Domaine de Bargylus
A fascinating story about wine and war. These guys are producing the world's most dangerous wine.
Domaine de Bargylus operates within the heart of war-torn Syria, on the steep mountain slopes of the coastal mountain range known as Mount Bargylus. These mountains produced notable wines up until the rise of Isalm, and today, it's the home of Syria's sole surviving commercial winery.
Syrian-Lebanese brothers Karim and Sandro Saadé set up Domaine de Bargylus in 2003 and produced their first vintage in 2006. Although the brothers, along with their father Johnny, initially aspired to set up a winery and vineyard in France, they couldn't ignore their family's connection with their home countries. The Saadé family are originally Orthodox Christians from Latakia, a northwest Syrian port city, but they are now Syrian-Lebanese and live in Beirut. The family also owns another winery in Lebanon's Beqaa valley, Château Marsyas, set up by the brothers' father Johnny Saadé. While Lebanon has a small but well-respected wine culture, Syria's was non-existent. Ancient Romans grew vines in the area thousands of years ago, but that was the last existence of a proper vineyard in the country. This meant that everyone involved in setting up the winery was starting from scratch without any previous experience in winemaking – from Karim and Sandro themselves, to all the Syrian workers they hired. Despite these challenges, the first vines were planted in 2003, they produced their first vintage in 2006, and continued producing wines for the next few years (with every vintage tasting better than the last) until 2011.
Everything changed for the brothers when Syria's tragic civil war began ten years ago. Since then, various rebel groups, government forces and ISIS have turned large parts of the country into a warzone. Although the vineyard was spared from the worst aspects of war, they experienced a few near misses: a few wild mortar shells found their way onto the estate and surrounding villages a few years ago, causing serious damage to the winery. Certain parts of the estate needed to be rebuilt and some vines replanted, but luckily there were no human casualties. Since it was too dangerous for the brothers to travel to and from Syria, they have been managing the business remotely from Beirut and haven't set foot in their winery for the past ten years. Whilst others may have thrown in the proverbial towel, the Saadé brothers have remained steadfast and insistent on keeping the winery running, for both their aspirations and the people who depend on the winery for their livelihoods.
One of their biggest challenges is determining the harvest date each year. As the grapes get close to optimum ripeness, their Syrian team (when they weren't running for their lives) would pick a few grape samples every two or three days, pack them into refrigerated nylon bags surrounded by ice (pictured above), and send them on a four-hour 125-mile taxi ride across the border (if it's not closed) to the Saadé brothers in Lebanon. The brothers then sent instructions of when to pick each variety and stayed in touch with their Syrian team through phone or email during vinification and bottling. Despite these logistical nightmares, their wine continues to be one of the best in the eastern Mediterranean.
Today, the twelve-acre biodynamic Domaine de Bargylus produces one red and one white every year, with the assistance of renowned consultant Stéphane Derenoncourt. Their vineyard sits approximately 900 metres above sea level and comprises of limestone, flint and clay soils. The high altitude, coastal proximity and climate mean snowy winters, warm summers, and a great difference between day and night temperatures, which gives the grapes a unique flavour and freshness unique to the terroir of northwest Syria. Their philosophy is to focus on consistency, which is a challenge since they don't use any chemicals or pesticides and have to monitor things remotely from across the border. But Karim and Sandro have defied all the odds to produce a wine that's unlike anything else in the world. Domaine de Bargylus can now be found in top restaurants around the world and has acquired international renown.