A new winery is taking shape in the Bekaa valley. Owners of Wild Discovery travel agency, Karim and Sandro Saadé have engaged in this new venture, after launching “Domaine de Bargylus” in Syria in 2004.
“We intend to produce the first real Syrian wine: a high-end product positioned internationally, targeting the Syrian Diaspora and seducing Syrian consumers,” said Karim. He reckons that the Syrian project might prove to be a more challenging one, as it requires nurturing a nascent wine culture.
The Saadé venture is not the first of its kind. Over the years, the family’s mercantile past morphed into the Johnny R. Saadé Group, also known for its international shipping company CMA (Compagnie Maritime d’Affrêtement). The group currently includes a tourism arm and a real estate company, the winery project being the most recent addition to its core activities. The two young brothers have succeeded in carving a name for themselves in the tourism sector with Wild Discovery, the group’s first Lebanese venture that also operates in Syria and Dubai, with almost 100 employees. Founded in 1997, with its head offices in Beirut, Wild Discovery boasts a regional network of travel agencies, offering services ranging from ticket issuance to comprehensive holiday packages. The Saadé company’s second arm is Greenstones, a real estate company currently developing a project in Beirut’s picturesque Abdel Wahab Al-Inglizi Street.
Two new wine ventures
The third and most recent project includes two vineyards in northwestern Syria and the Bekaa Valley. Bargylus, the Syrian estate, is located in Jebel al-Ansariyeh, in antiquity known as Mount Bargylus. On the outskirts of Lattakia, the port city on the Mediterranean it comprises 20 hectares of argilo-calcareous soil. The Lebanese estate is situated in the widely-recognized wine region of the Bekaa Valley, near the villages of Kefraya and Tell-
Denoub, covering 50 hectares.
Sandro Saadé recounts the brothers’ passionate love story with wine that began in 1997. “We initially considered investing in a Bordeaux châteaux,” he recalled. Instead, the brothers decided to jump-start their own winery project in Syria, where their family originated. The Domaine de Bargylus came to life in Lattakia in 2003. “Besides the common history we share with the Lattakia region, we opted for this particular location because of its excellent soil and weather conditions, after extensive testing and analysis.” In 2004, the brothers decided to replicate the winery project in Lebanon on a grander scale.
According to Sandro, “Both projects are completely different. After all, we are discussing two types of wines born from very particular and special terroirs. The Syrian Domaine de Bargylus will be available for sale in the next few months, while our Lebanese brand, which has yet to be named, will be released in 2009. Both will boast a wine of premium quality and will be positioned on the higher end of the product spectrum.” His brother Karim insists, however, that they will share the same concern for quality control processes.
Both vineyards have planted different cépages (grape varieties) such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. However, the percentages will vary from one winery to the other, allowing the brothers to adapt the vines to regional climate and soil conditions. In addition, production processes will be closely monitored with the help of a French consultant, Stephane Derenancourt.
The Johny R Saadé family, which fully owns the Syrian Domaine de Bargylus and the Saadé Lebanese winery, has invested over $25 million into the project already. The Syrian part is estimated at $4 million while the Lebanese project will eventually require as much as $25 million on its own. The Syrian Domaine de Bargylus will, on its 20 hectares of land, employ around 20 people on a permanent basis, while the Lebanese project is going to employ some 50 people for the time being. “Naturally, these figures do not account for seasonal workers who will evidently contribute to our operations. In addition to its original winery structure, the Lebanon venture will also integrate two other complementary projects, namely a wine museum and a boutique hotel with 30 to 35 rooms,” explained Karim.
For the Saadé brothers, the main rationale behind the wine museum is the added value it will bring to the wine industry in Lebanon, one that can be further complemented by the creation of a “Route du Vin” — a wine tour — of the Bekaa, which will help integrate further the Bekaa valley into the overall Lebanese tourist map.
As Sandro pointed out, “Both projects have been in the pipeline for quite some time. Contrary to popular belief, the wine industry does not generate quick money but is built on a long-term and well-planned approach. This particular sector offers huge potential in Lebanon.”
Targeting the high-end consumers
Both wines produced by the Saadé brothers will target high-end consumers and be marketed away from the traditional supermarket distribution network. “Our wines will be available in restaurants, hotels and specialty stores. We are not relying on the local market, but focusing more on developing a European and international one,” Sandro said. The Saadé brothers are targeting French wine aficionados as they believe France is key in opening the doors of European markets.
While both wineries will include the usual state of the art machineries and equipment as well as the use of stainless steel tanks imported from France, Sandro pointed out that, “we will focus principally on production processes and more particularly on the quality of the grapes used.”
In the end, he knows that despite Lebanon’s wine culture, marketing Lebanese wines might not be an easy task. The young entrepreneur believes that given the relatively small quantity exported by Lebanon, any mishap will affect the industry as a whole and badly reflect on it. An entity that will accredit producers and grant them an equivalent of the French AOC, which late last year the Lebanese government has decided to establish, will provide Lebanese wines with a greater credibility on international markets and facilitate the export process. “Each Lebanese wine is distinctive in its own way. We fully intend on capitalizing on our wine culture to introduce our brands to the world.”