Jordan River and JR The Wine Experience: Reviving Jordanian Viticulture

IMG_9684 copyWith wine crates juxtaposed against raw stonewalls, dangling Edison bulb chandeliers, and an imposing climate controlled wine cooler, stepping into JR The Wine Experience feels like entering a high-end tasting room as found in many major cosmopolitan cities. Yet this is Amman Jordan, a sun-bleached Middle Eastern country where a strongly Muslim population contests alcohol and wine production teeters on the edge of history and modernity. Our motley crew of wine tasters, saddling up to a generously sized table in the posh Abdali ‘Boulevard’ section of Amman, were in store for a wine tasting and much more. The first lesson was all around us.

“The walls are made of basalt,” Kareem Dawas, Operations Manager and our guide for the wine tasting, explains about a material also serving as soil for their wine production. “Tables made of basalt. Other tables made of olive wood, custom made for the venue. Olive wood is used for chimneys and fireplaces, tremendously heavy, made to represent the soil.”

To be in JR The Wine Experience was to appreciate the terroir that made it all possible.

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“We are taking back wines to their roots,” Dawas proudly explains, “because wines started in this area, and we are going to take it back.”

Viticulture has a long history in Jordan — it is just that, until relatively recently, the craft has been largely lost for a couple thousand years. Historical evidence points to the Nabataeans of Petra making wine as of first century B.C., with numerous wine presses carved into the famed rock faces. Biblical times saw Jordanian wine grace the tables of tipplers.

But it was the Haddad family, and their Eagle Distilleries Company that has distributed alcoholic beverages in Jordan since 1953, who helped to restart and industrialize viticulture in the region. Although Eagle Distilleries Company ventured into wine making in 1975, it has only been within the past two decades that their efforts really flourished as Jordan River.

“In 2002 we bought the vineyards, our own vineyards, and we brought in forty-five different grape varieties we are growing. The idea is we didn’t know what would grow best in Jordan, so the wine maker brought as many wine grapes as he could to see what would develop really good. We were actually able to grow pinot noir, our 2014 won a silver medal in France.”

The vineyard is located up in the Mafraq plateau, about an hour north of Amman, close to the Syrian border and Sea of Galilee and at 840 meters above sea level, where rain and mountain snow runoff provides water to the fertile volcanic soil, nurturing the vines embedded deeply within.

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JR The Wine Experience brings you the vineyard through a tasting menu selected from three different series: oaked Reserve, un-oaked Classic, and aged Limited Edition. I opt for an oaked 2013 Viognier Reserve, with its hints of sweet fruit and vanilla; the 2016 Rose Classic, semi-dry, very light, and not surprisingly one of their best sellers; and finish off with the 2011 Shiraz Limited Edition, filled with rich dark fruit and a touch of spice. Dawas’s tasting instructions carefully guided us through the event and became a great souvenir to take home for future use.

“Swirl and put against a white background, the clearer the wine, the younger the wine, in general. When it gets too hazy it is spoiled, don’t drink it. Swirl again and look at the legs, the viscosity tells you the sugar and alcohol content, the tear drops how fast or how slow, how close to each other, the more aligned, the more balanced it is. Sniff to refresh your nose, the first is the alcohol, and then the aromatic elements on the second sniff. Try to place your nose into the glass. Swirl to incorporate oxygen. Then take a sip.”

The latter is by far the easiest of techniques, at least for me, and one very much enjoyed.

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In a land where wine roots reach deep into history, Jordan River is focused on revitalizing the country’s ancient craft at home while reaching internationally.

“The whole concept of this place was to create a wine culture in Jordan, to share our wines with everyone, and to give people the opportunity to taste as many wines as possible.”

Jordan River is already becoming known on the international wine circuit with awards bestowed in Australia, Germany, Hong Kong, Japan, and France, among others.

“Expect us very soon,” Dawas declares as we finish our tasting session. “This year we are going outside of Jordan. This is the year we start exporting. We are going to Europe, we are going to the United States, we don’t mass produce so we are not targeting the whole population, we are going into niche markets, our wines are made with passion over a period of 60 years with people really loving what they do, and our wines represent our terroir.”

From the Nabataeans and Biblical age to the Mafraq plateau vineyards and our olive wood table at their wine tasting room along the stylish ‘Boulevard’, Jordan River is bringing new life to an ancient craft.

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