Welcome to Mark O’Neill’s Wine Blog

Wines of War. Neighbours Syria and Lebanon have rarely been out of the news headlines because of war, particularly Syria.  Incredibly grapes to make wine are grown in both countries. Farmers, who depend on the vineyards for income, face the constant threat of attack while working.

Domaine de Bargylus is Syria’s only commercial winery. It was the dream of Johnny Saada, whose family had been driven from their native country in 1958 when their businesses were nationalised. He returned in 2003 and starting from scratch, planting the first grapes in the coastal mountain range, whose ancient Roman name was Mount Bargylus, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc for the whites and Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah and Merlot for the red.

Today the business is managed by his sons Karim and Sandro Saada. Since war broke out in 2011 it has been too dangerous for them to visit the vineyard in person.   In a recent interview with the BBC, Sandro said, “Thank God until now we haven’t got any human casualties, but we had two bombs fall on the Chardonnay field.”

Just to inspect their grapes involves risk. A taxi brings samples of grapes in ice packed boxes more than 200km to their office in Beirut, Lebanon, to be tasted and analysed prior to picking and being made into wine.

Their wines can in some of the finest restaurants in London, Paris and Hong Kong.

Neighbouring Lebanon also endured a long civil war from 1975 to 1990, during which time very little wine was made.  Most of the vineyards are in the high hills of the Bekka Valley on the Eastern Mediterranean, which today is threatened by ISIS attacks from neighbouring Syria.

In spite of the risks the Lebanese wine industry has grown and in the last 15 years 30 new wineries have been built, making a total of 42, producing around 8 million bottles of wine a year, exporting to over 40 countries.  According to Hady Kahale, General Manager of Ixsir, “Jewellery and Wine are the only two Lebanese products for which the balance of trade is positive.”

Chateaux Musar is Lebanon’s best known winery.  During the war years Serge Hocho, travelled the world selling creating a market for Lebanese wine. Today the rising stars making excellent wines are Domaine des Tourelles, Chateau Ksara and Ixsir.  In fact Ixsir, has a strong Spanish influence as one of the winemakers is Gabriel ‘Gaby’ Rivero, a Madrileño, who has lived in Lebanon for 6 years, having worked previously in Bordeaux and Ribera del Duero. Ixsir Altitudes Red is made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Caladoc, Syrah and also Tempranillo, a blend that works really well.

Lebanese growers in the Bekka Valley have to contend with hundreds of thousands of Syrian refugees seeking refuge a consequence of the ongoing war in Syria.

The wines from Lebanon and Syrah are well worth seeking out because they offer good quality and make the world of wine an even more interesting place.

You can buy the excellent Ixsir Altitudes Red in the pack ‘Wines from Lebanon, Australia and South Africa’

Photo by: John McGill for Domaine de Bargylus

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I am a Northern Irishman based in Valencia. My career in wine began more than three decades ago, in London. I am the founder of TheWinePlace.es, an online store, where wine enthusiasts can enjoy a selection of international wines and Verde Marte, a company dedicated to exporting Spanish wines. Also, Thewineplace.courses, an "approved program provider" of the courses of the prestigious WSET. I share my passion for wines through my media work writing weekly columns for the Spanish newspaper El Mundo and 5 Barricas, an online wine magazine.

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