I’m heading north on the Damascus Highway on a small private bus with a friend and 20 strangers. We left Amman about 45 minutes ago, enjoying a breakfast of za’atar (wild thyme) bread and croissants as we listened to our host tout the few highlights along the way — an old railway line; the oldest building in Amman, from 1924; a Roman amphitheater; and the recently renovated Nymphaeum.
Now, almost an hour later, we are a stone’s throw from the biggest refugee camp in the country, Zaatari, and just 20 miles from the border of Syria that only recently reopened to civilian crossings. But I’m not heading to either of those destinations. I am here to taste wine and learn about Jordan’s burgeoning wine industry.
As we head west down Baghdad International Highway, I begin to look for signs that we’re entering wine country. There aren’t any. There are scrubby bushes, a few free-standing, bodega-type markets and scattered houses with rebar poking out from the roofs to preserve the option for a second story. This is not Tuscany or Napa. It’s flat, dry, dusty.
But then, just as I’m beginning to reset my expectations for the day ahead, the landscape changes suddenly. We arrive at a gate marking the entrance to the vineyard, from which beckons a country lane lined with cypress trees. Sunlight streams through the windows as our bus rumbles down the pebble path until we disembark at a simple, two-story white stucco building on the edge of the vineyards. This is the tasting room of Haddad Estates.
Led by our host, we climb to the second floor, and smiles appear across the collective group (made up of tourists, expats and a few locals) as we are greeted by waiters with empty wine glasses eager to provide our first pour.
In this majority-Muslim country where alcohol remains taboo, a wine industry might seem like an anomaly. Yet Haddad Estates & Vineyards has been producing award-winning wines under the Jordan River label since 2015, and its recently launched vineyard tours are drawing visitors to this peaceful country that relies heavily on tourism.
While winemaking may be new to Jordanians in the modern era, our tour guide proudly tells us that winemaking in the Holy Land dates to 30 B.C. That might be so, but at least in Jordan, wine had not been professionally produced for centuries until Haddad Estates sought to revive the practice.
Jordan is the third-ranked “water-poor” country in the world, behind Yemen and Libya, making the climate inhospitable to vineyards. Yet in northern Jordan, where we now stood on the Mafraq plateau, rain and snowmelt from the 6,000-foot Jabal al-Arab, just over the border in Syria, flows down the mountainside into Jordan and collects beneath the desert surface in a layer of basalt rock. It is this mineral-rich aquifer under layers of ancient volcanic ash, combined with the Jordanian climate — which boasts more than 300 days of sunshine and dry summers — that creates the perfect conditions for growing grapes.
When the first vines were planted in 2002, the vineyard owners had no idea what kind of grapes would succeed, so they planted 45 Italian, Spanish and French varietals. They all thrived. The first grapes were harvested in 2006, and in 2015, the first wines under the Jordan River label were launched, including cabernet sauvignon, shiraz, tempranillo, merlot, pinot noir, chardonnay, chenin blanc, viognier and pinot grigio.
Once in the tasting room, we are offered not a “taste” of wine but a nearly full glass of rosé. While feedback and questions are welcome, the tone of the day is clear — we are here to enjoy good wine, meet new people and learn about the region and winemaking, not to be lectured about wine.
Assistants monitor our progress like waiters at a wedding ready to refill our glasses or offer us a new selection when we’re ready. Rosé, shiraz and pinot grigio are all available. The rosé is so delightful that many of us opt for a second glass before sampling smaller portions of the shiraz, along with cheese and crackers and potato chips. (The local chip company “Mr. Chips” is also owned by Haddad Group.)
Just as we are feeling cozy in the tasting room, we learn that this is just the beginning of the tour. We carry our glasses with us and hop on the coach to drive a short distance to the center of the vineyards.
From a circular viewing platform, which we learn the owners hope to soon use as the foundation for a future restaurant — “when the tourism returns, inshallah,” as they say in Arabic — we view rows of vines as far as the eye can see.
We are free to sit and enjoy the beautiful day and vista, or to roam through the rows that are clearly labeled with each grape varietal.
The year’s harvest is already finished, but a second growth is available on some vines, which we are free to pick and sample. We are also offered the chance to descend a flight of stairs so we can view a section of the vineyard carved out to show the stratified soil and basalt rock that lie beneath.
Back on our private coach, we drive to Zarqa, the second-largest city in Jordan and home to the largest wine cellar and winery in the country, Eagle Distilleries, where the Jordan River wines are made. We are greeted by one of the winemakers, who shows us around the facilities before leading us to a room stacked to the ceiling with wine aging in barrels.
Here we are invited to sample wines right from the barrel and consider where they were in the aging process. He suggests we might taste pineapple or apricot in the younger wines. But we’re distracted from a serious discussion by a photo op in which we all take turns smiling for the camera while filling our glasses from the barrel.
After more than three hours of touring, we are happy to hear that lunch is ready, and we are guided to a mosaic-filled room with place settings around a circular bar. Our final wines of the day are enjoyed over a lunch of mezze and grilled meats.
The winemakers are hopeful these tours will help to develop a wine culture among those Jordanians who do drink alcohol, and to put Jordan on the world map as a great producer of wine. Indeed, many of the wines are quite good and have won awards at international wine competitions in France, Germany, England, Australia and Japan. But the tours do more than that. They showcase the genuine and generous hospitality of the Jordanian people as much as they do the wine.
On our way back to Amman, we realize that we have not been offered a chance to purchase wine, which surprises many of us aboard the bus. When we inquire, we are told that we may purchase wine at the city-based tasting room, but not before we are again sincerely thanked for joining our hosts and asked whether there’s anything they could do to improve the visit.
I can’t think of a thing. Shukran kteer (“thank you very much” in Arabic).
Orr is a writer from Washington who lives in Amman. Follow her on Twitter: @amandaorr .
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JR Wines Tour
Abdali Boulevard, Amman, behind the Rotana Hotel
Tours depart from JR the Wine Experience tasting room the last Saturday of every month April through October and run from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. The cost is about $70 per person.