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Syria

Being on the news frequently, Syria has been ravaged by war and civil unrest. That, however, isn’t the only tale that this mid-sized country in the Western Middle East has to tell. Beyond the military conflict and religious clashes stands a mountain untouched by the turmoil: a serene valley where vintners and grown varietals thrive – Mount Bargylus. From there, Syrian winemaking was born, as the nation would eventually become a burgeoning force in the global wine trade. The road to establishing a wine lifestyle in Syria is rather arduous, more so spreading the fruits of Syrian viticulture to surrounding nations. However, through the efforts of several individuals and their love for wine and entrepreneurship, an industry was created out of nothing. It was no easy feat, but as the old adage goes, you can’t hold a good thing down forever. Underneath the Rubble Syrian lands with traces of viticultureBack then, before Syrian lands were consumed by warring parties, there were documented traces of viticulture within the country. Ancient houses were once emblazoned with a variety of grapevines, made evident in various forms of Syrian art. The militia occupation may have destroyed a lot of historical sites, but there are still remote places where parts of its history remain preserved. This could only mean that the re-establishment of a wine culture was very much possible. After all, the land has a rather conducive terroir. There are places in the country that are cold and well above sea level, presenting plots from which viticulture can flourish. As-Suwayda, a town in South Syria, is situated in the heart of an ancient wine-producing region known to the Greeks as Dionysias, named after Dionysus, the god of wine. Reportedly, it is home to an annual Vine Festival, said to be celebrated every September, even to this day. Churches and monasteries also operated small-scale wineries, but production didn’t really lead to the proliferation of winemaking – this even declined with the onset of war. Winemaking and vine husbandry in Syria looked bleak, until an entrepreneurial family decided to take a chance. History, an ideal terrain and an unbreakable drive to succeed backed them up. The Revival of Saadés Coming from a long line of merchants, Christian brothers Sandro and Karim Saade sought out the legend of Mount Bargylus, the supposed home of an ancient vineyard, to fulfil their father’s dream of having a winery. The Bargylus Mountain had a lot of tales with it, speaking of lush lands where vineyards were once situated, before it fell into decline during the 16th century Ottoman rule. A French vigneron named Stephane Derenoncourt was more than thrilled about the Saades’ plan, so much so that he immediately pledged support when the siblings made mention of it. In 2003, the Saades planted their first grape vines on the tree-lined hills of Bargylus, approximately 3,000 feet above normal ground. Their vineyard thrived thanks to the cool temperatures, low levels of humidity and the healthy topography. The Saades and their associates were in high spirits, relishing a “Longueur en Bouch”— the long finish of good wine in French. This tiny operation coming from a few people would set the stage for one of Syria’s most significant wineries to date – the Domaine De Bargylus. It wasn’t an easy journey, though, as they had to find electricity, erect the ideal irrigation system and contend with the war’s effect on the economy. The Saades took on the challenge, nonetheless. War vs. Wine Grapes in barrelsEver since war erupted in 2011, violence made it impossible for the Saade brothers, who are based in Beirut, to cross to Syria and visit the Bargylus. This, however, did not stop them from continuing their operations. The brothers managed the winery via phone and email, sending out instructions to their staff who worked at the site. To forecast harvest time, they had to send grapes in ice boxes through 6-hour taxi rides going to Lebanon, just so they can taste them and check the quality. Sometimes the grapes were unable to get through the militia-blocked borders, but they had to work with what they had. Things were still manageable for the Saades, until an alcohol ban was enacted throughout Syria. Anyone caught holding, selling, and consuming wine suffered lashes or imprisonment. Just ten days before harvest in August 2014, Islamist factions attacked a village near the winery, causing explosions by the vineyards. Workers fled for their lives, until the Syrian army pushed back the militants, restoring security to the area. After the turmoil that ensued, the harvest surprisingly yielded stunning wines with fresh aromas and ample levels of astringency. This inspired Derenoncourt, who was impressed, to call the last three vintages, “Vins du Guerre (the Wines of War).” Karim Saade explains that they’ve gone through so many hardships, as a family and as a people, to consider quitting. Karim furthers, “it's not the first time, it won't be the last (disaster we have to endure). You need to stay to persevere. Through resiliency, you need to get to the best.” Domaine de Bargylus Around the first week of October 2014, eight wine experts met at a two-Michelin-Star restaurant in West London to sample the latest vintage wine from Domain de Bargylus. One of them, award-winning wine writer Michael Karam, attests to the apparent splendour of the Saades’ wines. He was mesmerized with both the Bargylus’ collection of reds and whites. "The world should not only sit up and take note, but applaud the determination and ingenuity of the Saadé family to produce us these wines”. Domaine de Bargylus, to date, puts Syria’s vineyards on the map and have produced some of the region’s best cepages – such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot – for the red wines, and Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay for the white wines. The wines are produced in accordance to international standards and continue to captivate wine aficionados. More than that, those beverages defied the circumstances of war just to reach wine cellars and wine storage facilities all over the world. It shouldn’t be long before other vineyards appear all over Syria and follow suit.

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