Making wine is often a battle against the odds. But some have it harder than others. Syria’s only commercial winery, Domaine de Bargylus, has managed to produce and export wine right the way through the conflict. What’s more, their wines are excellent – you can find them on the list at Chez Bruce, Annabel’s, Alyn Williams at the Westbury in London, La Villa Lorraine in Belgium and Divellec in Paris.
The Bargylus domaine is located in northwestern Syria, on a limestone mountain range looking out towards the port of Latakia. The vineyards were planted in 2003 by Karim and Sandro Saadé, a pair of fortysomething Lebanese/Syrian brothers with a taste for the good things in life, and an aim to revive this region’s ancient winemaking traditions.
Following the outbreak of war in 2011, the brothers were forced to flee their homeland, and today run Bargylus at arm’s length, from Lebanon, where they also have a second winery called Marsyas. It’s at Marsyas, just a few miles from the Syrian border, where I meet them.
Why, I ask Karim, are the two-dozen families who remain in Syria, running the domaine, prepared to take such risks in the name of wine? “When the war began, people in the local villages needed money,” he says. “We could offer them regular jobs, and we pay in dollars. But it is more than that. They have all been there since the beginning, we have learnt together. It is their life, something they cherish – for them, I think, it has become a symbol of resistance.”
Bargylus has endured “three or four” non-fatal shellings over the years. But Karim is keen to play down the risks: “Latakia is not a war zone,” he insists. The greatest challenge is logistical, he says. “Getting hold of corks, bottles, barrels are a challenge. Every year we have to export via a different route – by land, by sea – depending on the situation prevailing at the time.”
The brothers keep tabs on the winery by email and mobile phone. But there are some decisions that can’t be made using Facetime. As harvest approaches, grapes from each plot are picked, packed into cool bags and then sent on a four-hour taxi ride to Lebanon, for the brothers to taste and either give the order to pick, or hold off for a little longer. This process continues until the harvest is completed. “Often the taxi gets held up at the border,” he says, “in which case, the grapes are no good and you have to do it all over again.”
Early on, the pair engaged the services of “flying winemaker” Stéphane Derenoncourt, an illustrious Bordelais consultant with a client list that includes Francis Ford Coppola. And over time, this investment has paid off in wines of real pedigree.
Bargylus makes two wines, both Francophile in style. The white – an unoaked blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay – marries succulent, citrusy freshness with heady power. The red – a Syrah-based blend that tips its hat to the Rhône – is inky and concentrated, with velvety sloe fruit and more savoury notes of parched herbs and black olive. They are confident, weighty, quite grand – they certainly don’t demand a sympathy vote.
Bargylus hasn’t merely managed to survive, but flourish. This year they will plant a further 10 hectares of vines, effectively doubling the size of the estate. The fruit that these vines produce will ultimately be destined for a more affordable “second wine” – a white and red – that will launch in several years’ time. “We continue to face huge obstacles,” acknowledges Karim. “But we’ve already invested so much of ourselves in this project. Not continuing is not an option.”
Alice Lascelles is Fortnum & Mason Drinks Writer of the Year 2019. @alicelascelles