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Syrian wine’s star rises despite ongoing conflict

BEIRUT: Even before Syria became synonymous with war zone, it was unlikely that the typical wine connoisseur gave much consideration to production inside the borders of Lebanon’s neighbor.

Yet, with a persistence perhaps born of their Levantine character, the Saade family has, in spite of the conflict, and perhaps a little because of it, just begun to earn an embryonic Syrian wine industry an international reputation. Domaine de Bargylus is the first commercial Syrian wine produced to international standards.

Located in Latakia, the 12-hectare vineyard lies on the slopes of Mount Bargylus, where the winemaking Phoenicians and Romans embraced the temperate climate and fertile maritime lands to their advantage.

However, the ancient tradition died out, leaving contemporary Syria with just a handful of monasteries that produced wine. Meanwhile, in neighboring Lebanon the wine industry bloomed in the aftermath of the 1975-1990 Civil War.

Almost a decade ago, brothers Sandro and Karim Saade decided to change this by returning to the site of ancient Syrian wine production and starting anew. Their aim: to produce a high quality Syrian wine for the international market.

The Saade brothers trained a local Syrian team, brought the well-known French wine consultant Stephane Derenoncount on board, and set about their task.

Bargylus’ first vintage was in 2006. Now the vineyard grows five varietals of grape – three red and two white – and has an average production of 55,000 bottles per year, all of it for export to either Lebanon or the international market.

And while the intensifying conflict between the Free Syrian Army and President Bashar Assad’s forces has changed how the Saades approach production at Bargylus, it has not altered output nor their push to place the product internationally.

Indeed, in the past year the vineyard has been featured in the New York Times, The International Herald Tribune and on the wine website Decanter.com. One ponders if the conflict has helped make a good wine even more interesting.

It has certainly made the production process more so, with the team, committed to continuing its output, having to quickly learn to adapt to the changing situation in the country.

“For us wines have never been a remote business,” says Johnny Modawar, head of communications for the winery. “The family has decided from the beginning to be involved.”

Yet currently the only practical way to continue production at Bargylus is from a remote location.

The Saades, who also own Chateau Marsyas in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley, initially traveled to Syria regularly to supervise production.

“We used to go there once every month to be able to see the team ... The owners used to go there and supervise because they are very sensitive and they follow up on a personal basis [with] the vineyard,” Modawar continues. Likewise, he adds, Derenoncount used to visit twice or three times a year.

As of one year ago, however, all visits to the vineyard have ceased due to security concerns. Now paramount to the whole production process is coordination and communication with the onsite team – a group of 15 Syrians, Modawar says, who are currently proving the immense value of the investment the Saade family made in their winemaking education and training.

As Bargylus is currently in the midst of harvesting season, coordination is an even more sensitive issue. Every 15 days the team at Bargylus sends grape samples to Beirut in refrigerated boxes, Modawar explains. Fortunately, the Latakia region is relatively unaffected by fighting at present, and the grapes can easily be transported across the border in regular Syrian taxis, he adds.

“We taste the grapes here and we decide when would be the best time to harvest,” he continues.

The Syrian team also sends photos of the vines. “They are your eyes on the vineyards,” Modawar states simply.

Modawar is keen to highlight how distant and disengaged from epicenters of the conflict Bargylus is, but he also admits the need for contingency planning in light of the country’s uncertain future.

Fortunately, he points out, most of the inputs to the winemaking process do not have to be imported. All the heavy equipment is already in place at the vineyard and the grapes grow there. It only remains for the bottles and corks to be transported into Syria.

“For this we have planned, and we brought six months ago bottles and corks for the two upcoming vintages in case the conflict is still ongoing,” Modawar told The Daily Star.

The Saade family has also increased the quantity of Bargylus stored in Beirut, from where it is exported to the international market, for exactly the same reason, Modawar adds.

“Passion” is the word the head of communications chooses to explain the Saade family’s commitment to its winemaking enterprise in Syria. With business and real estate interests in addition to Bargylus, Modawar says that the latter is a long-term investment and not expected to turn a profit for some time.

And the investment the family has made in the vineyard’s terroir, which Derenoncourt describes as “fabulous,” and the training of its staff mean that backing away from the project now simply isn’t an option, he explains.

Indeed, Modawar highlights that to ensure they did not lose any of their personally trained team the Saade family raised salaries to compensate for the huge depreciation of the Syrian pound since the onset of the conflict.

“To be able to keep our laborers, the Saade family chose to compensate the depreciation of the Syrian pound and to pay them on the same level, because we invested a lot in our people, because in Syria you don’t have the same tradition of wine – you don’t have the wine culture.

“The thing is you have to educate and teach people how to make a good wine, how to harvest, how to maintain a good quality in every step of the process,” he says.

The risk otherwise is ending up with something that tastes like other Syrian wines, which Modawar bluntly describes as “like vinegar.”

Vinegar certainly has not been among the words used to describe Bargylus’ output so far.

At the Vinifest showcase of Lebanese wine last weekend there was an audible whisper making its way about Beirut’s hippodrome that the Syrian wine’s stand was worth a visit; both visitors and other winemakers were making the recommendation.

Elsewhere the wines have received laudable reviews. The New York Times’ Eric Pfanner commended the Bargylus red on possessing an “elegant floral component” and the whites as having “an attractive saline freshness.”

Modawar, for his part, is eager to emphasize the maritime influence on Bargylus’ flavor, which is absent from Lebanese wines produced from Bekaa Valley vines.

Finding its way onto elite restaurants’ wine lists, such as Gordon Ramsay in London, and increasingly appearing on the shelves of exclusive wine boutiques – Lavinia in Paris – Bargylus’ star seems to be undoubtedly on the rise. Simultaneously, however, the war in Syria seems to daily grow more intractable.

But on this topic Modawar takes what is perhaps the only stance he and the Saade family can when contemplating Bargylus’ future. “We believe that the conflict will be over soon,” he says.

 

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