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Making Wine, Not War, in Lebanon

"We bring grape samples by taxi from Syria to decide when to harvest there," says Karim Saadé, a winemaker based in Lebanon who sources grapes from across the border. "We’ve adapted to the situation."

In a country that is perpetually described as "on the brink," passionate entrepreneurs have chosen to turn away from conflict, and toward the ancient craft of winemaking.

Joseph G. Bitar of Kfifane in northern Lebanon was a general in the Lebanese Army when he was assigned the job of military attaché at the Lebanese embassy in Rome. This was back in the 1970s, and it was then that the general embraced the Italian tradition of drinking wine. Bitar's daughter Neila says, "He grew to love wine a lot, and said one day when I'm back home, I want to start my own winery."

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The farmhouse porch looks out onto the vineyards of Coteaux de Botrys. Photo by the author.

The Bitar family tree can be traced to 1760 in Kfifane, a tiny village in the hills above the beach town of Batroun, Lebanon, 33 miles north of Beirut. They have a history of cultivating olives for oil, and golden grapes for arak (the stiff local spirit based on grapes and anise). General Bitar retired from military service and began studying viticulture and oenology in earnest. He tested soil samples from the family land in Kfifane for their suitability.

"It turned out to be a great place to make wine," says Neila. In 1998, General Bitar brought 3,000 vines from France, trying out ten varieties of grapes. Several were successful. The winery Coteaux de Botrys was born.

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Neila Bitar chats with Luca Renda about wine and Italy. Photo by the author.

General Bitar's experiment became northern Lebanon's first winery. Coteaux is the French word for hills—fitting for the French grapes Bitar was tending, and reflective of the French legacy in Lebanon. Botrys is the ancient Greek name for Batroun, meaning grapes. Coteaux de Botrys may have been the first modern winery in its region, but wine production in the region dates back millennia. Coteaux de Botrys focuses on quality over quantity, producing just 40,000 bottles per year, primarily red.

When General Bitar passed away eight years ago, his four daughters took over the winery. Josiane in Beirut is the CEO, and sisters in London and Lausanne help with the marketing—but it is Neila who lives and breathes the winery.

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The cellar in the old farmhouse. Photo by the author.
lebanonwine_8 IMG_6357 Karim (left) and Sandro Saadé. Photo courtesy of the Johnny R. Saadé family.

"I live over the winery year round," she says. What was once a farmhouse, dating back 400 years, is now the cellar for bottles of cabernet sauvignon, syrah, and cuvée wines. The top floor, where Neila resides, was "built much later." It was originally a shepherd's refuge, and is roughly 270 years old. "I harvest the grapes, I pick the olives. I am there until everything is finished, and only then I can leave on holiday." Neila recently managed to get away, to visit Japan to accept a double gold medal at the 2016 Sakura Women's Wine Awards for her 2008 cabernet sauvignon.

About the same time that General Bitar was planting his first vines, the Saadé family also turned to winemaking. The family businesses include land and maritime transport, tourism, and real estate, but Johnny R. Saadé had always been passionate about wine. His sons Karim and Sandro began to look for land. Like the history of the region, the roots of the Saadé family tree are intertwined, tracing back to Turkey, Syria, Egypt, and Lebanon. Johnny himself is from Syria, his wife from Lebanon; Karim was born in Lebanon, Sandro in Syria. The brothers didn't limit their search for fertile land to Lebanon. After a few years, the Saadés found the land they were looking for. In Syria, the Saadés revived an ancient vineyard dating to the time of the Canaanites. In Lebanon, they purchased land not far from the Syrian border in the Bekaa Valley, a winemaking region dotted with vineyards—the Napa of Lebanon, as it were.

The first vintage from the Syrian side was 2006, bottled under the label Bargylus, the ancient name of the Al-Ansariyah mountains, where that vineyard is located. In Lebanon, 2007 was the first vintage, under the label Château Marsyas.

