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Wednesday, July 01, 2015

A Bacchanalia Despite Conflict

"Today, it must be the most difficult wine to produce in the world and probably the most dangerous."
"We don't know where they [stray mortars] came from, but probably from a village around three kilometres away controlled by Islamic State kind of people. The situation is not great, we have to admit, but we have no choice but to continue."
"We have been lucky. We are in an area that is relatively preserved -- most of the time.
"Wine ties you to the land. You cannot just pack up and leave."
"Muslim, Alawite and Christian families [local wine estate workers], a little bit of everybody. The people who work at Bargylus are open-minded and have no issues with that [discrimination]. Most people want to live like (they) did before the war."
"The difference here is that we do it [winemaking] in the middle of nowhere."
"[This year's grapes are doing well] We had some frost, but we're OK and the next two months will be crucial."
Sandro Saade, Syrian-Lebanese Chateau Bargylus Estate co-owner
Brothers Karim, and Sandro Saade, pictured at Chateau Marsyas in Lebanon
Brothers Karim, and Sandro Saade, pictured at Chateau Marsyas in Lebanon  Photo:

Crucial not in the sense that there are immediate fears that the war raging in Syria in so complex a manner as to absorb the regime's military against its Sunni-majority rebellious population asking for civil parity with the ruling minority Alawite Shiites -- where the battle rages as well with the addition of foreign jihadists, not the least of whom are associated with al-Qaeda, and the worst among them the expanding Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant jihadis expanding their year-old caliphate -- but hopes for rain to perfect and finish to perfection the crop of grapes awaiting transformation to wine.

The winery co-owner brothers Karim and Sandro Saade live in Beirut, leaving the day-to-day operation of their estate to trusted staff administration. Their staff remain in touch with the brothers and with the approach of harvest time the brothers are required to taste the grapes to evaluate their maturity. For that purpose the fruit is transported on ice in a taxi across the Syrian border to Beirut, a four-hour trip.

"But there have been many cases when the taxi couldn't get through and had to go back and fetch a new batch, either because the border was closed or due to a security issue either side", said brother Sandro. Bottles, their corks and distinguishing labels take months to be imported from France. Once vinified and boxed, 45 days are required to transport the finished product to Antwerp, Belgium through Egypt's Port Said. The winery produces 45,000 bottles yearly, matching elite Bordeaux or California estates with techniques considered "close to biodynamic".

Chateau Bargylus is on the wine menu of Heston Blumenthal's Dinner in London, L'Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Gordon Ramsay and Marcus Wareing
The brothers can wax poetic speaking of their wine; the reds mainly of syrah, with cabernet sauvignon and Merlot -- spicy "with a hint of black olives, a hint of black truffle in the mouth", Sandro recites rhapsodically. The pale whites are a mixture of Chardonnay and sauvignon blanc, crisp and citrus with "a lot of minerality and saltiness from the coastal wind". The price for those bottles average $49 for a red in Paris and $38 for a white.

The winery sees its product consumed mostly in Britain and Dubai, but Hong Kong and Japan are lining up as new markets. The Saades are a Christian family, a wine-growing history behind them. They planted grape vines in Latakia in 2003 before the government of Bashar al-Assad began mercilessly attacking its own population in Syria. A conflict that grew from non-violent street protests in 2011 to the brutal civil conflict that obtains to this day.

The Saade grandfather owned land in Syria for many decades. In a region traditionally and now increasingly hostile to the presence of Christians and other minorities. Where the winery is located are the coastal mountains which represent the heartland of Assad's Alawite community, the estate an hour's drive from the hometown of the Assad family. An explosion in nearby Latakia port last month is the closest that the estate has been to the conflict, a province that has been fairly well shielded from the war under protection of the Syrian military.

The risk of being kidnapped on the roads crossing the Syrian-Lebanese border has kept the brothers from travelling to their Syrian wine domain. The Domaine de Bargylus is comprised of 12 hectares of vineyards, northwest Syria. The area represents a heritage site of wine-growing dating back to the ancient Romans two millennia earlier. The estate produced its first vintage in 2006. The land is comprised of limestone, flint and clay terrain, and windy, not wholly amenable to being worked.

But the brothers take obvious and earned pride in their product appearing on the wine menu of London's finest restaurants, Michelin-starred establishments where a bottle of Bargylus is available to discriminating wine lovers. An availability that in and of itself given the situation prevailing where the grapes are grown and the wine is produced is nothing short of miraculous.

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