|Lebanese vineyards eye lucrative foreign markets
|Industry is 5,000 years in the making
Exported since the time of the Phoenicians 5,000 years ago, sun-drenched Lebanese wine is spreading as mushrooming estates refine strategies to satisfy domestic and lucrative overseas markets.
"Facts speak for themselves: 50 years ago, there were three winemakers in Lebanon. Today, there are 15," said Serge Hochar, head of the Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL).
Hochar was speaking on the sidelines of the first Lebanese wine festival, Vinifest, which organizers are seeking to put on the annual tourist agenda.
"Lebanese winemakers produce between 6 and 7 million bottles of wine each year, of which about 2 million bottles are exported. We expect growth to continue," he said.
"The production is worth about $25 million, including about $8 million for export. Just in 1996, wine exports were about $3 million," he said.
Lebanese wine is mostly grown in estates nestled in the Bekaa Valley of eastern Lebanon - often with the help of French oenologists and imported equipment - that had been a bastion for militants during the 1975-1990 civil war.
Since the end of fighting, visitors have been flocking in growing numbers to tour the cellars at the estates, taste new blends and enjoy country-style Lebanese "mezze" luncheons amid picturesque vineyards.
The estates have become a must-see destination for tourists on their way to the ancient city of Baalbek which hosts the Roman temple of Bacchus, the Roman god of wine.
"Wine is an ancient tradition in Lebanon since the Phoenicians were among the first traders of wine," said Nagib Moutran, brand manager at Chateau Kefraya which remains a market leader together with Chateau Ksara.
Moutran said Kefraya produces 1.5 million bottles of wine each year, including about 40 percent for export that mainly targets Europe and the United States.
"Winemaking is a growing business in Lebanon ... even in France where they have the best wines, Lebanese wines sell well, which proves the great quality of our wines," he said.
Elie Issa, general manager of the Domaine de Tourelles estate, said "the wine business is also taking over some of the market of Arak," the Lebanese traditional drink distilled from grapes and anise.
"This is the first year we are exporting and we want to increase production that is currently at 30,000 bottles a year," said Issa, a businessman who co-bought the winery in 2000 from the descendants of Frenchman Pierre Louis Brun who had founded the estate in 1868 to serve French expeditionary soldiers in the region.
Charles Ghostine, managing director at Chateau Ksara, said "the Bekaa has great wines because it has all the good ingredients: continental climate, nearly no diseases, thus no need for treatments - which makes our wine nearly organic."
"But most of all, Lebanon has 300 days of sun throughout the year and this gives us excellent wines and grapes," he said.
Ramez Saliba, sales manager at Chateau Ksara, said "Lebanese wines win a lot of international awards. In the 2003-2004 season, 99 percent of Ksara products won medals and awards."
He said Ksara, stored in a labyrinth of natural caves stretching over two kilometers where the product was first made by Jesuit monks in 1857, produces about 2.5 million bottles of wine, including some 900,000 bottles for export.
"We export to all destinations, but the basis of the exports is to tap into the wide Lebanese community abroad," which is estimated at more than 12 million people - or three times the population at home.
The Daily Star