While tasting wine, it is imperative to take note of influences like terroir, climate and time, or ageing. Till last month, I had not considered an equally significant factor: history. Yet, it added a poignant flavour to my experience of two well-balanced Syrian wines at the Michelin-starred restaurant, Moonrise, in Dubai.
The first was a mildly mineral-y white blend comprising Cabernet Blanc and Chardonnay in equal parts; the second was a well-rounded red blend with Merlot, Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon. The former was produced in 2017, the latter in 2015, the year a Syrian toddler’s body was washed ashore as his family tried to flee their war-torn country. That memory, and the fact that I was tasting Syrian wines for the first time, made me pay close attention to the bottles by the country’s only commercial wine producer, Domaine de Bargylus, which exports to Dubai, Britain and Japan.
The white, named Bargylus Grand Vin De Syrie, has aromas of pear and tastes of grapefruit with hints of limestone. The red, which goes by the same name, has soft tannins and traces of spices and pairs well with red meat. A 2017 story in The Irish Times had called Bargylus “The Most Dangerous Wine in the World”. It’s hard to argue with that. These wines come from one of the most conflict-ridden countries. It’s a wonder that they have survived—through civil wars, economic crisis and devastating earthquakes—and are available in the gastronomic hot spot of Dubai.
Bargylus belongs to the Syrian-Lebanese family of Johnny R. Saadé and is run by his sons, Karim and Sandro. The vineyard, which spans about 12 hectares, is located in the Jebel el Ansariye region, formerly known as Mount Bargylus, near the port of Latakia by the Mediterranean Sea. Hundreds of years ago, it used to be the wine-making region of the world. A 2020 story about the Saadé brothers in the London-based publication the drinks business points out that it was “an area notable for its wines from Roman times up until the rise of Islam”. This is not the only winery the family, which operates from Beirut, Lebanon’s capital, runs. They own another winery, Château Marsyas, in that country.
Nikhil Agarwal , a Mumbai-based sommelier and founder of the luxury spirits consultancy All Things Nice, says people are often surprised by the fine wines from the Levantine region, which includes Lebanon, Israel and Syria. Yet, though it isn’t associated with wines any longer, the region has a rich wine history. The Phoenicians, who lived in this area from 1500-300 BCE, even used wine in worship. At one point, wine was one of the most traded items and the ancient Bargylus mountain was dotted with vineyards.
Tasting Bargylus, speaking to Agarwal and reading about the Saadés were my entry points to wines of the Arab world, a region often overlooked in the chatter of Malbec from Argentina and Syrah from Australia.
Suddenly, it strikes me that the best grapes are grown when resources are scarce; in fact, vintners occasionally don’t water their vines in an attempt to ensure they grow deeper roots. In an uncanny parallel of sorts, Domaine de Bargylus too seems to be thriving in the midst of adversity and conflict.
The writer was in Dubai at the invitation of Dubai’s department of economy and tourism.