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Syrian vineyard still operating despite war

In the middle of Syria’s ongoing civil war a solitary vineyard is still producing wines to be served at the tables of Michelin-starred restaurants in London and Paris.

Sandro Saade and his brother Karim continue to produce wine in Syria against the odds.
Sandro Saade and his brother Karim continue to produce wine in Syria against the odds.

Anyone who’s worked a vintage in a winery will tell you it’s hard work.

Throw in a war with the accompanying artillery, guns and logistical chaos and you’re left with something truly hellish.

It’s in the midst of this type of chaos the brothers Sandro and Karim Saade have continued to operate their winery, Domaine de Bargylas, in Syria since war broke out in 2011, reported Reuters.

The two brothers, Christians with family roots in Syria and neighboring Lebanon, planted vines in the Mediterranean province of Latakia in 2003 and produced their first wines in 2006, 2 millennia after the Romans used the same slopes for their own wines.

The Syrian rebels, made up of hardline Islamists and other factions, are seeking to overthrow President Bashar al-Assad and started taking ground in Latakia last year.

Some of the rebel groups prohibit alcohol but, thus far, Bargylus has remained in government held territory.

Prior to the war the predominantly small-scale Syrian wineries tended to be located in churches and monasteries with the wines meant for local consumption by Syrian Christians.

Christians made up around 10% of Syria’s pre-war population of 22 million people but that figure has dropped sharply amid the violence and wine production along with it.

But Bargylus have had a few close calls including last August when the two warring sides clashed only 100 metres from the vineyards.

Speaking to Reuters from Beirut in Lebanon, Sandro Saade said that while several explosions hit the vines there was minimal damage and the fighting had since retreated.

“We’ve been lucky that the conflict is not very close,” said Saade.

The vineyards of Domaine de Bargylus.
The vineyards of Domaine de Bargylus.

“Compared to other regions of Syria we haven’t had the conflict permanently installed next to our properties,” he said.

Even so, the Saade brothers decided it was prudent to put a little distance between themselves and the war and have since relocated to the Lebanese capital, 200km (125 miles) away, where they manage their vineyards remotely.

The Syrian staff have stayed throughout the fighting and pick, ferment and bottle the wines on site.

In the months leading up to harvest samples of grapes are transported twice a month to Beirut where they are tasted by Stephane Derencourt, the French winemaker and consultant who has been working with the Saade brothers since day one.

The Chardonnay, Syrah, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon samples are transported by taxi on the six-hour trip across the border and into Beirut for tasting.

Stephane Derenoncourt has been forced to operate from across the border in Lebanon.
Stephane Derenoncourt has been forced to operate from across the border in Lebanon.

Derencourt said he no longer visits the winery in person: “It is a risk (to visit Syria) because of the war, I used to go five or six times a year.”

But, even as the conflict spreads, the winemaker is determined to keep the winery going.

“The quality of the soil is fantastic because we have two different soils and It’s very good for the production of wine,” Derenoncourt said.

With 45,000 bottles having to travel from Syria to Egypt then Lebanon before finally arriving at their warehouses in Antwerp, Sandro Saade said one of the biggest issues in operating a vineyard in a time of war is logistics.

“We’re trying to do whatever we can but getting a taxi from Syria to here is not always easy,” Sandro Saade said from Lebanon.

“A week ago, we wanted to taste the grapes for the first time this season and the taxi couldn’t go through the borders because the borders were closed,” he said.

Bottles that make it out are sold to fine-dining restaurants that include L’Atelier de Joel Robuchon, Gordon Ramsay’s Claridges and the Dorchester Hotel.

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