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Wines of War

Vineyard pests? How about ISIS militants? Winemakers in both Syria and Lebanon confront many challenges

Suzanne Mustacich
Posted: November 11, 2014

The harrowing taxi ride from Latakia on Syria’s northern coast ended in frustration. It was mid-September and the Aarida border crossing into northern Lebanon was closed, thanks to Syria's civil war. Cars and trucks jammed the roads in chaos. The small coolers on the cab's back seat held samples of Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet grapes kept fresh with ice packs. They would never reach the lab in Beirut. Something as simple as testing wine grapes for ripeness to determine when harvesters should pick had fallen victim to the unpredictability of a war zone.

“It was never going to be easy,” said Karim Saadé, general manager of the Johnny R. Saadé Family wineries. His family owns two wineries—Château Marsyas in Lebanon's Bekaa Valley and Domaine de Bargylus in Latakia, Syria. Centuries ago, wine was big business in this region, and a few pioneers have tried to resurrect it. The Saadés own the only modern commercial winery in Syria. Now the country's civil war, more than three years old, combined with fighting in Iraq, have made the business downright dangerous.

“It was always a hassle," said Saadé, "the logistics, transportation, delivering merchandise, shipping the wine out. Even before the war, we had to treat our own water and have generators to produce our own electricity. All of the samples for analysis are shipped to Beirut or Bordeaux.”

When Karim and his brother Sandro first embarked on fulfilling their father’s dream of owning a world-class vineyard, their region's local wine tradition, which dates back to the Canaanites and the seafaring Phoenicians, had long dried up. Their vineyard was created from scratch in 2003, after four years of searching for the ideal terroir and buying up small plots from local farmers to form a 30-acre block at nearly 3,000 feet of altitude.

The goal was always to produce premium wines that stood shoulder to shoulder with Bordeaux and the Rhône. Their consultant, famed Bordeaux vintner Stéphane Derenoncourt, still remembers the first time he saw the foothills of Mount Bargylus. “I found it majestic. And I thought, this is where we will make some serious wine,” Derenoncourt told Wine Spectator. “The wines have balance, maturity, freshness and aging potential, with a beautiful aromatic complexity that develops."

“Bargylus is opening the door to the past for all the people who will come later,” said Saadé. “I don’t want to be pretentious, but Bargylus is on the finest tables in London and Paris, and soon we hope to be in the U.S. I hope we can inspire others.”

But since war broke out in the region, the brothers figure the wines of Domaine de Bargylus in Syria must be the world’s most difficult to produce. They stock a two-vintage supply of corks and bottles in case there is an embargo. It can take months to get the necessary official signatures to receive oak barrels from France. Wine takes a circuitous route from Syria to Egypt to Beirut.

The threat of crossfire, bombings and kidnappings make it impossible for the Saadés or Derenoncourt to travel through northern Lebanon and Syria to reach the vineyard. The Saadés run their winery by phone and e-mail from their office in Beirut, while a well-trained, loyal team of employees works onsite.

Syrian wine could become a casualty of the swift, brutal rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS), which imposes a strict interpretation of shari’a law. Under the Islamist militants, alcohol is forbidden, its production, sale and consumption punishable by lashings and imprisonment.

Until now, Domaine de Bargylus' location in Syrian Pres. Bashar Assad’s stronghold of Latakia offered relative protection. But Latakia is a major port, crucial for supplying oil and natural gas to the international market. In August, fighting broke out as Islamist factions tried to wrestle the village near the winery from Assad’s forces. Ordnance exploded in the vineyards and workers fled for their lives. “Ten days before the white wine harvest, we didn’t even know if we were going to pick,” said Derenoncourt.

The Syrian Army pushed back the militants, restoring relative security to the area, and the winery team brought in the harvest. “I call the last three vintages vins du guerre [wines of war]—and they are very, very good,” said Derenoncourt.

Photo by John McGill for Domaine de Bargylus

Bargylus' owners have acquired 30 acres of stony soil at high altitudes not far from the city of Latakia.

The instability of the region could eventually threaten another wine region, the Bekaa Valley of Lebanon, an hour east of Beirut. Bekaa is a high-altitude plateau cradled between Lebanon’s interior mountain range and the mountains on its border with Syria. It is the heart of Lebanon’s burgeoning wine country—and a stronghold of Hezbollah. At the same time, the eastern mountains harbor both ISIS and al-Nusrah Front fighters.

A year after planting in Syria, the Saadés planted their first vines in Bekaa Valley. “Bekaa is in a constant state of instability,” said Saadé. “We always have to be cautious.”

At harvest time this year, a group of ISIS fighters came down from the mountains an hour to the north, and fighting broke out. Enologist Joe Said Touma told Wine Spectator he feared every day that the conflict would spread to his family's 123.5-acre Chateau St. Thomas.

Producers of Arak, an anise-flavored spirit distilled from grapes, since 1888, the Touma family has established export markets in the Middle East, America, Canada and Europe, shipping 400,000 bottles of wine and 2 million bottles of Arak. But the war has dissolved markets and thrown up road blocks.

“We can’t export to Syria and it’s very dangerous to export to Jordan by road. It’s risky. If ISIS stops the truck, the driver could be in danger … not to mention, the wine won’t get there,” said Nathalie Touma, director of exports. “To ship to Iraq—big whiskey and Arak drinkers—we ship by sea to Turkey and then by road to Iraq.”

They seem to take the hardships in stride. When their father Said Touma created the family winery in 1990, there were just a few wineries in the country. Now there are more than 40, and official support grows. “The minister of foreign affairs has asked ambassadors to serve Lebanese wines for their events and ceremonies,” said Nathalie.

While the vineyards in Bekaa, just an hour from Beirut, remain accessible, travel to Syria is unthinkable. Neither Derenoncourt nor the Saadés have seen Domaine de Bargylus since March 2011. “Hope keeps you moving forward,” said Karim. “I hope I can go there tomorrow.”

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