Lebanon is among the oldest sites of wine production in the world. In ancient times, the Phoenicians were instrumental in spreading wine and viticulture throughout the Mediterranean region.
More recently, in the twentieth century, many farmers in the neglected Bekaa valley – the ancestral home of Lebanon’s great wines – gave up on grapes and cultivated marijuana instead. The region became a hot spot for the production of hashish.
In recent interview with AFP, a former marijuana farmer explained, “Everyone was planting cannabis. There was a market for it. There was no agricultural alternative."
But while the profits from hashish production could be good, they were inconsistent. Since marijuana is illegal in Lebanon, its cultivation was fraught with risk. Sometimes it would not be possible to find a buyer. Often the authorities would raid plantations and destroy the whole crop.
In 1999, four marijuana growers decided to switch to wine-producing grapes which they could sell to wineries. They formed the Coteaux d’Heliopolis Cooperative, which was supported technically and through grants by the French region of Oise and encouraged by the Chamber of Commerce and Agriculture in Zahlé, the capital of Beqaa Governorate.
Since then, the cooperative has worked together with 11 villages in the region to replace cannabis with the wines of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Tempranillo. Today, the cooperative includes 250 farmers with 240 hectares of vineyards.
The altitude and location of the vineyards allows the farmers to grow their wine without any pesticides, so taking the step to produce organic grapes was easy for the cooperative. As a result, a strong demand for the grapes developed among some of the best wine producers in Lebanon.
Now Charbel El Fakhr and Walid Hobchy, two founders of the cooperative, are taking one step further. They have set up a winery in the town of Deir El Ahmar which can also be used by the cooperative.
“It’s good to sell grapes but it’s more interesting to have your own wine as a cooperative and be able to export it around the world,” said Fakhri.
A more practical reason for making their own wine is to have a reliable market for the grapes produced. In a 2016 interview with Executive Magazine, Fakhri explained, “At a certain point in 2012, a tonne of grapes were thrown away because there weren’t enough deals with wineries to sell them and the growers were not paid. It was almost a disaster. So, we saw it as a necessity to have a winery that would ensure that the grapes produced would actually be used.”
The cooperative’s wine production is still in its infancy, producing 100,000 bottles in 2017, a small fraction of the eight million bottles produced each year in Lebanon.
Fakhri explains, “It is important for us to produce for the local market. However, our main target is to reach the European market, as it is more profitable for us.”
As part of the European Union-funded SwitchMed Programme on Sustainable Consumption and Production, the United Nations Industrial Development Organization (UNIDO) is conducting a product environmental footprint pilot study to improve the abilities of Lebanese companies, including the Coteaux d’Heliopolis Cooperative, to compete on the European Union markets where consumers are taking environmental considerations more and more seriously.
Fahkri said, “This pilot study enables us to assess how we perform, producing organically, but it also shows how we can evolve as a growing company exporting to European markets.”