Borderless Wine

A Refugee’s Quest to Make Wine in Syria

A winemaking mission suggests that viticulture may offer a path to financial stability for some in the war-torn country

Photo by Noor Habchy.

What risks would you take to make wine? If you’re a Syrian refugee living in Lebanon, you may be willing to risk everything. During this past summer, I received regular WhatsApp updates from a band of friends and winemakers—both Lebanese and Syrianas they traveled to Syria on a vineyard-scouting mission. The journey was harrowing, and after an ISIS bombing in Sweida (also known as Suwayda) on July 25, one message read: “Gunning out of Suwayda province into Damascus I think we passed the critical phase I’ll update u in about 2 hours.” Vineyard reconnaissance had quickly become a matter of life and death.  

Uncertainty and danger notwithstanding, resurrecting Syrian viticulture is the dream of Abdullah Richi, a Syrian refugee and Muslim who is one of the winemakers at Couvent Rouge winery in Deir El Ahmar, a village in Lebanon’s Bekaa Valley. Richi was accompanied on the scouting trip by his employers Walid Habchy and Eddie Chami, who, respectively, co-own and invest in Couvent Rouge. They traveled to a volcanic plateau in Sweida province, an hour and a half south of Damascus, in an effort to help their friend.

Using Syria’s forgotten grapes for a winemaking comeback is Richi’s vision for the future, and his way back home. His wife and two daughters still live in a northwestern town in Syria, and Richi is ready to go back. “My life is completely dependent on my return to Syria,” he says. “A person can travel the world, but in the end they must go back to their country.”  While risk lurks at every corner, he’s determined—as Syria inches toward a post conflict future—to foster a winemaking industry so that he and his fellow Syrians can prosper.

Plotting a Syrian Wine Mission

Richi left Syria in 2007, four years before the war erupted, to work in the cellar at Chateau Saadé winery in Beit Menzer, Lebanon. He’d never made wine, having previously worked as a stonemason. But a friend working at Chateau Saadé provided a reference, and Richi was hired. During the decade Richi has lived in Lebanon while learning the trade, he met Chami and the two bonded over Richi’s emerging passion for enology. When war broke out, in 2011, Richi’s legal status in the country was cast into jeopardy, and Chami sponsored his application for a visa to begin working at Couvent Rouge.

Chami regularly travels to California for his work in technology. Between 2014 and 2017, Chami also pursued a winemaking certificate at the University of California at Davis. He translated all the lessons into Arabic so he could teach Richi from afar. During these years, their friendship solidified and Richi’s winemaking began to blossom. Richi started to talk with Chami about Syria’s vineyards and their untapped potential. “Abdullah began telling me about the vineyards and native grapes in Syria,” Chami says. “And in order to help him, I knew I had to go and see them for myself.”

By traveling to the vineyards in Syria, Habchy, Chami, and Richi hoped to forge relationships with growers and produce a Syrian wine at the 2018 harvest. In Al-Kafr, one of the country’s top wine-growing villages, the trio met Feras Alchaar, who took them through his ungrafted, old-vine vineyards, filled with ripening green Salti Akhdar and black Aswad Zeini, among other varieties. Thick canes snaked along the ground, in the style of the regionally specific maroush training method. Old clay amphora shards were scattered around the vineyards, suggestive of a prolific winemaking past. The visit was cut short with the news of the ISIS bombing, which killed 166 civilians in the region. But on departing, Richi and his friends were more determined than ever.  

Photo courtesy of Peter Weltman.

In mid-September, Alchaar traveled to Lebanon to become better acquainted with the winemaking hopefuls. He brought his childhood friend, Yousef Mourched, who had recently returned to Syria after decades spent working abroad. Alchaar and Mourched each inherited agricultural land with vineyards from their families, and they plan to work together to grow high-quality grapes for winemaking. Says Mourched, “This area used to be like a heaven for grapes.”

With harvest looming, the collaborators weighed their options and decided to proceed with the project to make their Syrian wine. Either Richi would make the wine in Syria, or he’d smuggle out the Syrian grapes to produce an inaugural cuvée in Lebanon.

Identifying Grape and Regional Potential

Al-Kafr is a village whose eponymous mountain rises suddenly from the landscape. Known by Syrians as having prime grape-growing terroir, the mountain rises to more than 6,000 feet. It’s one of four major volcanic outcroppings that dot that landscape and contribute to the region’s mineral-laden soils. The combination of altitude and volcanic soil holds strong winemaking promise.

