From Cannabis to Cabernet in Lebanon’s wine industry

“Couvent Rouge winery is not a business, it’s a way of life for the people of Deir el Ahmar” declares  Walid Habchi, Founder of the Heliopolis Coop and co-winemaker at Couvent Rouge, when I asked him how to describe what the winery and area means to him. This is the story of turning Cannabis to Cabernet.

Deir el Ahmar is a small village in the Northern Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, a region that lays claim not only to some of the highest vineyards in the Middle East, but with the Baalbek ruins (and Temple of  Bacchus) just around the corner, some of the most celebrated wine history of the Ancient World too. 

For hundreds of years, this patchwork-like plain of small individual farming plots has also been synonymous with the illicit farming of the cannabis plant. 

Just like coffee culture, cannabis culture in this area holds deep seated roots among locals. The source of risky and unstable income for some, it also plays a more civilised part in village customs and (as I am informed by workers of the winery) is on occasion regarded as a welcome gift for guests entering villagers’ houses. 

Its presence in the area as a commodity has always been contentious. Over the years, and only worsened by State decisions to halt production, it has served to simultaneously enrich the traders and mafias who deal in the chain of illegal handling and eventual export, whilst impoverishing the farmers whose hard work cultivating the crop is barely recompensed. 

Cannabis farming, a source of contention in the area. Enriching the mafia and having a negative affect on the community.

It was after the War ended in 1990, Walid tells me, when the Government forced farmers to switch to much less lucrative tobacco farming, (and yet some areas were given favourable growing  licences, whilst others brazenly continued to farm cannabis,) that things really took a turn for the  worse. 

It resulted, I am told, in a mass exodus from the small villages to the towns and cities nearby in  search of a more a more profitable way of life. And it was then, in the mid 90s, upon seeing the dwindling population of the village, plus the knowledge that the land could harvest far more than hashish or tobacco, that Walid, a farmer himself, was prompted to think about alternative crops to plant.  

With a historical relationship to the vine that rivals the majority of the world’s wine making regions, and the insight that indigenous varieties had been growing in the area for centuries, by 1999 Walid and his colleagues were convinced that the vine was the way forward as a fruitful enterprise to help regenerate interest and income in the rural villages of the Northern Bekaa Valley.  

From Cannabis to Cabernet. The vineyards are now flourishing with over 50 farmers and 250 ha under vine!

In 2000, with the help of French consultants who assessed the microclimate, and performed studies on the land to check for the most suitable vine plantings and locations, the Heliopolis Cooperative came into being. A movement of uprooting the cannabis plants and replanting vines, “…to stop people from leaving their villages. In fact, we had people return back to their  towns…” Walid a land owner himself, plus 6 other farmers formed the original members of the Coop which covered just 5 hectares of land. It was bold move, but seemed to work well.

21 years later and with currently 250 farmers belonging to the Coop and over 250 ha under vine, his ideology of providing a more sustainable living for locals as well as encouraging better infrastructure to the area has become not only popular but sought after. It would seem from those I have talked to, there is a renewed sense of pride in their land. 

With the current economic climate being so dire in Lebanon, I asked Walid, if he had seen a return to  hashish farming or more illicit crop activity to battle the daily struggle. On the contrary, he assured me that the hashish market had tumbled in recent years and that more farmers are switching to vine planting on a yearly basis. In his own words, the Coop and the winery is “… a personal and emotional project to help the town…we have made a tremendous impact on the lives of farmers and the perception of how people view the town.” 

In some areas, like Meshayrfi the population and the number of houses have doubled. Proof of the pudding that people are coming back, and with their aim being 10,000 ha under vine, a  good sign they are heading in the right direction too.  

Although the native Obeide grape was already being grown in the area, other grapes that were planted around 21 years ago have adapted well to the continental climate of the Northern Bekaa region. 

The climate here is different to other parts of the Bekaa Valley which are wetter, more fertile and humid, often next to bodies of water. High altitude vines combined with hot summers, cool autumns and often harsh winters (characterised by substantial snowfall) make for bright, well rounded wines with distinct character and refreshing acidity. The terroir has a limestone dominance and the vineyards though high, are found on a 10km plain, protected from the winds by two mountain ranges. 

The approach to growing as well as vinification is that of minimal intervention to show the true character of Lebanese wines and their terroir. 

Walid recalls, “… the most beautiful moment in my life was the harvest of 2003 when we harvested 5 tonnes of grapes that were sold to other wineries in Lebanon.” It also acted as the turning point for Walid and the necessary prompt not only to sell the grapes to other wineries, but begin to think about creating their own production. 

In 2010 Walid met Charbel Fakhry who shared similar philosophies about the region, its people and  potential. They agreed to partner on a project that would see a physical winery being built and bespoke branding that fairly represented their values with a selection of wines of different levels of quality to suit the market.  

With a background in architecture, but an eye for branding, and a great taste for winemaking, Charbel’s professional versatility and breadth of knowledge and skill, have been fundamental to how Couvent Rouge is positioned today. Humble in nature he seems as at home in the vineyard as he does hosting tastings. His displays at wine fairs, thoughtful labeling, imaginative marketing and catchy slogans “From Cannabis to Cabernet ”certainly raise the right kind of eyebrows.  

Along with the inimitable help of Fawzi Issa of Domaines de Tourelles who has been Walid’s mentor during this project, the trio have left behind the advice of French consultants and have been plotting their own course for the future of the region and its vineyards. Vineyards now consist of grapes chosen specifically for the terroir and they are successfully trialing Grenache (blanc), Cinsault, Carignan,  Tempranillo and Obeide as well as Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier.

Couvent Rouge host guests. Definitely worth a visit. Get in touch with @tastingwithamy on Instagram for more info!

Currently the range consists of 3 tiers of wine styles, plus a red and white pet nat. The goal is to produce delicious Lebanese wine of exceedingly good value. Their entry level red, white and rose “Petit Couvent” are young blends of local and international varieties and make wonderful aperitifs. In the trade they have become go-to pouring wines. 

The “Couvent Rouge” mid- range wines, which use Viognier, Sauvignon Blanc and Obeide for the white and a blend of Tempranillo, Syrah and Cabernet for the red have more weight and structure to them and can stand up better to food. My personal favourite the “Racine” range comes in red and white. Both oak aged and using Syrah and Viognier respectively. 

At a private visit earlier this month I was privy to a barrel tasting of the red “Racine” and can confirm it is already showing incredible style and promise. The white as well, of which I am a massive fan is also impressive with nutty and slight oxidative notes on the nose and a delightful oily texture and fruity palate. Both are not only extraordinarily age worthy but exude elegance, bountiful fruit and complexity. 

Have you tried Lebanese wine?

Walid considers himself, Charbel and Fauzi a part of “a new generation of winemakers”. The quality of their wine is important but also the notion of “moving people from an unstable life to one that is integrated in the law” is at the forefront of their ambitions. 

The Heliopolis Coop and Couvent Rouge winery have given not only a new lease of life to the land in Deir el Ahmar and the surrounding regions, but also to the farmers there, and it serves as a model of  encouragement for others to also start making their own wine. Some, like Mersal Wine are in the process already either using the winery’s facilities or building their own nearby. 

As the situation in Lebanon shows no sign of rapid improvement, Walid is convinced that creating a “wine and vine culture” provides one of the only ways to help the people “rise above the struggle” in the country. Already available in several export markets such as the USA, Australia and Germany the team are actively looking for more places where they can also elevate Lebanese wines to the world.  

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