Lebanese winery Chateau Kefraya exports to around 40 countries and plans to expand to more. Photo courtesy of Sabine Bustros/Château Kefraya
BEIRUT, Lebanon, February 1 (UPI) — For the Lebanese wine industry, exports have become a means of survival amid the country’s worst financial crisis and the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic.
The general recession, the devaluation of the Lebanese pound, which lost 95% of its value, hyperinflation and the rise of poverty have hampered wine imports, as well as local production and consumption.
Carlos Adem, who founded the Château Fakra winery in 1985 and is president of the Syndicate of Alcohol, Liqueurs and Spirits Producers in Lebanon, said the local consumer market has shrunk by 30% to 35% and exports by 30% in 2020, compared to 2019.
Lebanon’s wine exports have fallen from 2.5 million liters to 2 million liters in these two years and he expects “it will be lower” for 2021.
“Imports have decreased by 65%, when we imported 1.2 million liters. In 2020, we imported 492,000 liters,” Adem told UPI.
Like most countries in the world, Lebanon has seen a drop in wine exports due to the pandemic, he said, which “had a very bad impact on consumption with restaurants closed, no jobs and many other problems”.
The daily difficulties
The additional difficulties the Lebanese are facing and the collapse of their standard of living are affecting local demand. With a daily struggle to find food and medicine, wine is not a priority.
Although Lebanese wine is recognized and praised around the world, Lebanese winemakers need hard currency to import equipment, sulfur, yeast, bottles and even corks and labels to be able to maintain their activity.
Adem said the quality of production in Lebanon “is excellent” and the wine producers have diplomas from the best countries in the world, such as France, Italy and Germany.
“But we still have to work on the marketing,” he said. “We could have done a lot better. We have the land to do it, the people interested to do it, and we have enough growers, but unfortunately the export is not as important as it used to be.”
Sabine Bustros, member of the board of directors of wine producer Chateau Kefraya, acknowledged that the prices of some imported raw materials had increased, saying it was a normal result of the current situation.
“But we did everything we could to meet the challenges like every other company in Lebanon,” Bustros told UPI, with the main concern not to let any of his employees go.
With a production varying between 1.4 million and 1.6 million bottles per year; Of which 50% is exported to around 40 countries, Château Kefraya has consistently scored high on Robert Parker’s rating scale, according to Bustros.
Today, they plan to expand their exports and reach more countries.
“When I see a Kefraya bottled wine in France or elsewhere in the world, a feeling comes to mind: pride. And I am able to trace in my head the story of each bottle. I see it from the harvest to shelving,” she said.
She explained that Lebanon has the unique advantage of many microclimates, which allows for a wide variety of wine production in different regions of the country. Most of the vineyards were originally located in the eastern Bekaa Valley and the Chouf region, where a natural water table and clay-limestone soils provide suitable climates for wine production.
Back home, few are able to buy locally produced wine, and even those who can still afford it have become much more price conscious given the rising US dollar exchange rate. and the fact that imported wine has become more expensive.
Château Rayak, a small family winery in the eastern Bekaa Valley, reflects a passion that has lasted for generations.
Elias Boutros Maalouf, whose family fled the country during the 1975-90 civil war to Ecuador where he was born, took on the challenge of reviving their old winery and resumed winemaking in 1997 under the direction of his grandfather then 92 years old. .
But making wine isn’t easy, and it took years for Maalouf to come up with “a good wine”. From 70 bottles that he first produced with his grandfather, he has grown to 7,000 bottles a year, sold only in his own cellar.
“We try to keep the tradition alive… Château Rayak is the smallest winery in Lebanon, but we are very happy to produce wine and sell it ourselves,” Maalouf told UPI.
Despite popular protests in 2019, tourists still flocked to the wine tasting at Chateau Rayak, coming from countries that “faced similar financial crises and knew Lebanon was becoming [a] cheap [destination] like Greece and Cyprus and also other European countries,” he said.
But that changed with COVID-19 restrictions and last summer’s severe fuel and power crisis, which forced it to halt production for the first time since restarting the business.
“Our chai is primitive, we don’t have the equipment that automatically adjusts the temperature… We have to do it manually, so we sleep close to our barrels,” he said. “We do it with all our heart.”
However, what Maalouf needs is to increase his own production so that he can start exporting his products.
The United States Agency for International Development stepped in to help 15 wineries export their products, including to the United States, initially targeting Texas.
Rana Helou, project management specialist at USAID, said the agency, in coordination with the company “Made in Lebanon”, assists this first group of wineries by providing training on compliance with international standards. US and identifying markets for them.
“All 15 wineries have already obtained their certificates and today they are able to send their products to the United States,” Helou told UPI. “So the next step is to be able to comply with European standards and send their products to Europe.”
With a total of $475,000 in in-kind subsidies for the first year, she said the increase in export sales is expected to reach $5.3 million.
Neither Adem, who partners with wineries in France and Argentina, nor Bustros or Maalouf are ready to leave their vineyards, wineries or Lebanon despite the current deteriorating conditions.
For Bustros, it’s about continuing the legacy of his late father, Michel Bustros, who founded Château Kefraya in 1979, and all the vines he had planted and “left behind”.
For his part, Maalouf said, “If I have to leave Lebanon, I don’t think I will live long.”