The winemaker of Jordan

In an undistinguished commercial district of Amman, off one of the narrow streets that winds between the Jordanian capital’s towering hills, I reach for the spittoon. But it’s too late. The Sauvignon Gris – light, fresh, delicious – has already transported me far away to English Cotswold villages, somehow evoking the ancient crumble of sunlit golden limestone walls on my tongue. I know I should spit. But it’s too good.

“Limestone,” I mutter. “Cotswold limestone.”

In the armchair opposite, Omar Zumot, Jordanian entrepreneur and winemaker, frowns and takes another sip, sucking in air and slooshing the butter-coloured wine around his mouth. Then he beams.

“Amazing. I remember we planted these over in the corner, where the basalt yields to limestone. You’re right. Amazing.”

Wine-tasting, as Zumot says, is poetry. As his country’s premier winemaker, he is on a self-declared mission to put Jordanian wine on the map – but it is often a struggle. Fifteen years after single-handedly creating Jordan’s first commercial vineyards, and with a respectable range of high-quality wines to his name, Zumot 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.”

Jordan is one of a handful of Middle Eastern wine producers claiming 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 under 0.1 litres per capita – compared with 1.1 in Israel or 3.5 in Lebanon. Zumot’s ‘Grands Vins de Jordanie’ brand leads the way with its premium Saint George range, recognised as leagues ahead of the Mount Nebo table whites 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 his vineyard 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, 46, explains his background. Born in Amman into an old Christian family from Jerusalem – his father, Bulos, founded the Zumot company in 1954 – 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 take 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].”

His gentle approach appears to be working. The company produces almost 300,000 bottles a year and is beginning to get noticed, with Swiss organic certification and multiple gold medals at the prestigious Mundus Vini wine awards in Germany. Last year the American International Wine Review praised Zumot’s 2007 Saint George Reserve Shiraz as “a delicious wine that holds its own against international benchmarks”.

Back in Amman, we settle in for an extended tasting at his city-centre Winemaker premises, which double as retail outlet, warehouse and lounge. A uniformed assistant serves plate after plate of crusty bread, prosciutto and soft cheeses, while I make the acquaintance of that limestone-rich Sauvignon Gris and its cousins – a mineral-tinged 2011 Tocai, a vibrant 2010 Chardonnay, and more. Then we start in on the reds.

Zumot beams again, pushing up his glasses like an excited schoolboy and pouring from a bottle of Shiraz Grenache 2009. I take a sloosh, and let the high, sweet fumes fill my nose. Something hidden refuses to show itself.

“This is a promise, not a wine,” he remarks. “We don’t crush these grapes: we just de-stem them before pressing. And we let sedimentation occur naturally – in oak barrels, handmade by Chassin in Burgundy. It needs another couple of years.”

The afternoon winds on, encompassing a bold 2010 Carmenere Cabernet blend (“Forgive the tannins,” smiles Zumot), superb Merlots and, unexpectedly, a delicious Graciano, culminating in the resonant, characterful Pinot Noir 2009 Winemaker’s Selection, which won gold in Germany. Neither of us troubles the spittoon much.

At the splendid old restaurant Haret al-Jdoudna (‘Courtyard of our Forefathers’) in Madaba, a historic market town southwest of Amman, the maitre d’ greets Zumot warmly. We are shown to a quiet corner, and our table is crowded 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.

Zumot 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.