut was closed and exports were temporarily halted.

“We shut the winery for sanitary purposes, and we were later allowed by the government to supply the local market,” says Sara. “All exports had to stop. All the exports we had to send from the port of Beirut were blocked. Our agents that wanted to receive wine could not receive it. I believe we can soon start to export, but it remains to be seen.

“We sell a lot of wine at Lebanese restaurants abroad, so the ethnic market has been affected. They are all on shutdown.

“Locally we have suffered, because the on-trade is a big part of the business. It’s not as big as the supermarkets and independents part of the business, because the Lebanese like to buy their wines from supermarkets and independents.”

However, he does not foresee any problems in shifting the wine it is currently holding.

“We export to over 35 countries and locally we have a 40% market share, so we’ll always find ways to sell the wine,” says Sara. “If the export market becomes more challenging, I’m sure we could sell more in the local market. We can develop emerging markets for our wines too.”

He does not expect any problem harvesting this year, as the shutdown is expected to end well before September. “We’re born optimists in Lebanon. That’s why we’re this resilient. We are somewhat immune to problems and thrive on crisis management. We always find a solution.”

Despite the twin crises engulfing the sector right now, Chateau Ksara has still found time to mine its archives and produce a fruit-forward, unoaked Carignan that should appeal to export markets. It is made from made from 70-year-old bush vines that are 1,000 metres above sea level, and it follows the recent release of the winery’s Merwah.

This is a project that excites Karam. “The Merwah and the Carignan are heritage grapes,” he says. “The Merwah is an indigenous grape and it’s been around for a long time. Carignan was introduced by the founders of Chateau Ksara in the mid-19th century, so although it’s not an indigenous grape, it’s very much the grape that launched the modern industry along with the Grenache and the Cinsault.

“In a way it’s an adopted child. Ksara has really mined the archives, gone back to their roots and made wines that have more of a sense of place rather than just sticking to the usual suspects. It’s sending a signal to the rest of the industry that the Lebanese can do that, they can re-examine their heritage.

“Lebanese winemakers are getting more confident. They don’t feel they have to ape the rest of the world. They are realising that their white wines are really special if they plant them high up enough. They have the confidence to go back to the grapes that they thought were a bit déclassé. Now they realise that these grapes give a nice fruity expression, and the easy drinking concept is beginning to sink in. We are far from the finished article in terms of where the industry needs to be, but I’m really encouraged by the trajectory it’s taking.

“There is still the perception is of very extracted, alcoholic, international-style wines, but slowly but surely they are releasing much more thoughtful wines with a sense of place, that reflect the terroir, with limited intervention, more interesting wines that really give the industry a new dimension.

“The white wines have really come along the inside track in the last 10 years. People are genuinely surprised by the freshness and complexity of the wines coming out of Lebanon today, because it’s a hot country and they don’t expect the freshness. We achieve it because of the altitude. Between these new southern Rhone and Languedoc style reds and the whites we are seeing several new dimensions to Lebanon’s profile.

“Releasing this kind of wine has added a new dimension to the wines coming out of Lebanon today. There are a few wineries releasing Cinsault now too. These wines really give a good expression of the terroir and I can see consumers really falling over themselves for these hot climate grapes given a very unique expression.”