Eddie Chami, Mercel Wines: Seeking the Lebaneseness

27.3.2024

Meet an Australian-born Lebanese trailblazer who swears by high-altitude vineyards and indigenous Levantine grapes in order to capture the true spirit of his country in the bottle.

I met Eddie at RAW Montreal where he had a table not far from mine – I immediately felt as if we had known each other for years. I often get that feeling with people I get along with. He's very warm and welcoming ("must come from my parents", he says) and, unsurprisingly, his wines are just like him, full of energy. As I became interested in his many wine endeavours (wouldn't you be intrigued by wines growing upwards of 2,500 metres?!), I wanted to learn more also about his life.

As you'll see in the interview that follows, Eddie's a good and eloquent storyteller, for which I'm grateful as I want to have more insight and context in our world. Sometimes I feel like we unconsciously embrace the idea that everything important happens here in Europe. This is, obviously, not true, but it's good to be reminded every once in a while by a person with such a compelling life story and wine devotion as Eddie Chami, the founder of Mersel Wines and the eponymous winegrowing region high up in the Lebanese mountains.

Words by Milan Nestarec & Lucie Kohoutová / Images courtesy of Eddie Chami

Before we delve into wine, I would like to know a bit more about your roots first. You were born and raised in Australia but now live in Lebanon, how did that happen?

I’m actually just sitting at my parent's home in Sydney now, I came to visit my parents and do a bit of market work here in Sydney and Melbourne. I must say that as my parents are now getting older and I’m really enjoying spending more time with them now than ever before.

But to get to your question, my mother and father immigrated to Australia from Lebanon in the early 1960’s, like many people from the Mediterranean and Balkans. Australia back then was a country full of opportunities and options. I went to school with kids from all corners of the world, it was the most interesting childhood. I learnt about people, cultures, identity, different ways of life of different ethnicities coming together in one country, it was so fascinating.

As I was finishing school, some things in Australia started to change and so did I. By 2006 I made the decision to leave Australia and head to Lebanon. For the decade that preceded this decision, I was always wondering about who I am in Australia. Am I Lebanese, am I Australian? We spoke Arabic at home with my parents, I married an Indian-Lebanese who lived in Australia, I was struggling with my own identity in Australia. Deep down, I felt more Lebanese than a Lebanese in Lebanon. My parents came to Australia before the Lebanese civil war, they knew who they were, they kept their traditions and beliefs while allowing us to integrate into Australia at the same time.

So what was the tipping point?

Between 2001 and 2005 we started feeling like we don’t belong, culminating with the Cronulla riots. I’m not going to delve too much into detail because your readers are probably more interested in wine than the history of racial violence in Australia, but the events were significant enough that they are now documented in the National Museum of Australia so anyone can learn more on their website if interested.

How did you get into wine? You have a degree from UC Davis in California, but did you also make wine in Australia or California before that?

It actually started with Arak, a double-distilled grape-based spirit we consume in the Levant. You make a rough wine, distil it first to increase the alcohol content and then second time with anise seeds, which is how it gets its typical licorice flavour. When I was 17, I wanted to make Arak – I had no idea about fermentation, but I did see my uncles distil it in Lebanon when we'd visit in the summer, but never how they made the base wine. I stumbled, eventually I asked for help from an elderly person that had emigrated from a Lebanese town next to ours. He helped me through it and eventually thought wow, this is something fun!

Subsequently, I made wine from Muscat grapes that I bought from the fruit market, I did a vintage in the Southern Highlands in Australia, and eventually studied winemaking properly at UC Davis. This school teaches you hard-core wine chemistry, lays out all the pros and risks, and I appreciated that. Given where Davis is located, I understand that they focus on making “classical” wine. I just took the most important things that I needed from there – the fundamentals of grapes and wine chemistry, which was fascinating.

How did you get to Lebanon? What are the origins of Mersel Wine?

I moved there after graduation, in 2007, and started making wine. By 2011, I had reestablished some of my grandparents' vineyards, with old grape varieties native to Lebanon. I also planted new varieties like Sangiovese, and I joined some friends who had started a grape cooperative and a small winery attached to it. But something was missing, the global warming impact on viticulture started to become evident and I had to do something about it.

I couldn’t convince everyone I was working with that we needed to change and I started to realise that we had many challenges, not just global warming. Our indigenous grapes were at stake, diversity, identity, history and more. The wines produced in Lebanon started to resemble French wines made in Lebanon, not exactly what I had envisioned to do. I didn’t move from one colonised country to my own one to still feel colonised. That's when Mersel was born. It was born to make a change.

You make wine in Lebanon, which is not exactly what you'd call a classic wine country nowadays, just like the Czech Republic. However, the history of winemaking in Lebanon is far longer I reckon. How far does it go? And is this long-standing wine culture still ingrained in the people?

