The Bacchus Option

Of wines and opening markets. A Reason interview with Lebanese wine writer Michael Karam


Michael Karam is living proof that there is more to the Middle East than clichés of violence and the extinction of pleasure. He's a wine writer in Beirut who follows Lebanon's budding wine sector, and is currently finishing his first book, The Wines of Lebanon, with photographs by Norbert Schiller, to be published next year by Saqi Books in London. He also covers the Lebanese and North African wine sectors for Tom Stevenson's award-winning annual Wine Report, and will be writing the Lebanon entry for the next edition of Jancis Robinson's Oxford Companion to Wine.

reason: Why a book on Lebanese wines? And how good are they?

Michael Karam: Well as far as I know, the book is a first. No one has examined Lebanon's millennia-old heritage of viticulture. How good are Lebanese wines? Mention them to wine drinkers, and they might say: "I've never had it, but I hear it's very good." It was not always so. Until recently, Lebanese wine was obscure and unpredictable. The first to succeed internationally was Chateau Musar, which came to the world's attention at the Bristol Wine Fair of 1979. For nearly 20 years Chateau Musar was Lebanese wine. Today, the sector is no longer a one-man show. A dozen Lebanese producers are making acceptable and consistent wines that are on a par with the current crop of new world labels.

reason: Lebanon is one of the rare Arab countries to produce a recognized wine. Why is that and what does it say about the society?

MK: Simply, the Christian presence in the country allowed a culture of arak (the anis-based drink that is the Lebanese equivalent of ouzo) and winemaking to continue throughout Ottoman rule. The Christians were allowed to make sweet wine for religious purposes and it is that tradition that led the Jesuits of the Ksara winery to commercialize it. To a lesser degree, the French presence during the Mandate years between the world wars helped increase production, while Lebanon's post-Independence role as a regional refuge for bankers, émigrés, diplomats, spies, traders and the like gave it a patina of sophistication that offered opportunities for a wine culture to take hold.

reason: When did Lebanon begin producing wine?

MK: The boffins are still arguing about that one, but there is no doubt it was a very long time ago, perhaps 2 million years, when Homo sapiens, on his great trek from Ethiopia, reached Lebanon and tasted the fermented juice of a Vinis Vinifera Sylvestris. It's a nice thought. More plausible however is that Lebanese Neolithic villages may have domesticated the grape as early as 9000 BC, as they did in Turkey and Syria. What we do know is that 4,000 years ago Phoenician wine, made from vines brought from the Caucasus, was exported and drunk all over the Mediterranean, and that around 1,760 years ago the Romans built a temple to the wine god Bacchus in Baalbek, which still stands today. But for our purposes, the story begins in 1856, when the Ksara Jesuits planted Cinsault vines from Algeria. Today Ksara is Lebanon's biggest producer in terms of volume.

reason: Is there a market for Lebanese wines abroad?

MK: Musar has a solid fan base in the U.K. It tastes like claret, but it has an edge and the Brits love it, as they apparently do its enigmatic owner Serge Hochar. The French consume a lot of Chateau Kefraya and Ksara. Now Massaya is making a serious name for itself in France. Six years ago the winery was a plot of bare land in the middle of the Bekaa Valley, where most Lebanese grapes for wine are grown. Today it makes wines listed at Paris hotels such as the Ritz, Le Crillion and the Georges V. Sweden is an important market, too, as are Germany, Canada, the U.S., Spain and Japan. The spirit that imbued the Lebanese to set up shop in every corner of the civilized (and less civilized) world is still present in today's wine producers, who now talk of breaking into Russia, Poland and even Taiwan.

reason: What are the grand themes of the sector in the last decade, when the number of vintners proliferated?

MK: Lebanon's war stunted development in the sector. Winemaking is a tricky business in wartime (though there were some good vintages in those years). With peace came the chance for Bekaa Valley arak producers to sit back and assess the potential of going into wine, although they will all claim they had been making wine all along, just not in vast quantities. The success of Chateau Kefraya, which began producing wine in the early war years, must have inspired the rest. And let's not forget, wine is a sexy business and that is very important to the image-conscious Lebanese. Why be a bumpkin arak maker when you can light a cigar and talk about your Syrah or Chardonnay?

reason: How would you describe the Lebanese wine market today? What stage of development is it in, and how bright is the future?

