Jordan: A Vine Romance

Published in CNN Traveller, March-April 2009

‘Best Business Travel/Trade Feature 2009’ – British Guild of Travel Writers



“I’ve got it! Pomegranate!”

Omar Zumot, Jordanian entrepreneur and winemaker, beams across the table, stopping me in mid-sentence. Pomegranate? I take a second to think, then let another sip of the dark, ruby-red wine swirl around my mouth. He’s right. I close my eyes and allow tastebuds to talk to brain undisturbed. He’s spot on. Pomegranate. It feels like a weight off the shoulders just to know.

Wine-tasting, as Zumot says, can be painful. He should know: as his country’s premier winemaker, he is on a self-declared mission to put Jordanian wine on the map – and it is often a struggle.

Almost fifteen years after single-handedly creating Jordan’s first commercial vineyards, and with a respectable range of good-quality wines to his name, he still faces a wall of ignorance – and even mockery – from the wine establishment.

A 2007 story by the news agency AFP epitomises the stance, discussing Arab wine in terms of “Chateau Migraine”. Omar Zumot isn’t laughing. “This is my greatest concern,” he says, “the reputation of Jordanian wine.”

Currently meriting barely a paragraph in most wine encyclopedias, Jordan is one of a handful of Middle Eastern wine producers that claim Biblical origins for their wine industries. After a gap of more than a millennium, production restarted in the 19th century in Lebanon and Palestine, both influenced by French expertise.

With consumption of alcohol forbidden to Muslims, their separate industries were developed in Lebanon by Christians, and in Palestine (and, later, Israel) by Jews. Both countries now dominate the region’s winemaking, Lebanon producing around 150,000 hectolitres annually and Israel almost 60,000.

By contrast, according to figures from the US Wine Institute, Jordan makes around 5,000 hectolitres. Annual consumption totals just 0.1 litres per capita – compared with 1.1 in Israel or 3.5 in Lebanon – yet that conceals the fact that most Jordanian wine is consumed by non-Jordanians, chiefly tourists.

Zumot’s ‘Grands Vins de Jordanie’ brand includes the Saint George range – a Merlot, a Shiraz, a Cabernet Sauvignon reserve, and other blends – alongside a Chardonnay/Sauvignon Blanc blend labelled Machaerus. They compete with the bright Mount Nebo whites and varied Jordan River range produced by Eagle, part of the local Haddad group.

Yet for a nation that is 95% Muslim to have a wine industry at all speaks volumes. In Zumot’s words: “Jordan is an Islamic country where you can make wine: how much more tolerant could you get?”

He takes me to one of his three vineyards, at Sama as-Sarhan, northeast of Amman on the Syrian border. This is frontier land – dry, bleak and windblown. To the east yawns an open wilderness of stony desert, while to the north looms the bulk of Jabal Druze, an extinct volcano that, at some point in antiquity, spewed fields of basaltic lava over this landscape. It is a most unlikely place to see vineyards.

“This is the last parcel of pre-desert land,” Zumot says. “We chose it partly for the soil – it’s basalt. While digging I noticed a new layer every half-metre. I thought it would be good to bring a mineral flavour to the Pinot Grigio and Sauvignon Blanc grapes, and we’ve had amazing results.”

As we stroll between the vines, Zumot, 43, explains his background. Born in Amman into an old Christian family from Jerusalem – his father, Bulos, founded the Zumot company in 1954 and is still working today, at the age of 79 – Omar started training in accountancy at 14. In 1988 he spotted a gap in the market and began exporting gin and arak (a local aniseed spirit) to Iraq, and made his first million within a year.

When the Iraqi market crashed under sanctions in the mid-1990s, he launched a foodstuffs enterprise – chiefly importing and distributing potato crisps – which remains the mainstay of his business. But he has returned to his first love.

“I always wanted to be involved with wine. At 19 I went to France to study winemaking at a monastery in the Ardèche – but I was young and stupid, and I spent years procrastinating. Then, in 1996, I started planting.”

