The Christians in Syria & Lebanon have endured decades of unrest to keep doing what they are most passionate about – producing wine; despite the growing difficulties and hostilities.
Despite the bloody conflicts and frequent Islamic extremist invasions, there are families and communities in war-torn Syria and Lebanon who are determined to produce world-class wine and preserve a Levantine cosmopolitanism endangered by decades of war. Boutique wineries in these countries are run mainly by Christians who have endured decades of unrest and instability, putting up with the constant threat of the fact that the Islam as a religion prohibits the production as well as consumption of alcohol. The challenges have only increased since the eruption of the conflict in Syria in 2011, and the rise of Islamist and jihadi organizations.
In this territory, the production of wine is not about business or livelihoods, but an affirmation of these communities’ roots in the region, which is now becoming increasingly hostile to Christians and other minorities. The names of the wineries are derived from the classical Greek for the Syrian mountains overlooking the Mediterranean. The tradition of wine making in these regions goes back to the ancient times, when wine flowed freely at the Bacchanalian festivals. These wineries are in still somewhat secure parts of the region where the government still has some hold and is tolerant towards alcohol. But stray mortars occasionally wander into the vineyards, like the one that some months back that destroyed 15 Chardonnay vines.
Apart from the cultivation itself, another major challenge faced by these wineries is transportation. The owners and workers at the wineries are at a high risk of getting kidnapped by militants on the increasingly perilous roads crossing the Syrian-Lebanese border. The grapes are generally then shuttled back and forth by taxi drivers, who even have to turn back when the security forces shut down the borders. The Islamist groups, including an Al-Qaeda affiliate. are said to be stationed at varying distances from the wineries. Thus, as a safety precaution, wineries store most of their finished products in Belgian warehouses.
Compared to Syria, the conditions are somewhat better off in Lebanon. Most of the wineries here had emerged after the civil war ended in Lebanon in 1990. Like in Syria, in Lebanon too, wine-making is an ancient art. In fact, the nearby Roman complex at Baalbek features a temple to the Bacchus, the ancient Roman God of Wine and Mirth. Lebanon’s sizeable Christian population is open to alcohol as are the liberal Muslims of the region, yet local sales have gone down significantly in recent times.
One of the most popular wineries in the region is Baryglus Vineyard, located close to the Syrian coastal city of Latakia, and it is the only commercial vineyard in Syria now. Owned by Lebanese-Syrian businessman Karin Saade and his brother Sandro, they have their office in central Beirut, where they taste the grapes and decide the best time for harvesting. The Baryglus wine is grown, produced and bottled in Syria, which by now, you know, is no mean feat. Such is the popularity and quality of the wines made by Baryglus, that they now make it to the wine lists of Michelin-starred restaurants in Europe and Asia, including Heston Blumenthal’s Dinner in London and Odajima in Tokyo.
People often don’t realize that wine-making goes way beyond France. The world is abound with different wines coming from different regions and Syrian and Lebanese wines are also in the process of getting recognized. For the communities which make them, it is worshipped as a work of art, and not just as a means of earning their livelihood, which is what makes it special, that it gets produced while going against all odds. After all, when in history has working with art ever been easy.
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I’m aware of the winemaking culture of this region along with Armenia and Georgia. These are the oldest places where wine was made. France has only managed to market it well. The old world, in reality, is this region and not France and Italy.