Lebanon’s oldest winery has celebrated its 160th anniversary by going back to its roots and launching a 100% Merwah.
It is one of two grapes indigenous to the Middle Eastern nation, but it has previously been considered unfashionable by Lebanese winemakers. Yet Château Ksara, which is also the country’s largest producer, is bidding to change all that by affording it the sort of superstar status previously reserved for Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. It is the first Lebanese wine to ever carry Arabic calligraphy and it has already gained a listing at Harrods, where it is apparently flying off the shelves.
“This wine is primarily for the English market,” says owner George Sara, whose family bought the winery from the Jesuits after a papal edict in 1973. “We thought of the English consumer when we were blending the wine. That’s why we created a nice label with quirky authenticity.”
Michael Karam, author of The Wines of Lebanon and a specialist in the country’s wines, is delighted to see the direction Lebanese whites are heading in. “The whites are the big story,” he says. “They were once an afterthought, but they are now really leading the way in showing the diversity of the country and the potential for winemaking. They represent excellent value for money.
“The recognition by Lebanese wine producers and Château Ksara of a grape that was considered unfashionable and to decide to give it a higher status, to take pride in the viticultural heritage instead of making a Chardonnay or a Sauvignon Blanc, represents a major turning point in the philosophy and mind-set of Lebanese producers. It’s saying ‘we are proud of our heritage’, and it creates an identity for Lebanon, just like Assyrtiko did for Greece.”
Strength in scarcity
Lebanon only produces around 10 million bottles of wine a year, but its scarcity is one of its key strengths, along with the quality to price ratio, according to Karam, and he feels innovative bottlings such as the 100% Merwah can drive it. “We are at a very interesting point in the development of the Lebanese wine industry,” he says. “It has gone through its teething years, making wines with superstar grapes such as Cabernet and Merlot and using a lot of oak, but now it’s beginning to understand that oak is not necessary in all the wines, and the grapes it previously didn’t take seriously are starting to carve an identity for the country.
“It has learned how to handle the grapes in a hot climate and the potential negative elements are counteracted by the fact that we have some of the highest vineyards in the world. It can be 40°C in the day, but it turns to 15°C at night, so there is a freshness that can belie the climate.”
Ksara, based in the Bekaa Valley, produces 3 million bottles a year and makes 15 different wines. It exports around 40% of its production and the UK is a major market, along with the US, Canada, France and Germany. It is distributed by Hallgarten, and Oddbins sells its Reserve du Convent for £12, while it makes a private label for Marks & Spencer, has several listings in Whole Foods and supplies many independents across the UK.
“We have been in the UK since the late 1980s and we have managed to tackle the off-trade quite well,” says Sara, who was born in England. “The next challenge is to find a wine that would fit in at Waitrose or Sainsbury’s, something that would give the customer value at around £10. For a long time the winery’s motto has been price to quality ratio. You get bang for your buck.”
Wineries across the world face manifold challenges, from drought to hailstorms, but they pale in comparison to the trials and tribulations faced by the Lebanese. Sara’s uncle has twice been kidnapped and subjected to a mock execution, the export manager has been kidnapped and shot at, the winemaker almost missed the 2006 harvest due to civil war, Islamic State has camped out in surrounding mountains and they have frequently heard bombs going off in neighbouring Syria.
“The Syrian civil war has impacted on the country, economically as well as socially, but what amazes me is the way the Lebanese keep going,” says Karam. “You can’t thwart their desire to make money and do business. It’s the country that gave wine to the world and they are traders by nature and by geography.
“You are going to be hard pushed to find Lebanese wine for under £10, but we are not worried about that. We are a small country. There are only 5 million bottles available for export, and we want to play on that scarcity. What you get for your £10 to £12 represents excellent value, and that’s true across all the price points.”