"Marsyas was the ancient name of the Bekaa Valley," recounts Sandro. "It was also the name of the Greek satyr who challenged the god Apollo." The challenge was a musical one. Some versions of the myth say that Marsyas lost, others that he won but Apollo couldn't accept defeat. But in all versions, Apollo then kills Marsyas. So, why Marsyas? "He suffered for his art, and he was a follower of Dionysus [Bacchus]," says Sandro. That is, Marsyas was a committed hedonist; he was a minister of Bacchus, god of the grape harvest, winemaking and wine worshipped at Lebanon's Temples of Baalbek; and he was a mythological figure associated with both freedom and hubris. Who better to serve as namesake for a Lebanese wine?

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Chateau Marsyas vineyards. Photo courtesy of the Johnny R. Saadé family.
lebanonwine_12 Munchies DSC03467 Chateau Marsyas' stand at Souk el Tayeb. Photo by the author.

Karim says that they entered the wine industry for the challenge of it. "There's never a rational reason you get into the production of wine," says Sandro. "If you get into high volumes then you are thinking of it as a business. In our case, we have limited production." Annual production of Bargylus is 45,000 bottles, while production of Chateau Marsyas—which includes a red, a white, and a medium range cuvée called B-Qa—comes in just under 100,000 bottles annually.

And they have certainly had challenges when it comes to Bargylus.

"2011 was the first vintage we produced in war conditions," says Karim. "It has been very difficult. We bring grape samples by taxi from Syria to decide when to harvest there. We've adapted to the situation. There is an added cost of logistics." While the vineyards are in an area of Syria that has been relatively shielded from the war, stray mortars have ripped up plants, and workers have occasionally had to retreat from the fields when fighting moved near. "We are the only winery in Syria, and this is our fifth year of operating during war conditions," Karim adds.

In addition to selling both Bargylus and Marsyas in Lebanon, the wine is exported widely—to Japan, Hong Kong, Germany, Belgium, Dubai, the UK, France—and the Saadé brothers are focused on growing those markets. But as Karim notes, "first we must bring the Bargylus wine from Syria to Lebanon—it takes a 'Mediterranean tour,'" sometimes passing through Egypt's Port Said as well.

Could Lebanon possibly be the next wine destination? Enotourism is a budding industry in Lebanon, with increasing numbers of day tours aimed at bacchanalian Beirutis, bringing visitors to wineries around the country. Wild Discovery, the tour company owned by the Saadé brothers, is one of many to offer wine-focused excursions from Beirut. And from May through October, Coteaux de Botrys receives visitors every Saturday and Sunday (11 AM to 5 PM, one of only a few wineries in Lebanon offering tastings without an appointment).

My husband Luca and I were happy to stumble upon the latter during a weekend trip to Batroun. During our visit, Neila drew on the Italian she had learned during her teen years during her family's time in Rome, and chatted easily with Luca, who was born in Sicily and grew up in Rome. They reminisced over favorite neighborhoods and la dolce vita. We tasted the wine and arak, and bought several liters of olive oil to bring back to Beirut.

"Our doors are open every weekend, and I enjoy that very much—making people taste our wine and experience it," says Neila.

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B-Qa wine by Chateau Marsysas. Photo by the author.

Given that visiting the Syrian vineyards of Bargylus is out of the question, and even travel to Lebanon's Bekaa Valley is not always advisable, the Saadé brothers bring their wine to Beirutis instead. The wineries have a stand every Saturday at Beirut's farmer's market, Souk el Tayeb, where I've often sat under sunny Lebanese skies and quaffed a glass with friends. But if Beirut's too far to travel, Bargylus, Marsyas, and B-Qa are available in 30 to 40 wine shops and restaurants (including Michelin-starred venues by Gordon Ramsay and Joël Robuchon) in each of the countries to which they are exported.

A touch of hedonism, a touch of hubris. A whole lot of optimism, and the commitment to match. Who but the Lebanese would dare to make wine when surrounded by war?