According to Bayan Muzher, PhD, a grape research scientist for Syria’s General Commission for Scientific Agriculture Research (GCSAR), Sweida has a deep winemaking history. “Sweida was famous in 2000 B.C., [when there were] some varieties, which was very important for wine,” Muzher says. “Salti Akhdar [a white grape] and Aswad Qarri [a red grape] are what people have traditionally used in the villages to make wine because of their availability and high sugar content.” Along with these Vitis vinifera varieties, Muzher has DNA-tested 17 other promising varieties, including the red-fleshed Aswad Anoni and the honey-colored, lower-acid Shammouti.

Muzher estimates that there are about 116,000 acres of vineyards planted across Syria. Vineyards near the bombed-out western city of Homs produce around 38,000 tons of grapes from 4,900 acres. In Sweida, about 51,500 tons of fruit are farmed on some 25,000 acres. Much of the fruit is Vitis vinifera, but they are considered table grapes simply because people eat them.  

Photo courtesy of Eddie Chami.

Considering an Economic Model

Syria is a predominantly Muslim country where per capita alcohol consumption is just under one liter, for both men and women, annually. It’s not illegal to make wine, but because local drinking is so minimal—and is largely dominated by arak, the local spirit—and due to a 20 percent tax on alcohol, production remains low. Thus the table grape industry has proven most lucrative for growers. Pristine clusters fetch around US$1 per kilo. Arak grapes, which are picked in bulk, earn growers just US$0.30 to $0.50 per kilo.

The hope of Richi and his like-minded colleagues is that sales of quality wine could change the structure of grape prices. Says Chami, “Well-farmed, well-sustained, well-looked-after wine grapes in Sweida should fetch about US$1.20 to $1.40 per kilo, given the local climate and potential.”

Right now, the only privately owned, commercially exported wine in Syria comes from Domaine de Bargylus, in Syria’s northwest. The brothers Karim and Sandro Saadé, of Chateau Marsyas, launched the business in 2003, planting European varieties in their Latakia vineyard. Wines exports are increasing for the brand, with sales growth occurring primarily in international markets, from the United Kingdom to Australia. The brand’s U.K. importer, H2Vine, reports strong sales for the wines, with on- and off-premise accounts attracted to the brand’s unique location and quality product. The domaine’s Chardonnay–Sauvignon Blanc blend retails in the U.K. for about US$33, while its blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot retails for around US$43.

But U.S. sanctions on Syrian products present a challenge for some accounts. “We’ve had some hesitation from establishments that are [backed by] U.S. investors,” says H2Vine Director Matt Wilkins, MS, “who won’t buy or list Domaine de Bargylus until the war is over and U.S. sanctions are lifted.”  

Photo courtesy of Eddie Chami.

Looking to the Future

On September 24, harvest commenced in Alchaar and Mourched’s vineyards in Al-Kafr. Three tons of Salti Akhdar grapes and half a ton of Shammouti grapes were gathered. After loading the grapes onto trucks, drivers smuggled them into Lebanon in an overnight mission involving three vehicle transfers before the grapes arrived at Couvent Rouge in Deir El Ahmar.

It was two months to the day since the ISIS bombing in Sweida. Says Habchy, who was present to receive the grapes at his cellar, “Doing anything with wine would be a good method to fight ISIS … This would be another way to prove to them that we are here, we are going to stay here, and we are going to live our way of life.” Nearby, Richi ran the pneumatic press, extracting juice for this inaugural cuvée. With modern equipment at Couvent Rouge, he aims to make a fresh and pure expression of the grapes. In an homage to Syria’s deep winemaking tradition, he’s already sourced Syrian clay pots as aging vessels, which he plans to use for next year’s vintage.

There are still hurdles to overcome with this wine. Figuring out how to label a wine made from Syrian grapes in Lebanon is just one of many. But Richi is laying the foundation for the future. With any luck, next year’s vintage will be made in Syria, if the country can begin its long road to rebuilding. While the path forward is still uncertain, not only is Richi undaunted but he’s proud of his work. “Don’t pity me,” he says. “I want to be judged by the quality of my wine.”

For more on this story, please check out the Borderless Wine Syria video.  

Peter Weltman is a sommelier and entrepreneur based in San Francisco who explores native grapes from ancient sources. He writes for global food publications, gives speeches on wine activism, and creates immersive experiences about his movement, Borderless Wine. Find out where he’s reporting from next on Instagram.