Lebanon has only existed as a country with established borders since 1920, but the region, modern-day Syria, Lebanon and Palestine, have been part of wine culture for a long time. We can’t piece exactly how far back, but it's at least 3,000 – 5,000 years ago. The Temple of Bacchus, the God of Wine, is in Lebanon, and that was commissioned around 138 AD. And if Jesus turned water into wine around 2000 years ago, in what's now Palestine, that too shows just how long wine has been part of the culture in our region.

You make wine in the Mersel and Wadi Qannoubine regions, both high-altitude areas. What is the highest vineyard you have and how is it to grow vine there?

The name Mersel itself comes from “Maksar Mersel”, the highest viticulture region in Lebanon which I started myself – it used to be a potato and cherry farming area before – to deal with the effects of climate change in the region. It spans from 1,900 m to 2,650 m in altitude, located on the Makmal Mountain which splits Lebanon in half. The mountain peaks at 3,088 m above sea level, which is too cold for anything at the moment, I feel I can’t go above 2,600 metres. To the east of Mersel is the Bekaa Valley [region where 90% of Lebanese wine is made], located at 700 – 1,200 m ASL. It is getting warmer by the day, so that was my major hint to make a move up to the mountains.

To the west of Mersel is the Mediterranean Sea, and between them lies Wadi Qannoubine where I’m from. The Wadi is a UNESCO-protected area – it opens up to the Mediterranean, with steep cliffs that drop from 1,300 metres down to 600 at the bottom of the valley. It's a really beautiful area for making wine, all the towns around the Wadi have plenty of our indigenous grapes that are very, very old. It's covered in snow during the whole winter season, in summer it gets a nice 25 – 30 degrees Celsius days while at night we get the fog that sweeps in the valley coming from the Mediterranean and cooling things down. It's heaven, I wouldn’t want to be anywhere else!

Can you tell us more about your winery and philosophy?

Mersel is a family winery. I’ve also opened it up for friends in the region to also come and make wine with me, because I'm well aware that it takes many winemakers who focus on similar things to create a change, a synergy. I often admire what the Greek winemakers have done with their local varieties, and that's what I’m trying to champion here as well, by all of us working with these handful of indigenous varieties, and trying to make different styles with them, from still and sparkling to sweet, aged in stainless, amphora, vats, etc...

It takes a lot of styles, palates, experiments and time, but eventually, the Lebanese will go back to our varieties and that becomes Lebanon in the bottle. It's not exciting to bring Cabernet to Lebanon, that's not what Lebanon is to me. I don’t want to sound like a hypocrite, I had planted Sangiovese here myself, but that's a sin of youth. I didn’t know better back then – Sangiovese was a grape that I was familiar with and I didn’t yet know about our uniqueness and identity issues, I only discovered these later.

So which grapes do you actually work with now?

Merwah, Marini, Daw Al Amar and Jouzani, varieties that showcase Lebanon. They have roots here, they survived the test of times, wars, history, culture shifts and generations. This is who we are. They express the area, they are all dry-farmed, no irrigation. Subtle aromas, late harvest, they are resistant to powdery mildew and unapologetic. They aren’t Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc but I’m content with them and the styles I can create with them. They give me a nice challenge and enjoyment. Farming vines that are this old – 70 years and older – has to be very light-handed, the only thing we do is pruning. We rarely till the soil, their roots are so fragile that it would be like doing a hip replacement on a 90-year-old person. The snow does its job by keeping the grass compact and low.

How big is the natural wine scene in Lebanon? You are the one who stands out but I imagine there are other serious farmers out there.

Natural wine was already big historically – it's pretty much the only kind of wine that was made before globalisation. The Phoenicians only had presses and tanks that were dug out in stone, nothing else. In my village, we have two old wineries like that, but they were abandoned in the last 50 years, along with the wine revolution and foreign influence.

With the advert of natural wine globally, all the well-travelled Lebanese and tourists alike are seeking wines which are honest and speak for Lebanon, so we are seeing a renaissance of sorts. I mean if you’re in Lebanon, or anywhere else for that matter, and you want to have Lebanese wine, you want to drink a wine that represents Lebanon as much as possible. You don’t want to have a Burgundy from Beirut, it is not what people are looking for.

""We can’t be importing the barrels, the tanks, the vines, the modern knowledge of winemaking from Europe and just calling upon terroir to create the “Lebaneseness” of the wine if there is such a term." "

I am happy to swim against the current if I’m convinced it’s for the good of Lebanese wine in the long term. I’m not interested in short-term gains. We’ve already lost everything we had once – after the 2019 revolution, our currency devalued by 98%, so all our savings were gone and we started afresh in 2021. We’re growing organically, whatever money I now save I pour back into the winery. Recently, the war in Gaza has given us more challenges and less to hope for. This morning, Israel bombed Lebanon, less than a kilometre from the Bacchus temple, but hey life is going on.

It's true that you're making wine in one of the most challenging regions there is right now.

