BEKAA — It's a typical wine tasting at the Château Marsyas in the beautiful Bekaa region of Lebanon.
We are trying a French Cabernet after tasting a Merlot and Shiraz. Bottles and glasses are scattered on a wooden table in the heart of the winery, which houses a dozen stainless steel vats and hundreds of oak barrels. In all, we've savored 17 wines.
But there's nothing typical about the wine we're drinking: It has arrived in plastic bottles straight from war-torn Syria by taxi.
We are in the wine cellar owned by brothers Sandro and Karim Saade. Wine expert Stéphane Derenoncourt arrived from France to taste samples from the brothers' property 200 kilometers away on the slopes of Mount Bargylus in Syria near the village of Deir Touma.
"We are not going over there anymore, not because of the fighting but because kidnappings are very common on the road," Sandro says. More than 270,000 people have died since 2011 in Syria's bloody conflict.
Derenoncourt says the 2015 Merlot from Bargylus has a nice acidity while the Shiraz is flowery and delivers notes of violets and licorice. The French consultant writes his impressions in a notebook. The brothers consider Derenoncourt's notes important because of the technical tips he offers.
The brothers have made a bet that may appear crazy producing wine in a country at war and bringing it through a volatile region as reflected in the Lebanese military checkpoint 100 meters away. The soldiers there watch the road leading to the Syrian city of Damascus and the route heading south toward the Bekaa plains, the Golan plateau and Israel. Each time you pass the checkpoint when you come from the Lebanese capital of Beirut, you have to stop and greet the soldiers gathered around their tanks.
The day before the tasting, exploding mortar shells could be heard on the mountain range that forms the border with Syria. War has a long history here. During one of the many conflicts in Lebanon from 1975 to the end of the 1990s, Château Kefraya, one of the nearby wineries, saw Israeli tanks camping in its vineyard. Israel even named one of its 1996 military operations in Lebanon "The Grapes of Wrath" after the famous American novel by John Steinbeck.
Sandro acknowledges that what they do is risky. "The fact that it's risky makes the work more valuable. We want to make wines of high quality against all odds', he says.
Temperatures often pass 35 °C (95 °F) on the Bekaa plain, where the brothers grow some of their wines. At night, the temperature drops to 2 °C (35 °F) and can go as low as minus 20 °C (minus 4 °F) in the winter.
The weather can be just as challenging at the Bargylus field in Syria, they say.
Watching over the Syrian vineyards from Lebanon and directing a team of 30 people on the Syrian estate is not easy. The brothers make daily telephone calls to the manager, Sebastian Khoury, and analyze photographs and videos of the wines and berries at each stage of growth. After harvest in August, the grapes from Syria come in different packages to Lebanon.
Derenoncourt, who lives near the town of Saint-Emilion in western France, comes to Lebanon four times a year to provide support and guidance to the Saade family. Although he works with 25 wine growers in 17 different countries, he is attached to the Lebanese-Syrian wine operation.
"Stéphane does not only come to help make the wine but he also comes throughout the year to check that the vines are growing nicely," Sandro says.
The 12 hectares of cultivated field in their Syrian property produces about 45,000 bottles. The grapes produced are mainly Shiraz but also some Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay.
The Saade family has roots in both Syria and Lebanon.
In 1975, when war broke out in Lebanon, the family migrated to then peaceful Syria.
Karim was born in Lebanon and Sandro was born two years later in Syria. Their family history is written in both countries. Their mother Janine is Lebanese while their father Johnny is Syrian.
The brothers concentrate on their wines to forget the regional conflict. Their wines are complex and nuanced, smooth and fresh.
The message in a bottle from Syria strikes the right note.