Q&A with Sandro Saadé, one of the leading winemakers in Syria and the Lebanon

Sandro Saadé, together with brother Karim, is the founder of Château Marsyas in the Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley and Syria’s Domaine de Bargylus, the latter described by Hugh Johnson as “the finest wine produced in the Eastern Mediterranean”. He talks to Douglas Blyde about realising an ancient dream.

Why are you not a member of Union Vinicole du Liban (UVL)?

Promoting Lebanese wines is good. But, for my brother Karim and I, the collective objective should be to achieve geographical indication (GI) status for the Bekaa and to ensure implementation of stringent quality measures and controls. That would ensures consumers know what they are drinking.

Why don’t you take charge?

UVL recently appointed Zafer Chaoui, chairman of Château Ksara, as its president. He is a competent and very able man.

Why are no sparkling wines produced in Lebanon?

There should be. Maybe one day!

Are Middle Eastern wines ghettoised in Middle Eastern restaurants?

Selling Lebanese wines to Lebanese restaurants is easy. The real challenge and reward is to successfully sell Lebanese and Syrian wines to a broader range of consumers. That is our objective for Château Marsyas and Domaine de Bargylus, which is why they may be found in  Michelin-starred Chinese, Japanese, Modern English and French restaurants in London, as well as in France, Belgium, Malta and Dubai, and - very soon - in Switzerland, Germany, Spain and Istanbul.

Are Londoners open-minded?

London is an open-minded marketplace. Wine should be about openness, culture and curiosity.

Does Syrah originate from Syria?

Every day you hear a different answer. Although the first three first letters are the same, I don’t believe Syrah came from Syria, but it performs very well at our 900 metre high, sea-facing terroir, while Cabernet Sauvignon is right on the edge, taking about one more month to ripen.

What issues do you face making wine in Syria?

Even before the conflict, it was challenging. On account of being in the middle of nowhere, we had to build our own water reservoir and produce our own electricity. However, neither Karim, our wine consultant, Stéphane Derenoncourt, nor I have been able to go there for almost two years. Decisions regarding harvest are based on refrigerated clusters of grapes sent to us in Lebanon for analysis, and all communication is being done by mobile phone.

How bad has the situation got?

Recently, fighting broke out for three hours fewer than 500 metres away from our vineyards. Quite understandably, harvesters fled, with some taking refuge in forests. A catastrophe, we thought. Not only could the fighters vandalise wines in barrels, but worse, they could destroy the vines and with them, 10 years of hard, hard work. However, they were gradually pushed away, and the harvesters returned.

Have you considered employing a private security force?

I’m not into the idea of private security arrangements. At the peak of harvest season, we employ 40 to 50 workers, 15 of whom are core. Being one of the few employers in the region, nearby villagers regularly check up on us. Our workers are loyal, and want to protect their company, even beyond the motivation of financial reward.

How do you deal with logistics?

Because of blocked borders, we have to stockpile empty bottles two years in advance. Ordinarily, getting wine out of Syria through Beirut would be a maximum two-day process. However, today, we must ship refrigerated cargo via the free zone in Lattakia, Northern Syria, unload then re-load at Port Said in Egypt, before sending them to Beirut. It’s a laborious journey which can take up to 20 days. Belgium is then our European distribution hub.

With hindsight, do you regret planting in Syria?

Never. As Stéphane Derenoncourt, who was “instantly seduced” by the project, said, Syria’s terroir is “unbelievable”. And we would do it again. We are Syrian and more than anything else we remain attached to our roots. The experience of creating Bargylus has been incomparably exciting, despite the obvious times of stress. Tasting the first drop of Sauvignon Blanc was a very emotional moment. The dream of my father, Johnny, to revive an ancient vineyard in an area cited by Pliny The Elder, first became a dream we shared and then our reality.

What did you think of the proposed military action in Syria by international forces?

Irrespective of politics, the idea of striking Syria was immature, insane and ridiculous.

What is your approach to oak?

In Syria, our limestone-silex (flint-stone) soil confers a refreshing, mineral edge. I am almost allergic to the taste of new wood, and have no desire to disguise such minerality. So, we use three different barrels over 14 months of maturing for our 50% Syrah, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Merlot. A third of casks are new, followed by one-year-old barrels and two-year-old barrels.

What are your hopes for the future?

To continue work and to return to Syria very soon. We wait for the borders to re-open. The problem isn’t in the vineyards, but on the road, literally and metaphorically, to get there.

Château Marsyas and Domaine de Bargylus are both imported by Wine Story.

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