Domaine de Bargylus, Syria – Latakia
Dubbed as the world’s most dangerous wine, for Domaine Bargylus operating from within the heart of Syria, a country that for years has been ripped apart by a horrid civil war. Despite the odds, Domaine Bargylus has defied them all to become Syria’s only recognised winery, reaching the tables of the finest eateries around the world, and placing Syria well and truly on the international wine map.
Embedded within a strong eastern tradition, the Johnny R Saadé family draws, from its Levantine roots, a passion for challenges among the renaissance of the ancient vineyards of the Orient. In 2006, they began their ambitious project – the revival of a Syrian vineyard that dates back to the time of the Canaanites, the ancient Greeks and the Romans.
The Domaine de Bargylus comprises 12 hectares of vineyards on a tree-lined plateau in the Mediterranean province of Latakia, northwest Syria – some 900m into the hills above the country’s largest port. The Romans used the same verdant slopes of what used to be called Mount Bargylus – now Jabal Ansariya – for their own wineries two millennia ago, as did the Greeks and Phoenicians.
The wines of Syria
In 63 BC, the Romans defeated King Mithridates VI, putting an end to the Seleucid dynasty. Syria was occupied, and the Romans took possession of a fertile land. Towns such as Palmyra, Antioch, Damascus and Emesa served as centres for trade between Rome and the Middle East, their caravans heading for Arabia and the Silk Road.
The vine meanwhile was already established, and no centurion set forth without a bit of salt and several vine seedlings in his bag. The Romans had planted vines right across the Empire, and they would do the same in Syria at the foot of Mount Bargylus, known today by the name of Jebel Al-Ansariyé.
The Roman winegrowers had vision, and they established a fabulous terroir. But when they left, followed by the Byzantines, the vine lost its patron and only several monasteries from the time of the Crusades still produced wines.
In 1928, a peasant discovered a tombstone close to Lattaquie, which in turn revealed the site of Ougarit, known today as Ras Chamra. This ancient Levantine city had given its name to a kingdom that was the link between the Mediterranean and Mesopotamia, the Hittite empire and Egypt. Cultivated and open to the world, this society produced an uncommonlyrich civilization, confirmed by the discovery here of one of the world’s first cuneiform alphabets.
Ougarit’s economy was essentially agricultural, centred on cereal crops, olives and vines. In his book, “Ougarit and the great powers”, historian Michael Astour tells that “the slopes of Mount Bargylus were covered with vineyards and olive groves”.
In this fertile maritime Syria with its temperate climate, Phoenicians and Romans found what they needed to create a cradle for the civilisation of wine. From Ougarit in the north and further south from Laodicea (today Lattaquie) wines were exported to Egypt, Greece and Rome. As the ancient Greek geographer Strabo wrote “Laodicea supplied Alexandria with the larger part of the wine it consumed.”
On the tree-lined Bargylus peaks, there remains one visible vestige of this ancient vine-growing enterprise. At the foot of a levelled mound are fermentation tanks dug out of the limestone rock by the Romans.
Domaine de Bargylus is the Johnny R. Saadé family’s project to revive this vineyard that was planted by the Romans 2000 years ago – to honour this ancient terroir and create a great wine. Respect for nature, ambition and passion are all plainly evident here. The project commenced in 2004.
In the north-east of Syria, the valley of the Orontes forms the link between the grassland plains and the cultivated lands. This is the cradle of the Roman dynasty of Severan, and the rich land that is home to the Domaine de Bargylus.
Antioch is not far distant, and the nearby village of Deir Touma, literally “Convent of Thomas”, stands close to relics of the crusading era and the famous Saladin. Cited by Pliny the Elder, Mount Bargylus, known today as Jebel Al-Ansariyé, spreads from the Orontes Valley near the ancient city of Antioch to the Eleutherus Valley in the south of ancient Emesa.
This land is a country of mystery and legends where wine and alphabet were revealed to man and where the ancients grew vines more than 3000 years ago. Located in the hinterland of the Hellenistic city of Laodicea – the modern Syrian city of Latakia – and the Canaanite metropolis of Ugarit, the slopes of Mount Bargylus were richly covered with vines during the Greco-roman era.
The Bargylus wine estate is precisely located near Deir Touma, not far from the archeological vestiges of the crusading era and the famous Saladin.
Who could fail to be moved by the awesome wild nature of the Bargylus landscape with its imposing mountain background – especially when you feel the ancient history that resides in this place. The Bargylus vines are planted on small gentle slopes, today covering twenty hectares divided 75% red and 25% white. Stéphane Derenoncourt quickly recognised this as a “fabulous” terroir.
The vineyard is effectively located on a geological fault. On one side, the soils are limestone of an exceptional kind; on the other side, the limestone is mixed with flint that amplifies the mineral qualities in the wines. The clays are the link between these two soil profiles. Darker and more intense than the Bekaa clays, they are the element that forges the character and complexity of the reds.
The vineyard spreads across the hinterland of Lattaquie, at an altitude of 900 metres, with large variations in temperature from day to night that favour the development of aromas. The climate is quite unlike the climate at Château Marsyas – fresher and above all not so dry.
Here the maritime winds that blow from the Mediterranean favour rain (900mm per year, compared with 600mm at Marsyas). The summers are reasonably hot, enough for good and lengthy ripening of the grapes. Autumns are often premature, which favours slow phenolic ripening without sacrificing the acidity of the grapes or their aromatic freshness.
Varietals and Vineyard Husbandry
Over the years, this particular climate has altered the domaine’s approach to husbandry and the choice of grape variety. Some years, the Cabernet Sauvignon cannot be harvested before the beginning of November. And with some autumns, it doesn’t ripen at all. Syrah then becomes the natural choice.
This Rhône Valley varietal is perfectly adapted to clay limestone soils and its annual cycle of growth is shorter than the Cabernet Sauvignon’s. Syrah is used in combination with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Vine husbandry here reflects the Saadés’ personal convictions. The approach is more or less organic, using all means to conserve the personality of the soil and the individual character of this exceptional terroir.
Grape Variety: Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc
Retail Price: S$67.00
About the Wine: Fading yellow with light green reflections. The noses expresses exotic fruit aromas of papaya and lemon with a touch of saltiness as well. On the pallet the wine is very elegant, round, keeping a lot of freshness due to a good acidity.
Grape Variety: Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot
Retail Price: S$83.00
About the Wine: Deep purple hue, the nose is complex with notes of spices & truffles. There is precision in the mouth with excellent balance between the integrated tannins, the elegant fruit and mineral freshness. The finish is powerful and sustained.