Domaine de Bargylus: Syria’s vineyard

by Tom Shingler23 March 2018

Setting up a winery in north-eastern Syria was tough enough, but when war broke out in 2011 brothers Karim and Sandro Saadé were faced with mortar fire, transporting their grapes via taxi across the border and all sorts of logistical nightmares. Their wine, however, continues to be one of the best in the eastern Mediterranean.

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

Tom Shingler is the former editor of Great British Chefs.

Tom Shingler was the editor at Great British Chefs until 2021, having first joined Great British Chefs in 2015.

Most people, if they wanted to own a vineyard, would travel to the great wine-producing nations – both old and new world – to learn about the ins and outs of the business. An established wine culture means there are plenty of existing wineries, a domestic market looking for something new and a wealth of knowledgeable people who can offer advice. So when brothers Karim and Sandro Saadé (along with their father Johnny) decided they wanted to create their own vineyard back in 1997, they initially looked to establish one in France. But they soon found the connection to their home countries proved too much to ignore.

‘It was our father who decided we should look to the Middle East and create two vineyards from scratch – one in Syria and one in Lebanon,’ says Karim. ‘We chose these countries as our family originally comes from Latakia, a northwest Syrian port city, but we are Syrian-Lebanese and live in Beirut.’

The Saadés had always been enthusiastic about wine and there was a winemaking history in their Orthodox Christian family, but this marked the brothers’ first foray into actually producing it. And while Lebanon had a small (but well-respected) wine culture, Syria’s was non-existent. The Ancient Romans had grown vines in the area thousands of years ago, but that was the last time a proper vineyard had been established in the country. ‘We soon realised that what you’d find in European nations like France or Italy or Spain was nothing like the Middle East, especially Syria. We had to train everyone working for us from scratch because no one knew anything about winemaking. In fact, when we registered our winery in Syria, the number we were given was 1!’

It wasn’t just the Syrians who needed to be trained – Karim and Sandro had to teach themselves on-the-fly as they began setting up their winery. ‘That’s why it was a bit of a double adventure for us,’ says Karim. ‘We didn’t have any previous experience, but we were also learning in a country with absolutely no wine culture.’

Despite all these initial challenges the first vines at Domaine de Bargylus were established just outside Latakia in 2003, six years after the initial idea. In 2006 the winery’s first vintage was produced – a red made from Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes. The Saadés enjoyed three exciting years of learning about winemaking, every vintage tasting better and better, until 2011 – when everything changed.

Brothers Karim and Sandro Saadé set up Domaine de Bargylus in 2003 and produced their first vintage in 2006
Today they produce one red and one white every year, despite the challenges running a winery in Syria pose

A war-torn winery

Syria’s tragic civil war has been raging on for the past seven years, and in that time has seen various rebel groups, government forces and ISIS turn large parts of the country into a no-go warzone. Karim and Sandro found it difficult to produce wine pre-2011, but running a winery in a war-torn country is something even the most experienced winemaker would never dream of doing. However, they were insistent that they wouldn’t give up on the vineyard and the people who depended on it for their livelihoods. But because it was too dangerous for them to travel to and from Syria, they had to start managing their business remotely from Beirut. They now haven’t set foot on their beloved winery for the past five years.

Obviously, this made an already logistically difficult situation even trickier to manage. While the brothers could visit the winery at harvest time to decide when the grapes were ready to pick in the past, they now have to hire a taxi to drive 125 miles across the Syria-Lebanon border to deliver them. And while the vineyard has luckily been spared from the worst aspects of war, there have been a few near misses. ‘A few years back there were a couple of wild mortar shells that found their way onto our estate and the villages around us,’ explains Karim. ‘They caused serious damage to the winery, and we had to rebuild certain parts of it and replant some vines. Thank God there were no casualties.’

Red wine
Red wine
Mortar shells have hit the vineyard in the past, causing damage to both buildings and the vines
Domaine de Bargylus can now be found in top restaurants all around the world

Despite being the firefights to the east, their initial lack of experience and being based in a country devoid of any wine culture whatsoever, the Saadés' Domaine de Bargylus has become internationally renowned. The fact that the vineyard has such an incredible story behind it no doubt helps, but the actual wine being produced is also world-class. It can now be found on the wine lists of many a Michelin-starred restaurant in the UK, and has a unique flavour thanks to the terroir of northwest Syria. ‘The soil is comprised of limestone, flint and clay, and our vineyard is around 900 metres above sea level,’ says Karim. ‘It snows every year in winter and there is a big temperature difference between night and day which helps to create a beautiful freshness in the grapes as they mature.’

The twelve-acre biodynamic Domaine de Bargylus now produces two wines every year – a white and a red – which have often been described as the best wines from the eastern Mediterranean. ‘When you taste our Domaine de Bargylus Red you immediately get black olives and truffles on the nose, as well as a spiciness from the Syrah grapes,’ says Karim. ‘There’s a sweetness but also a fresh mineral flavour which comes from the limestone and flint in the soil. The Domaine de Bargylus White has citrus notes with a buttery mouthfeel, with a good dose of freshness from the flint too.’

Karim and Sandro have defied all the odds to produce wine that’s unlike anything else in the world, but they’re not looking to grow or expand. Instead the focus is on consistency, which can be a challenge when they don’t use any chemicals or pesticides and have to monitor things from across the border. ‘It’s been hard at times, but we’re very happy that our wine is so appreciated and listed in such well-respected restaurants,’ says Karim. ‘We always wanted to let the local terroir express itself through the best grape varieties we can find and create something of quality in Syria; to let people stay there and work on something beautiful.’ And in the face of stray shells, perilous taxi rides across the border and all-out war to the east, the Saadés have definitely done that.

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