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Lebanon: Fuel for thought

Published:  15 September, 2021

Lebanon’s latest winemaking challenge is a fuel crisis that has left wineries fighting for power, as Andrew Catchpole reports

Lebanon’s winemakers are well versed in facing up to adversity, having

met so many extraordinary challenges head on that you might assume there’s little left that could rattle the resilience of this dynamic industry. A country with an incredibly rich cultural and gastronomic scene, these attributes have nonetheless often been obscured by factional fighting and civil war, conflict with neighbours, political corruption and, of course, the horrific explosion that tore through the heart of Beirut last year.

Winemakers tell stories of bringing in harvests under extreme conditions, sometime dangerous, leaving you marvelling that the winemaking scene is so dynamic.

The country’s latest woes centre on a fuel crisis, exacerbated by runaway inflation, which has reached its pinnacle just as the 2021 harvest needs attention. “Lebanon is a country that has been bankrupted by corruption,” says Faouzi Issa, MD and winemaker at Domaine des Tourelles.

“The civil war wiped out our infrastructure and now politicians are manoeuvring while food is scarce and the fuel supply has reached crisis point. All the services are practically absent in a country which used to be a beautiful trendsetter, and a money silo where Saudi Arabia and the Gulf States safely banked their money.”

Inflation is a massive issue, running at around 90%, meaning that imports of any given goods – be that corks, bottles, food or fuel – are now more than 10 times as expensive as they were before Covid struck, adding extra layers of complexity for all involved.

Export issues

A major concern for Issa, who has invested in and grown sales very successfully in markets such as the UK and Scandinavia, is that an inability

by wineries to bring in their harvest successfully will impact massively on the all-important ability to earn ‘hard’ foreign currency through sale abroad.

And the fuel situation is dire, with tankers off the coast not unloading fuel because the government, which normally subsidises a third or more of Lebanese fuel requirements, can’t or won’t pay for shipments anymore, says Issa.

At Domaine des Tourelles, as with other wineries that acted to protect their ability to function, Issa has stockpiled as much fuel as possible to run the generators that are a normal facet of life as a Lebanese business.

“The [Lebanese] government used to subsidise basic items to help industry, but we never had power like you do in the UK,” says Issa. “The government supplied a third of your power each day, which you then had to support with a generator subscription or your own generator for two thirds of your power.”

It’s not just generator power either that is problematic. One of the biggest issues now is that there is no fuel to put in trucks to bring the harvest in, or deliver orders.

“We are so used to facing extreme challenges, it’s almost funny how dramatic, how bad this fuel crisis is,” says an exasperated Issa. “It’s always difficult, then we adapt, but now it’s not even a question of money, it’s a question of resource... there is simply no fuel.”

The vintage itself is “very good”, he reports, with impressive acidity, good colour and concentration in the fruit, though with yields down around 10-15% due to spring frosts.

The challenge now, for Domaine des Tourelles and other leading Lebanese exporters, is not just to bring the harvest in, but to ensure that the subsequent wines reach the markets to earn the cash to finance these businesses in the immediate and near future.

“What we care about now is to keep us being able to export, we need that oxygen of export today, because we will earn fresh dollars, real currency, that will let us buy new bottles, new corks, new barrels, and everything that is important for winemaking,” Issa concludes.

Many producing countries have suffered big setbacks during the pandemic. But Lebanon – as so often – seems to have suffered more than its fair share.