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Connoisseurs toast Jordan's desert wines

From Arwa Damon, CNN
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Jordan's wine revival
  • Jordan is among several Middle Eastern countries producing internationally recognized wines
  • Omar Zumot says his vineyard fulfils a childhood ambition to produce a Jordanian wine
  • Zumot uses sheep and a fish pond to help nurture his desert vines

Amman, Jordan (CNN) -- It's not the sheep he uses to keep his grape vines tidy that make Omar Zumot's wines unusual. Nor is it the fish he uses as a source of fertilizer.

What truly sets Zumot's wines apart is the fact that they come not from the lush vineyards typically found in France or California, but from the hot and arid plains of Jordan.

"My father was a vintner since 1954, and it has always been his dream and our dream to produce a good wine of Jordan," Zumot told CNN.

"You know when I was four years of age, he would always tell me this country can produce the best wine in the world."

Middle Eastern wines were once a standing joke in the wine world -- one report memorably dismissed them as "Chateau Migraine."

"Unfortunately the mind set that everybody had was that Jordanian wine is a mediocre wine, that Jordanian wine is not the best in the world," says Zumot.

Jordan is like its wine: you come to Jordan, you are always pleasantly surprised, the country is rich, the country is diverse.
--Omar Zumot, Jordanian wine producer
  • Wine
  • Amman (Jordan)

While home to Islamic communities that frown on alcohol, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria now have burgeoning wine industries which are gaining greater recognition. Israel's long-established wine-making craft is also on the rise.

Though Jordan has only recently emerged as a wine producer of merit, Zumot says the country has a Biblical pedigree that predates those of Europe.

"You know when Jesus did his miracle on wine, it was not Chateau Margaux that he served to his guests, it was wine from this country," he said.

"This is the wine that is the grandfather of the wine that you have in Europe. Wine was cultivated here for many centuries," he added.

Wine making in Jordan is believed to date back to the mysterious Nabatean people who occupied the historic sandstone city of Petra sometime around the 6th century B.C..

Wine presses and cellars attributed to the Nabateans have been excavated at several sites across the region.

But, until Zumot decided to fulfil his boyhood dreams, Jordan had all but abandoned its viticultural heritage.

Zumot's main challenge was to find a suitable spot on Jordan's desert landscape to cultivate his vines. The task took him seven years.

"We started with a simple rule: challenge all rules," he said.

Eventually he found a plot of land with renewable aquifers, a rare find in country that the World Health Organisation says has the world's lowest levels of water resources per head.

His perseverance paid off as varieties of grape vine flown in from Europe flourished; the harsh conditions strengthening rather than killing the young vines.

Also lending a hand is the fish pond which provides water rich in nitrates from fish manure and his sheep flock who act as natural lawnmowers and fertilizers for vegetation planted around the trunks of the vines.

"This is where they think I am really crazy," said Zumot, surveying his vineyard. "But next year it will die and become the organic matter in the soil."

The fruits of Zumot's labors are the 16 wines sold under his St. Georges brand.

Several have garnered awards, including silver medals for his Chenin Blanc and Merlot at the Vinalies Internationales wine contest in Paris, France.

Says Jordanian restaurateur Elida Orfali, it's a recognition that is also slowly gaining pace at home.

"At the beginning we were skeptical a little bit to put them ... to sell them in the restaurants," he told CNN. "But when we introduced them and we put them on the menu, we had an excellent review from everybody. The customers loved it."

According to Zumot, his "nutty metallic" wines represent a true taste of his homeland, not least the country's ability to confound.

"Jordan has many surprises. You know Jordan is like it's wine: you come to Jordan, you are always pleasantly surprised, the country is rich, the country is diverse. The country is welcoming, its exactly like the wine of Jordan."

Barry Neild contributed to this report.