Last Syrian vineyard keeps wine flowing despite war

Wed Sep 10, 2014 2:47pm EDT
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By Oliver Holmes

BEIRUT (Reuters) - Amid the war in Syria, one hillside vineyard still produces wines that are served in the Michelin-starred restaurants of London and Paris.

It has been a struggle to keep Syria's last commercial vineyard open, the owner of Domaine de Bargylus says. The war, which started in 2011, has engulfed the whole country, and militias on both sides fight in every province.

Sandro Saade and his brother Karim, Christians with family roots in Syria and neighboring Lebanon, planted grape vines on the tree-lined peaks of the Mediterranean province of Latakia in 2003, two millennia after the Romans used the same slopes for their own wineries. Bargylus' first vintage was in 2006.

Syria's rebel forces - a mixture of hardline Islamists and other groups seeking to end the dynastic rule of President Bashar al-Assad - are in Latakia and started taking ground last year. Some of these groups have forbidden alcohol in areas they control but Bargylus vineyard has stayed in government-held territory throughout the conflict.

Syrian wineries were largely small-scale operations, often located at churches and monasteries and meant for local consumption. Syrian Christians made up 10 percent of the pre-war population of 22 million people, but that figure has fallen sharply amid the violence, and wine production has dwindled too.

There have been a few scares at the Bargylus winery. Last August, Assad's forces and rebels battled clashed about 100 meters from the farm. Several explosions hit the vines, but there was minimal damage and the fighting has since retreated.

"We've been lucky that the conflict is not very close," Sandro Saade said from Lebanon's capital, Beirut. "Compared to other regions of Syria, we haven't had the conflict permanently installed next to our properties."


Wine bottles of Domaine de Bargylus are displayed in Beirut September 3, 2014. REUTERS/Jamal Saidi