Making wine in a war zone: Syria's 'dream' vineyard

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a worker at the Bargylus vineyardImage source, John McGill / Bargylus

Domaine de Bargylus is Syria's only commercial winery, producing quality wine despite the country's bitter civil war. It is run by brothers Karim and Sandro Saade, whose father dreamt of owning a vineyard in Syria.

In August, every three days a taxi leaves Latakia in the north-west, carrying a precious cargo - a bunch of grapes. These grapes, carefully packed in ice, represent the Saades' hopes and dreams.

Since war broke out in 2011 it has been too dangerous for them to visit the vineyard in person, so the grapes have to travel more than 200km (125 miles) to their office in Beirut, Lebanon, to be tasted, prodded and judged ripe for picking.

This is just one of the many logistical challenges the Syrian-Lebanese siblings face.

The winery's bottles, corks, and labels all have to be imported from France - although the bottle manufacturers have just announced they can no longer send bottles to Syria.

Once the wine is ready, it is shipped to their warehouse in Belgium. "They need to go through [Egypt's] Port Said before they go back to Antwerp so it's a 45-day voyage," says Sandro.

Image source, Jean Francois Chaigneau / Chateau Marsyas
Image caption,
Karim and Sandro Saade at their vineyard in Lebanon, Chateau Marsyas

Ironically, their father, Johnny, had rejected the option of buying a vineyard in Bordeaux, France, because he did not want to produce wine from a distance.

He began looking for suitable plots in Lebanon, and that was when the option of Syria came up.

Returning to Syria had long been a dream. The Christian Orthodox Saade family were once industrialists and landowners there, but when, in 1958, Egypt and Syria briefly united to form the United Arab Republic, it led to a series of nationalisations.

"One day, my father went to one of the factories and he was not allowed in," says Sandro. "He was told: 'This is no longer your property, it's property of the state.'"

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That was when the family moved to Lebanon, where they are still based. They now have a vineyard there, too - Chateau de Marsyas in the Bekaa valley - but Bargylus came first. Their father, Johnny, is still very much involved, but has handed over the management of the vineyards to his sons.

Even before the war, it was an ambitious project. With the help of a world-renowned expert from Bordeaux, Stephane Derenoncourt, they found an area with interesting soil and climate in the coastal mountain range of Jebel Al-Ansariye - known as Mount Bargylus in ancient Roman times, when vineyards were still plentiful.

Image source, John McGill / Bargylus

There was no local knowledge and they had to build up the winery from scratch. "We needed to recreate the settings, the culture of wine in Syria," says Sandro - this included educating people about keeping the land scrupulously clean and free of rubbish.

They hired a team from the villages around the site. "The people that work at Bargylus are really committed," says Sandro. "We believe that it's like a mission for us to continue, not only because it's quite an adventure and it's becoming a challenge, but also because more than 35 families today depend on the project."

Image source, John McGill / Bargylus

The vines were planted in 2003 - chardonnay and sauvignon blanc grapes for the white wine, and cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and merlot for the red.

They produced their first bottle in 2006. "When the first drop of white wine came out of the tank it was an emotional moment," says Sandro. "We had a very powerful wine, very interesting taste… we were amazed."

Image source, John McGill / Bargylus

Then, in 2011, war broke out. Although the area around Latakia is still relatively peaceful, and under control of President Assad, Islamist rebels have been making their presence felt.

"Every 12 months we have small instabilities like a few bombs falling on the vineyard," says Sandro. "Thank God until now we haven't got any human casualties, but we had two bombs fall on the Chardonnay field. We don't know where it came from, but it definitely came from a village where there are some extremists."

The brothers are not sure if they were deliberately targeted. "We shouldn't imagine the worst," says Sandro.

Karim is more outspoken. "Unfortunately in our current world, the worst is always possible," he says. "So the first thing that would be targeted is the vineyard because this is wine, and wine is prohibited by such people."

Image source, John McGill / Bargylus

For now, Domaine de Bargylus is a success - they are managing to produce 45,000 bottles a year, sold around the world.

"It's creating a passion," says Sandro, who says the wine is popular with Syrians abroad - he puts this down not just to the taste, but also to the exceptional circumstances in which it is produced.

"I would say that Bargylus today is a symbol of producing quality in very difficult times," says Sandro. "Most Syrians that are today out of Syria recognise this and enjoy drinking our wines because at the same time it's becoming a symbol of pride."

"It's an act of resistance," says Karim. "At the same time it is a symbol of perseverance, and the fact that we are there, and we're going to stay there."

Image source, John McGill / Bargylus
Image caption,
The brothers are determined to carry on - 35 families depend on the vineyard

Sandro and Karim Saade appeared on Outlook on the BBC World Service. Listen again to the interview on iPlayer or get the Outlook podcast.