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Harpers Round Table: Selling Lebanon

Published:  20 February, 2023

Lebanon has moved on from being a ‘Bordeaux tribute act’ to encompass myriad styles and varieties suited to its diverse terrain and should now be selling its differences to the world.

This was among the main findings drawn from Harpers recent Lebanon Tasting & Round Table, which represented the most significant outing of Lebanese wines in the UK in many years.

The session, co-hosted by Lebanon expert Michael Karam and Harpers editor Andrew Catchpole, brought together leading buyers and retailers to assess Lebanon’s image and place in the UK market, following the publication of Karam’s in-depth Lebanon Report exclusively in this publication.

The tasting flights of reds, whites and a lone rosé impressed, both for the variety of styles and general quality. It was widely agreed there is a place for both longer established Bordeaux-style bends and newer indigenous varieties – including whites Obeideh and Merweh, plus the likes of Cinsault and Carignan – along with Rhone-style blends.

“Generally there was really good, consistent high quality, for whites and reds, but with many different styles,” said consultant Stefan Neumann MS.

“For me, this is a sort of Mediterranean country meets Chile, but it also has a Rhone feel too, it’s very approachable, and considering the prices, there is a lot of wine delivered in the glass.”

For Karam, the tasting was a “very representative selection” of the wines now coming out of Lebanon, with those aforementioned Rhone varieties and indigenous whites “representing a sweet spot”, having also been “plying their trade for quite some time”.

“That is what Lebanon should be doing now, which is what it was doing 100 plus years ago, with less extraction, more consideration of the grapes that reflect the terroir,” he added.

“There’s a lot more to Lebanon than [Bordeaux-varietal-rooted] Chateau Musar, but funnily enough it fits in to Lebanon more today than it would have 10-20 years ago, because the red Musar has more of that southern Rhone expression, with Cinsault and Carignan in the blend, so in a way Lebanon’s wines are converging into that rather nice sweet spot.”

In terms of how best to sell the modern face of Lebanese wines, Cong Cong Bo, owner of the hybrid merchant Amphora in Cambridge, highlighted a key point for many wine drinking customers.

“I don’t necessarily sell the wine as ‘a grape’, I sell it as an experience, so the customer doesn’t necessarily know what the grape is,” she said.

“For me, the indigenous varieties really stood out as the most interesting wines and, if Lebanon wants to stand out, then it needs to have distinctions.”

Those ‘distinctions’ were very much at the heart of the debate that followed on how best Lebanon could promote and sell itself, to build on its foothold in leading export markets such as the UK.

For Colin Thorne, buyer at Vagabond Wines, Lebanon’s offer would be best underpinned by communicating as a “continuation of a Mediterranean wines from Europe, that we are familiar with, in the context of the wines and winemaking sense”.

Bordeaux-style blends fit in and age well, certainly, but as Neumann suggested, being a hot country with altitude – most vines grown at between 1,000 and 1,500 meters – the fresh, aromatic, sometimes spicy character of the ‘newer’ whites and reds should be a key calling card.

Oxford’s Emily Silva agreed, saying that she could see parallels with (rising star) Greece in terms of communicating the points of difference. However, she echoed others in cautioning that while such diversity is “a strength for trade and wine geeks”, it is also a weakness as “there isn’t anything for ordinary consumers to latch on to”.

Karam, though, suggested that this may not be such a problem, given the Lebanese wine industry’s relatively diminutive size on the world stage.

“Lebanon produces around 10 million bottles, of which around half is exported, with 20% of that going to the UK – the leading export market, followed by the US, German and Scandinavia,” he said.

“This is tiny [compared with other countries], so it has to be niche, so you can build upon these wines with a whiff of intrigue. Lebanon and Beirut have that bit of elegance, the excellent cuisine, a bit of drama, of conflict, but also a tradition of generosity and hospitality. If it is to punch above its weight, then those are the things we have to sell.”

A full report on the Lebanon Tasting & Round Table, including notes on the wines tasted, will appear in the March print and digital issues of Harpers.