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French wine expert lauds the Lebanese terroir

BEIRUT: French wine consultants from Bordeaux and Burgundy have over decades made a mark on Lebanon’s wine industry, but despite this influence, the terroir remains uniquely Lebanese. Winemaking legend Stephane Derenoncourt, attracted to Lebanon by its limestone soil and to work as a consultant for Chateau Marsyas, is a more recent French influence on the Lebanese wine industry.

“For a long time there have been consultants here [in Lebanon], mostly from Bordeeax, maybe for 25 years for Kefraya, Musar – all the big wineries. All French consultants,” says Derenoncourt, pointing to the ubiquitous cabernet sauvignon grape – a mainstay of the Bordeaux region – in Lebanese wines as evidence.

A self-taught vintner, Derenoncourt rose from the level of itinerant vineyard worker to masterful winemaker. He opened his own consulting company in 1999 and now works with more than 100 estates in 14 countries, making him one of the most sought-after French wine consultants in the world.

With all of this experience in Bordeaux and abroad, Derenoncourt sees something unique in the Lebanese terroir and believes that, with diligence and attention to international branding, there is no limit for the country’s wine industry.

“The Bekaa Valley is a beautiful place [for wine],” says Derenoncourt of the alluvial plateau resting between Mount Lebanon and the Anti-Lebanon mountains atop a bed of limestone.

“The clay gives you an easy ripeness and something very powerful – sometimes a bit too powerful – but the limestone can give a lot of freshness, the salty side and fresh aromas,” he continues, pointing out the good fortune of the Lebanese winemakers to be endowed with such pervasive mineral resources.

“Not many people know, but the limestone is something very difficult and precious to find. Limestone is around 5 percent of the total earth, it’s nothing. In Lebanon it makes up 80 percent [of the land] – it’s crazy. For example, in California you have 3 percent and in Australia you have none,” he says.

“If you look for the best, most famous wine and the best wines to age over a long period of time – Bordeaux, Bourgogne [Burgundy] – this is limestone,” he adds, almost lovingly.

Derenoncourt knew of the Bekaa Valley’s history of wine production but was lured to it firsthand by Karim and Sandro Saadé, the brothers behind Cheateau Marsyas and a second winery, Domaine de Bargylus, located outside of Latakia in Syria.

He was drawn by the project’s small, family nature as well as the terroirs of both Lebanon and Syria. Since becoming involved in 2005, he has grown especially fascinated with the fast-developing Lebanese wine industry, which has jumped from just four producers in the 1990s to over 33 in 2012.

Derenoncourt believes Lebanon’s winemakers, while vibrant, still must contend with “a problem of identity.”

“There are a lot of new projects. It’s fantastic and it’s very dynamic. You have very different styles of thinking in terms of viticulture, winemaking and aging. But [the industry] lacks a bit of structure because you can do whatever you want – there is no appellation,” he says, referring to the appellation d’origine contrôlée system used in France to denote regions of agricultural production such as Bordeaux or Champagne.

“You don’t know where the grapes come from in Lebanon. And that’s a mistake because it’s a beautiful country and complex country to make wines. You have different areas with different soil and formation, different levels of altitude,” the vintner adds, listing Jezzine and North Lebanon as unique terroirs in their own right.

Addressing issues of quality control and traceability will take willingness on the part of winemakers, but is essential in terms of the viability of the Lebanese brand internationally. Lebanese wine must compete abroad based on its identity and reputation rather than sheer volume, according to Derenoncourt.

Compared to France which produces around 8 billion bottles of wine annually, Lebanon only produces about 8 million, with 80 percent of that production by just three winemakers. Placement and quality are essential for Lebanon’s boutique wineries, such as Marsyas which makes just 55,000 bottles a year, are to make an impact abroad.

The first step, says Derenoncourt, is for wineries to coordinate to improve “communication and marketing, to create some interest in the wine, and then continue to improve the production.”

With Marsyas, the Saadé brothers and Derenoncourt have had some success in whetting wine connoisseurs’ appetites for wines from the region using special tasting events and upscale placement.

“Marsyas is starting to become famous and lot of winemakers want to taste it,” says Derenoncourt, attributing this partially to the specialty wine shop, Terres Millesimées, that he opened in St. Emilion, Bordeaux, with the Saadé brothers to feature estates for which he consults and other selections for wine aficionados.

But specialty markets are not the only option for Lebanese wines, Derenoncourt asserts. “Of course there are a lot of Lebanese people all over the world. The diaspora is a very big market ... And the [Lebanese] gastronomy is very famous in the world so that opens the market.”

With the right attention to quality production, there are few limits for Lebanese wine in the international market. “[In Lebanese wine] there is the history, there is the quality and everything that makes success, but, for the moment, it’s a little unorganized ... but, wine is time.”

 
A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on August 10, 2012, on page 2.

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