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Jefford on Monday, Let It Be, Dudes!

When, back in March, the first Syrian wine arrived in the UK, the reaction of Decanter website readers was mixed.

My old friend Mike Paul worried “that the proceeds will end up in the coffers of the Assad regime”, and felt the timing was “inopportune”. “Let’s boycott!” declared Michel Smith. The contrary view was most memorably expressed by Rima. “I mean it’s just a wine, so enjoy it and let it be, dudes! I’m Syrian and so damn proud of this wine.”

I’m with Rima on this one. Let me explain why.

Beginning with the long view. Vines have been grown and wines made here for five thousand years or more. According to Hugh Johnson’s ‘The Story of Wine’, Karkemish (today’s Djérâbloûs, in northern Syria) was the source of one of the ancient world’s most renowned wines. The ancient city of Ugarit (near today’s Latakiyah, formerly Laodicea) spent centuries in the Egyptian sphere of influence; much of the Pharaohs’ wine would have been shipped from its quays.

The wines of Canaan have been revived by Israeli and Lebanese winegrowers, and those of Anatolia and the Hittite Kingdom by Turkish winegrowers, so why not those of the marchlands between the two? The revivers, moreover, are a Beirut-based Greek Orthodox family called Saadé with multiple business interests around the Mediterranean – but with historical links to Latakiyah.

It’s an interesting terroir. The best wines in this part of the world tend to be grown at altitude: the Bekaa Valley in the Lebanon averages 1000 m; vineyards on the Golan Heights are a little higher. What was anciently called Mount Bargylus (Jebel el Ansārīye today) is the northerly continuation of Mount Lebanon, bordered on one side by the Mediterranean and on the other by the Orontes valley (part of the Dead Sea Transform fault system), and the 12 ha of vineyard which produce the Bargylus wines, according to Karim Saadé, lie at 900 m, on the Mediterranean side of the mountain.

The limestone soils are unirrigated, planted at high density, and entirely tended by (Syrian) hands. It’s a cooler site than the Bekaa; even the Sauvignon Blanc ripens in September, and the Cabernet is still inching towards full ripeness in October. There is no acidification or chaptalisation, and there is no messing about with alcohol levels, either: “We do them the natural way,” says Karim’s brother Sandro Saadé. “We want to express the terroir.” They are vinified on site.

These are good wines, if over-ambitiously priced (at £33 or so). The Saadé family, interestingly, also produces a red and white from the Bekaa (called Château Marsyas), made from the same blends in the same way, but I would rate the Syrian wines more highly, thanks in large part to their natural freshness. The intuitive, vineyard-sensitive Stéphane Derenoncourt personally consults to both operations. The white 2008 Bargylus (60/40 Chardonnay/Sauvignon) is classy, drinkable, unshowy and unprimary with almost no assertive ‘fruit’ but plenty of gastronomic width, glycerol and sinew; the red 2007 Bargylus (40/35/25 Syrah, Cabernet and Merlot) is ripe yet shapely and poised, too, with incense-like notes, soft yet tenacious tannins and a refreshingly bitter, almost Italianate finish. Not ancient world, but unquestionably old world.

The vines were planted in 2003, and Derenoncourt first visited to Bargylus in 2005. Since then, of course, we have had the Arab spring and the Syrian Uprising. The 2011 vintage was difficult, in that neither the Saadés nor Derenoncourt could get up to the vineyards from Beirut. Instead, cars brought chilled packs of grapes south every day, with no little difficulty, so that Derenoncourt could taste them in Beirut, prior to making the picking decision. “The least that I can say is that we are stressed by the situation,” sighs Sandro. “We’ve ordered two vintages’ worth of bottles. That’s the kind of planning we have to do now. The main thing we are working on is keeping our Syrian team committed and united, by trying to solve problems for them. For example, the Syrian pound has lost 60-70 per cent of its value in last 6 months. We have compensated our workers to help them. Unity is what matters.”

It’s hard to imagine now, but between 1958 and 1961, Egypt and Syria were one nation, fused into the ‘United Arab Republic’ (this constituted Egyptian President Nasser’s first step towards a pan-Arab state). The Saadés had all their Syrian lands and interests confiscated in Nasser’s comprehensive 1961 nationalisations; Bargylus, thus, represents a link with their own past, as well as with the region’s ancient winemaking traditions.

Will sales of wines from this little 12-ha Lebanese-owned vineyard benefit Bashar al-Assad’s brutal regime and help keep it in power? Should we boycott Bargylus? Indeed, given that al-Assad may only still be in power thanks to his powerful international backers, should we boycott Russian and Chinese wines, too? “These kind of questions are legitimate,” says Sandro Saadé. “But we are not a political family, and Bargylus has nothing to do with politics. Every time you buy a bottle, you bring support to 12 Syrian families. That’s all. After you try a bottle, I hope that the terroir will convince you to buy a case.”

Written by Andrew Jefford

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