A fine-dining wine makes it to global tables despite bullets, bombs

BEIRUT: Producing a high quality boutique wine in the middle of a war zone is no easy task, but brothers Karim and Sandro Saade have soldiered on in spite of the difficulties.

Thanks to their perseverance, Syria's Domaine de Bargylus – along with Chateau Marsyas, the Lebanese wine of the Johnny R. Saade family – is now on sale in some of the world’s finest restaurants. “A month and a half ago, we had some bombings in Bargylus and the surrounding villages,” Karim Saade says. “The vineyards were hit by three or four bombs. Fortunately, no one was killed and the equipment was left intact. They dropped in the middle of the vines, so we had some damage there, but that’s manageable. The thing is that you cannot anticipate anything that might happen tomorrow or in a week’s time, so you have to take it day by day.”

The clink of glasses and the musical glug of wine created a soothing backdrop Monday evening as The Daily Star caught up with the vineyard owner at a blind tasting of Marsyas’ 2007 to 2011 vintages at Saifi Village’s Vintage Wine Cellar.

Three years into the war in Syria, the Saade brothers, along with their consultant, renowned Bordeaux wine expert Stephane Derenoncourt, have had to take an inventive, increasingly adaptable approach to production at Domaine de Bargylus, their 20-hectare vineyard situated close to Latakia. Skirmishes near the vineyards have left bullet holes in the buildings, and for more than two years, it has been too dangerous for the team to visit.

“We have to bring the grapes by taxi in order to taste them in Beirut,” Saade says. “That’s one of the difficulties. The other difficulty is that whenever we have to ship the wines to Europe, we cannot do it directly from Latakia to, let’s say, Antwerp in Belgium. We have to go through Egyptian [waters], so this is a loss of time and ... money.”

In spite of the considerable challenges, Syria’s only export-quality wine is flourishing on the international market. Along with the Chateau Marsyas red and white, the Bargylus wines are stocked by Michelin-starred restaurants in three countries, and Saade says that they are continuing to expand globally.

“At Chateau Marsyas, we’ve been planting the vines gradually, so bigger quantities are coming on the market on a gradual basis,” he says. “We have limited quantities at this time, so we’ve been targeting markets such as France, the U.K. and Dubai. We are [already present] in these three countries, and now with the increasing quantities, we are targeting markets in Europe, the U.S. and Asia, but we have to be quite careful because we are not just here to sell, we aim to sell in a way that suits our image.

“We’re already listed at Gordon Ramsey’s and ... 10 or 12 [Michelin-starred] restaurants in London. We’re trying to avoid being considered an ethnic wine. We’re a Lebanese winery, and at the same time, we want to attempt to target an international clientele.”

Monday’s tasting allowed local oenophiles, sommeliers and enthusiastic amateurs to test their expertise by sampling five unmarked Marsyas vintages and attempting to identify the year of each by comparing color, bouquet, taste and finish.

It’s important to hold regular vertical tastings – events at which the produce of consecutive harvests is compared – Saade said, in order to demonstrate the quality of the brand. Each vintage will have its own signature, but there should be an overall consistency to the wine produced, regardless of downpour or drought, bullets or bombs.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Daily Star on May 22, 2014, on page 2.




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