Domaine de Bargylus: From war zones to posh restaurants abroad
Beirut - It is a high-quality Levantine wine enjoyed by diners at the finest restaurants in Europe and other parts of the world. Domaine de Bargylus, Syria’s unique commercial wine, makes a perilous journey from the war-torn country, surmounting formidable challenges, before arriving at the tables of Michelin-starred eateries, including L’Atelier de Joël Robuchon, the Mandarin Oriental and Restaurant Gordon Ramsay in London.
What started as “an exciting and ambitious adventure” in 2003, has become a “symbol of perseverance and resilience” of the domain founders, the Saade family, after anti-regime protests, which broke out in Syria in March 2011, degenerated into an outright civil war claiming the lives of more than 250,000 people.
“It is an achievement by itself not only to produce wine but one of the highest quality in a war zone,” said Sandro Saade, who has been running the winery in the Syrian province of Latakia by “remote control” with his brother, Karim.
The Beirut-based Saades, a Christian Orthodox family, hail from Latakia in northern Syria, heartland of Syrian President Bashar Assad’s Alawite community. The 12-hectare winery is located at 900 metres on the slopes of the coastal mountain range of Jebel al-Ansariye, known as Mount Bargylus in ancient Roman times.
Sandro Saade explained that their father, Johnny, wanted to buy a vineyard in Bordeaux, France, but ironically, he opted for Syria because he did not want to produce wine from a distance.
However, Bargylus wine is produced “with the same criteria” as the best Bordeaux wineries and vineyards, which makes the “adventure” even more challenging.
Despite the raging war and occasional fighting near the winery, production continued uninterrupted since 2010, when the first Bargylus bottles from the 2006 vintage were released.
“Every year [after 2011] harvesting is a challenge,” Saade said. “It is always a time of stress because we are never sure that we will be able to do the picking on time and it is something that we have to do fast and with a lot of caution.”
Logistics remain the biggest nightmare for the producers of the world’s most perilous wine.
“It is a hell of a problem both ways — when bottles, corks and labels imported from France and Lebanon have to be dispatched into Syria and when the bottled wine is to be exported outside the country,” Saade said.
The annual production of an average of 45,000 bottles, mainly reds, is all destined for outside consumption. The risky journey from Syria sometimes involved waiting for up to two weeks at the Latakia port before the merchandise could be shipped or being stuck at the border with Lebanon, Bargylus’s main market with a consumption of 25%.
The rest has been exported to Europe and Dubai and more recently to Japan and Hong Kong.
“Because there are no regular shipping connections between Latakia and Beirut, we often need to send the merchandise to Port Said in Egypt, then back to Beirut, and from there to our warehouse in Belgium,” explained Saade. “It is a huge voyage that we do in winter, as the bottles can spend three to four weeks at sea before reaching Belgium.”
Running the winery from a distance is a hard task for the Saade brothers who have not set foot in Syria since the outbreak of the war. Fighting came very close to the winery two years ago, with mortar shells crashing into the vineyards, although there was little damage and no casualties.
“Latakia is relatively stable but it is not completely shielded from incursions. Every 12 months we have some sort of instability near us but nothing serious so far, thanks God,” the young entrepreneur said.
The brothers are in constant contact with their staff of more than 30 local workers, especially with the approach of harvest in September and October, when samples of grapes have to be dispatched hurriedly across the border to Lebanon for tasting by renowned French wine consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt.
The samples are placed in ice buckets and sent by taxi to Beirut, a trip that takes four hours if no hurdles are encountered on the way. “The grapes are tasted four or five times before we decide that they are ripe for harvesting. Also samples of the wines are checked throughout production and tested in labs in France and Lebanon,” Saade pointed out.
Socio-cultural challenges create additional difficulties facing the tenacious wine producers. In a country with one-third of its population displaced by conflict, maintaining a stable workforce is not simple. Changing salaries into US dollars, after the Syrian pound had plummeted, was one way of securing staff stability.
Creating a wine culture in Syria was an uphill battle. “We had to build up everything from scratch,” Saade said. “It included installing the agricultural philosophy behind wine making and educating the people about keeping the land clean and the vine in a healthy environment.”
Bargylus has not won any awards, though it was cited in The World Atlas of Wine as “the finest wine produced in the Eastern Mediterranean”.
“Our award is in the recognition we’re having internationally, not only as being able to produce wine in a period of war, but to produce a high-quality wine,” Saade concluded.