By Rose Murray Brown MW Published in The Scotsman 10 March 2018
Karim and Sandro Saade have not been able to visit their vineyard for seven years, but they still continue to make the wine each vintage by phone.
The Saade’s vineyard is in north west Syria at Jebel Al-Ansariyeh near the port and airbase of Latakia, not far from the Turkish border, on the slopes of the coastal mountain range. It is currently Syria’s only surviving commercial winery.
Since war broke out in March 2011, the Saade brothers have been unable to take the road north through Tripoli, from their base in Beirut, into Syria to inspect vines or make the wine as it is too dangerous. They communicate with their Syrian winemaking team remotely.
“What started as a venture has turned into a challenge. An act of perserverance”, say the Saades [pictured right].
As Latakia is part of President Bashar al-Assad’s stronghold, it is more peaceful than Aleppo or Damascus. However, as it is Syria’s major port, there was bitter fighting between different factions in 2013. They had mortar shelling on the estate with two bombs landing on Domaine de Bargylus’ Chardonnay vineyard. It was just ten days prior to harvest, so the Saades were not sure if it was going to be safe to send workers out to pick grapes.
In fact, determining the harvest date each year is their biggest challenge. As they get close to grape ripeness, every two to three days the Syrians pick samples, pack them into refrigerated nylon bags surrounded by ice [pictured below] and send them on a four hour 125 mile taxi ride to the Saade brothers across the border (if it is not closed) to Lebanon.
“As we get close to the picking date, the back and forth of the taxi with grape samples intensifies until the perfect date is determined”.
They then send instructions to their Syrian team when to pick each variety and keep in contact by phone and email during vinification and bottling. That way the wine is grown, vinified and bottled in Syria and they continue to employ 35 Syrian families, working in the vineyard and winery. It has become a symbol of pride for the Syrians to continue.
The Saade family are originally Syrian, Orthodox Christians from the old Roman city of Antioch near Latakia, where their ancestors were famous C18 and C19 merchant traders. Karim and Sandro’s father, tourism and real estate magnate Johnny Saade, had moved to Lebanon when land and businesses in Syria were requisitioned and redistributed to smaller landowners in the 1950’s and 1960’s. In Beirut, he set up a winery Ch Marsyas - but he always dreamed of owning a vineyard in Syria.
Johnny Saade knew about the potential of the area around Mount Bargylus as it had produced notable wines pre-Islam. Carbon dating suggests Syria was home to the very first vinifera plantings. From C4 BC the Phoenicians and Romans grew vines on the cool coastal limestone clay slopes, but viticulture had stagnated after Islam.
Saade began buying up tiny plots from smallholders in 1998, consolidating to 20 hectares in 2003 to start planting his first vines. He had started from scratch, making his first wine in Syria in 2006, assisted by renowned Bordeaux consultant Stephane Deroncourt of Vignerons Consultants.
Five years later the bitter civil war began in Syria, but the Saades determined to continue. Deroncourt still visits Lebanon and assists the Syrian team remotely. He describes the Syrian vineyard as ‘interesting terroir’.
The first Bargylus red in 2006 was made from equal portions of Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, but they found Syrah was more successful in the blend increasing it to 60%, aged for 14 months in French oak. They also make 55% Chardonnay and 45% Sauvignon Blanc white blend.
Even before the war the Saades had logistical problems; they had to treat their own water and produce their own electricity. Since 2011, they have to horde stockpiles of bottles, corks and labels at the Syrian winery in case of embargo. Another problem is getting the wines out of Syria to customers abroad; the wines spend 45 days at sea, going via Egypt and Lebanon to their warehouse in Antwerp.
Despite this they sell to numerous customers in Paris, Dubai and Singapore - and are listed in top restaurants like Odajima in Tokyo and Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner in London.
Considering the difficulties the Saades face, the quality of this wine – dubbed the most dangerous in the world - is very impressive. They say they are trying to avoid the ‘ethnic’ label selling on the novelty angle. They are not trying to make Syrian wine, they are trying to make the best they can with Domaine de Bargylus.
DOMAINE DE BARGYLUS, GRAND VIN DE SYRIE 2010
Grapes: 60% Syrah, 20% Cabernet Sauvignon & 20% Merlot
Price: £37 bt mail order from www.highburyvintners.co.uk (24 hr delivery)
At our recent ‘Wine & War’ tasting, this Syrian red was voted one of the best. Admittedly from a pre-war vintage, the extremely hot 2010 - hence the high alcohol – still shows the vineyard’s potential. The wine is well-balanced with luscious black fruit, peppery notes, sweet cinnamon undertones, good structure and length with potential for ageing; decanting advisable. It tastes like a cross between a warm vintage Bordeaux and a ripe northern Rhone: 15%
Join Rose’s Burgundy v New Zealand wine tasting at The Scores Hotel, St Andrews, Fife on Friday 16 March £36 www.rosemurraybrown.com