I don’t want to associate war with wine. I believe there will be peace eventually. Borders might change, but life will go on. I’m an optimist. To keep the focus and attention on what I do, I distract myself by working with farmers in the region. We try to bring abandoned vineyards back to life or plant new vines. One variety I’m very excited about is Jouzani – it makes a unique, low-alcohol aromatic white wine and we don’t have enough of it now, so that has been my recent project.

As I said earlier, I’ve opened my winery to allow aspiring colleagues to make small-batch wines, each with their unique focus, so we aren’t all making wines that taste alike. My wife Michelle and our friend Claudine make a women’s wine to recognise women in the field, which is not a common practice in Lebanon. They even named their wines “Heya Wines”, using the Arabic word for ‘She’. There is also Abdullah Richi, a Syrian refugee who dreams of making wine in Syria one day, he produces his own wines under the brand Dar Richi. So there are many small projects associated with us that are helping the natural wine scene in Lebanon to grow.

I see Mersel Wines as something that goes way beyond the mere term "wine producer". You break myths and rules. What's the main thing that you want to devote energy to these days?

I’m really trying to put the potential of every winemaker in Lebanon in the spotlight. I didn’t make a pet-nat because I feel sparkling wine is a Lebanese drink, it absolutely isn't typical here, but I wanted to show that we can use our local grapes and they can make something that's as good for celebration, as delicious as Chardonnay or Pinot Noir, without the need to come from Champagne.

To talk about more traditional styles that intrigue me, orange wine or light red was how wine was always made in the region before wine classification became a thing. Walk around here and you'll see red and white grapes planted together, with reds being the minority. Everything used to be fermented on skins, because our ancestors discovered that the wines are better when the skins and pulp break down during fermentation and that the pressing is easier, or that the tannins act as a natural preservative before sulphur became mainstream. They didn’t necessarily want to age wine so much back then, I think, they just wanted to get through winter, and have enough to drink in spring. In summer they switched to Arak – we have an abundance of cold springs providing water to mix with the arak and keep it chilled.

In the mountains, they make a lot of sweet wines through must boiling, that's still a thing. I’m working on a wine like that at the moment, by combining dried grapes and boiled must. Life is too sour in Lebanon not to make a sweet wine!

Outside of wine and distillation, which I’m enjoying more and more, I like freediving and the ocean. I spearfish on weekends, it's my yoga and it helps me stay off alcohol and keep fit.

I would also like to ask you about trees, a topic very close to my heart. Lebanon is known for its cedars and junipers which are now being intensely planted, right?

The cedar tree is the symbol of Lebanon, it’s even the centre point of our flag. All slopes above 600 m ASL on both sides of the Makmal Mountain used to be heavily planted with cedar and juniper trees and the Phoenicians would use the wood to build ships so they could cross the Mediterranean. But when the Ottomans left the region they chopped a lot of trees and took a lot of wood with them to Turkey, then during the civil war people used the wood to combat shortages of fuel for heating so more trees disappeared. And when the war ended, people would often cut down more trees to get timber while rebuilding their houses and roofs.

Recently though, with more awareness about the scarcity of these trees and their slow ageing, along with the higher disease impact as the planet warms up, a lot of NGOs have gotten involved, trying to protect and stop deforestation. They have raised funds to replant cedars and junipers in the Wadi Qannoubine area. Thousands of trees have been planted, and there is also an ongoing program to adopt a tree. The project has been extremely successful, it has helped to reduce soil erosion.

What kind of wines do you enjoy?

To fight the routine, I try pretty much anything that's indigenous and represents a region, and I champion every winemaker who is elevating their grapes and pushing their peers to do the same. How boring is it to be drinking the same varieties, just grown in different parts of the globe? That said, some grapes like Shiraz in Australia and Malbec in Argentina have taken their own twist and adapted to life in those regions and have become their own thing, and I enjoy these as well. What I don’t drink is wine that's oaked to death, or high in alcohol. I like light reds and just any white that sings, I love acidity, I feel it matches our food.

Do you think wine is art?

Wine is a craft. It’s like cooking: the personality, experience, emotion, history and background of the winemaker is always present in the final product. The terroir is nothing but an evolving local condition in the vineyard and the winery. It's more variable than it's constant.

And what is the future of wine?

I feel it’s going towards lower alcohol, local varieties that match the cuisine of the area, so it can become a transformational experience both locally and when these wines sail further from their country of origin. The worst that could happen is replication, protectionism and coaxing drinkers to stick with only the tastes or regions they already know...

Regions and areas that are struggling shouldn’t be growing grapes anymore, and alternative crops must be found. I hear that in some parts of France or Australia people are ripping out vines and moving to other types of crops, I commend that. We should stop discovering or working on new clones and new crossings, that's not innovative in my opinion. We should deal with global warming by listening to the Earth, not trying to work around it.

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