I ask what his philosophy is on winemaking. “You can’t make money selling wine in Jordan,” he smiles. “This is not a business; it’s my passion. And I try not to intervene as much as possible. My whole operation is fertiliser-free and pesticide-free. I was advised to spray against grape worm, but the birds steal the worms for me. They charge me – we lose 15% of the grapes to the birds – but this is nature.”

He shows me a large fishpond. “I irrigate from here. It’s fed by a renewable aquifer from under the mountain, and the carp manure adds nitrate to the water. I allow sheep into the vineyards to trim dead shoots from the Merlot vines: they eat the weeds, fertilise the soil and their saliva disinfects the vine trunks. My secret is really to produce as little as possible from each vine. We are yielding less than two tonnes of grapes per hectare [compared to a world average of 8.5].”

So, with such an avowedly eco-friendly outlook, does he seek organic certification? He shakes his head.

“An organic wine isn’t a good wine – it’s just an organic wine.”

Nonetheless, his gentle approach appears to be working. The company produces almost 300,000 bottles a year and is beginning to get noticed. Zumot’s Saint George blend of Pinot Noir and Cabernet Sauvignon (“You’d be arrested for doing that in France!” jokes Omar) was called “impressive if unconventional” by wine writer Robert Joseph.

I asked Harun Dursun, an international award-winning sommelier and Executive Assistant Manager at Amman’s Grand Hyatt hotel, for his take.

“The local market likes these butt-kicking wines,” he grins. “They want them full-bodied, powerful and fruity, with lots of tannins, to go with the pronounced flavours of the food. The finesse of a Pinot Noir tastes like water to them!”

The Hyatt, Dursun tells me, uses Jordanian wine as a marketing tool. “We give away the Saint George free, on our club floor. And we get very good feedback: guests are consistently pleasantly surprised. Justifiably so: in my opinion the Saint George is above average globally – and regionally it is top.”

Zumot’s production plant lies in an unromantic industrial estate on the outskirts of Amman – discreetly unsigned, yet enveloped in a telltale aroma of delicious, heady sweetness. Omar gives me a tour. “This is a Bucher – the Rolls-Royce of grape pressers,” he beams, pushing up his glasses like an excited schoolboy.

“We don’t crush the grapes: we just de-stem them before pressing. We lose a bit of juice in the skins, but that’s OK. And we don’t filter the wine; we allow sedimentation to occur naturally – in oak barrels, handmade by Chassin in Burgundy.”

I am introduced to Eva Boyuklieva and Zdravko Markov, Bulgarian vintners who are working with Zumot to improve quality. “We will grow with our wines,” oenologist Eva confides. “But already Jordan’s wines are better than some European wines.”

With that, Omar seizes a bottle of his own wine – unnamed, unlabelled, drawn that day from the barrel and confidential in age, composition and potential commercial value – and we drive to the splendid old restaurant Haret al-Jdoudna (‘Courtyard of our Forefathers’) in Madaba, a historic market town southwest of Amman.

The maitre d’ greets Omar warmly, shows us to a quiet corner and, shortly after, crowds our table with mezze – an array of salads, bite-sized pastries, dips both hot and cold, grilled meats and freshly baked flat bread, designed to delight the eye and nose as much as the stomach.

But we are here to work. It takes a good – a very good – half-hour of sipping and slooshing our way through the mystery bottle before we light upon what exactly that clear, insistent note is on our tongues. Not citrus (too high, too acidic) and not anything curranty or berrylike (too full, too sweet). Finally, a synapse fires and Omar plucks the word from the air. Pomegranate.

We grin at each other in somewhat muzzy triumph. Omar pushes up his glasses again and gestures around, at the packed restaurant. “It’s not only the freedom,” he says. “We have the culture. I love my country!”

And we do the natural thing: we drink a toast.