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Arts + Culture: War in Syria’s Wine Country

Another winter has passed at Domaine de Bargylus, and once-twisted, gray-barked vines are today burgeoning with green buds. Spring is a precarious season, when a late frost can decimate a vineyard’s chances of ever yielding a harvest. Like the majority of their countrymen, the owners of this young estate, Syrian brothers Karim and Sandro Saadé, weren’t born into wine. But if the mark of a good winegrower is the ability to adapt and take in stride the vicissitudes of life and nature, then the Saadés have already proven themselves beyond a doubt to be a pair of natural vignerons.

Written by Jeffrey T. Iverson Published on Read time Approx. 4 minutes

Domaine de Bargylus is the first commercial vineyard in Syria, where the Saadés have obstinately carried on creating strikingly exquisite wines despite two years of ongoing civil war. “We’re in the middle of nowhere, cut off from everything, and are undertaking a considerably challenging project under extremely difficult conditions,” says Sandro Saadé, speaking from Beirut. “But we are strongly attached to the land where we’ve planted these vines. Bargylus, after all, is also the land of our origins.”

That Bargylus is able to persevere today is a testament to their dedication. Much of the country abstains from alcohol for religious reasons. Even the majority of the brothers’ vineyard staff are practicing Muslims who won’t even drink what they produce. “When we launched Bargylus,” Sandro said, “it was the first time anyone had created a modern vineyard in Syria with strict standards and an aspiration for excellence. I think our employees could sense something different was being created here, and wanted to be part of that adventure.”

With Greek Orthodox Christian ancestors who hailed from the ancient Syrian port city of Laodicea (today Lattakia), the Lebanese–Syrian Saadé family has been part of the region’s mercantile history for centuries. For years they owned businesses and property in Syria, but lost everything during a wave of nationalizations in the early 1960s during the country’s political union with Egypt.

Which is why the ambitious project they began in 2004 – to revive a Syrian vineyard dating back to Greco–Roman times on the outskirts of Lattakia – was, Sandro said, “greatly symbolic … about returning to the land of our ancestors long after having been forced to leave.”

Today, as the bloody civil war begins to spill into Latakia, Karim and Sandro are drawing on all their savvy and business acumen to ensure they are not forced out of the country again. The bulk of their business activity takes place in Beirut, and in peaceful times, Domaine de Bargylus is only a few hours’ drive over the border.

But today, amid the Syrian civil war and recurring conflicts in northern Lebanon, Karim and Sandro have found themselves barred from accessing the site, and faced with the daunting logistical challenge of running the vineyard from a distance, as war rages around notoriously fragile vines.

Basic supplies may take weeks to arrive (a simple shipment of cardboard boxes was recently held up at the border for over a month). The vineyard has had to become largely autonomous, with its own power and water supply, and stocks of bottles for at least two vintages’ worth of wine.

During the crucial harvest period, when grape ripeness must be evaluated daily, Karim and Sandro have begun having refrigerated containers of grape samples sent by taxi to Beirut so they are able to choose the optimum moment for picking.

“In every way it’s a very difficult undertaking,” says Sandro. “And all of these logistical and administrative problems come on top of the real risk on the ground today in Syria.” The team of 15 permanent employees and 60 seasonal workers at Bargylus are stationed in Latakia, an Alawite stronghold, and have thus far been sheltered from the kind of violence experienced in Aleppo and elsewhere in the country.

And Karim and Sandro are doing their best to spare their workers some of the economic consequences of civil war. Over the last two years they have raised wages to compensate for the plummeting Syrian pound, which has lost more than 60 percent of its value against the US dollar since the start of the war.

The Saadés aim to raise the bar for the Syrian manufacturing sector. But “our greater desire is to bring back to life the culture of wine in the region,” Karim said. “This is what makes this project exciting – the idea of resurrecting a culture that disappeared in the seventh century with the Arab invasions.”

The two-hectare site chosen for Bargylus is at the heart of the region that gave birth to viticulture. Wine produced there left the ports of Ougarit and Laodicea to be exported to Egypt, Greece and Rome. So vast was once the production that most of the wine consumed in Alexandria was grown on Mount Bargylus—a history all but erased today but for a few ancient fermentation tanks dug out of the limestone rock on Jebel al-Ansariyé left by the Romans.

Such a rich history convinced the Saadés that Syria was capable of making great wine. Their first vintage debuted in 2006. “We wanted to make a vin de terroir—a wine that reflects the place it is grown,” said Karim. They predominantly produce Syrah (red) and Chardonnay (white). “Often we have people blind taste Bargylus,” Sandro said, a practice that stumps even the most hardened oenophiles. “Being a Mediterranean wine, often one expects it to be sun-baked. When they don’t find this character, people are a bit lost, they don’t know where they are on the planet.”

As they travel between the Middle East and Europe to introduce the wines of Bargylus (and its sister vineyard, Château Marsyas, in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley), the Saadés are putting forward a different face of a country now associated primarily with strife.

Response has been enthusiastic. By the end of 2013, both vineyards will have reached a global audience, imported for the first time in Malta, the UAE, Turkey, the Maldives, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland and Thailand. The Saadés are even hoping now that other investors may launch their own vineyards in the region, and that “one day there will be a true wine industry, and we’ll be able to have wine tours in Syria.”

One can only wonder what they’d be capable of in a time of peace. “Bargylus 2012 is probably our greatest vintage to date,” Sandro said. “We are moved to see that despite all these difficulties, we are still able to produce something rather exceptional.”

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