MK: Today, Lebanon produces 7 million bottles annually. It's still a cottage industry by global standards (it would need to produce 80 million bottles per year to reach 1 percent of France's output), but the quality is not in doubt and the Lebanese aim is to turn their country into one of the world's boutique wine nations. Meanwhile, domestic consumption has increased in relative terms, though it stands roughly at the still modest figure of a bottle per person per year, or some 3.5 million bottles consumed—though that includes domestic and foreign wines. This is helped in part by visiting or returning Lebanese emigrants, who bring with them the more pronounced taste for wine abroad that has yet to develop inside Lebanon. That said, the Lebanese, always anxious to be seen as getting it right, are gradually eschewing the obligatory bottle of luxury-blend whisky in favor of wine with their meals.

Opinion is divided on a future wine strategy. Some say Lebanon should plant a further 10,000 hectares over the next decade to produce roughly 50 million bottles annually; others want to consolidate Lebanon's niche image by keeping quantities limited. Chateau Musar's Serge Hochar believes that the current 1,700 hectares of land under wine vine could easily be expanded to 15,000—still less than 10 percent of Lebanon's surface area. However, he cautions, this should only happen if, as in France, there is demand. Uncontrolled growth could result in a loss of identity or, in the event of a surplus, instances of unethical behavior.

reason: How open a wine market is there in Lebanon?

MK: We're not yet there. Importers of foreign wines currently pay around 70 percent duties, raising prices. Many importers reduce their fees somewhat by fiddling with the invoice value.

reason: In a few years Lebanese wines will have to compete with outside brands because of lower customs duties thanks to Lebanon's Association Agreement with the European Union. How will the local market fare?

MK: Prices will come down and hopefully make the invoice values on imported wines more realistic. Lebanese wine makers will have to be more aggressive in their marketing. So far the penny has not dropped. We should see more economies of scale throughout the whole sector if and when it does. This will mean cheaper wine locally and make producers more competitive abroad.

reason: What are the major problems facing the wine sector?

MK: The honeymoon period, during which many people were predicting substantial growth, has been replaced by domestic sniping among producers. The Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL), Lebanon's loose association of wine producers, has taken some body blows in the last year. Massaya walked out on UVL in mid-January after its initiative to establish a national wine marketing board and launch a nationwide advertising campaign was rejected by the other members. Massaya may be a young vineyard, but it represents the future of Lebanese wine: it is boutique, charismatic, aggressive and is backed by highly regarded French partners. It will thrive with or without UVL; its departure on the other hand has devalued the credibility of the association.

Making matters worse, in May UVL announced that a much anticipated congress organized by the Office International de la Vigne et du Vin, the wine world's governing body, scheduled for June 2005 in Beirut, was cancelled. No official reason was given. That was a pity. The event should have had a profound impact on the reputation, export potential and overall brand equity of Lebanon and its wine. I think it showed that some of the bigger members in UVL did not want to work for the national good if the extra effort only really benefited smaller producers. It's a very short-term approach.

reason: The local wine producing market is small enough that it still has some weird characters. Briefly describe a couple.

MK: Well apart from Hochar, a darling of the wine world for his wartime exploits, two people spring to mind: Yves Morard, the 50-something hippy wine maker, late of Kefraya, now at Cave Kouroum. Yves' looks got him arrested by the Israeli Army during the 1982 invasion and taken to Tel Aviv, where he was forced to sit through a wine exam to prove he was who he said he was. Then there is Dargham Touma, owner of Heritage, a new micro-winery. Dargham, or "Dr. D" as he styles himself, is a one-man show. He is wine maker, production manager, quality controller, marketing manager and sales manager.

reason: What is the best held secret in the wine sector?

MK: There are a few great reds that stand out. Chateau Clos St. Thomas (2000), Chateau Kefraya Comte de M (1996), Chateau Musar (1988, 1991 and 1993), Chateau Ksara Troisième Millenaire (2002), Massaya Reserve (2001), and Wardy Private Selection (2003). The Chateau Kefraya Lacrima d'Oro is a sumptuous pudding wine.

reason: In Middle Eastern terms, where does the Lebanese wine sector stand?

MK: No one else comes close. There are quality wines throughout the region especially in Israel and Morocco. However, the Israelis still have to shake off the stigma of kosher wines, while the North African wines have struggled, even though Algeria was once the world's fourth largest producer.

reason: What's your strangest wine encounter?

MK: Lunch with the Druze leader and onetime Lebanese warlord Walid Jumblatt. He is the majority shareholder in Chateau Kefraya, but admitted, like the good socialist he claims to be, that vodka was his preferred poison. At lunch he had a bottle of Egyptian beer instead of the very good wine he served to his guests. I suspect he had a hangover. I can spot the signs.

reason: Any final advice to the sector?

MK: Let's not kid ourselves. Despite a good product, Lebanon is still not a genuine wine-drinking nation and, given its religious makeup, may never become one. Hence the need to find new and sustainable export markets.