Exporting Palestinian wine as an act of faith
Taybeh - Nearly 20 years ago, Nadim Khoury created the first Palestinian brewery. Now, with his son Canaan, he wants to add the Palestinian territories to the map of the world’s wineries.
The pair founded a winery in the village of Taybeh in the hills of the occupied West Bank in 2013 and the Christian family is now, along with the Salesian priests from the Cremisan monastery near Bethlehem, one of a handful of significant producers of wine in the Palestinian territories.
“Since the time of Christ, people have made wine in the Holy Land,” said Nadim Khoury, whose given name in Arabic refers to a sometimes tipsy meal companion, a character found in pre-Islamic poetry.
“My grandmother and grandfather pressed grapes at home,” added Nadim’s daughter Madees. Their descendants want to “increase production and improve quality”, she said.
Around 20 varieties of grapes are grown in the West Bank and account for a key part of Palestinian agriculture, second only perhaps to olives. Vineyards cover about 5% of cultivated land in the West Bank and annually produce more than 50,000 tonnes of grapes, according to the Palestinian Agriculture Ministry.
Vine-dotted terraces are cut into steep hills and in kitchens across the territories, the fruit is used for desserts and consumed freshly squeezed. Grape leaves, stuffed with rice or meat, are a staple of family meals and holiday feasts.
Palestinians, 98% of whom are Muslim, produce little wine, despite the West Bank being far from devoid of it.
Some 400,000 Jewish settlers have moved to land Israel occupied in 1967 in a situation never recognised by the international community. Those settlers have established more than 20 vineyards across the region.
For Khoury, producing a Palestinian wine is as much a matter of taste as an act of faith in the Palestinian cause.
Christians represent 90% of the population of Taybeh — one of the highest concentrations in the West Bank.
The Khourys produce 30,000- 35,000 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah wines a year from local grapes, using oak barrels imported from Italy and France.
Farther south, near Hebron, known as one of the most conservative areas in the West Bank, the Zeini grape is cultivated. The Khourys are seeking to have the Zeini recognised as the first Palestinian grape.
At the Khourys’ vineyard nearly 1,000 metres above sea level, vintners make a fragrant wine that is fermented and aged in steel tanks, perfect for the summer heat of the region’s hills and as an accompaniment to grilled chicken.
Helping to sort the fruit on a conveyor belt leading to a mechanical press, Madees said they want to help publicise the Palestinian territories, despite the state not having full recognition from the United Nations.
As such, exporting a wine from “Palestine” is far from easy.
“The free trade agreements with the United States, for example, say the ‘West Bank’ but not ‘Palestine’, so we had to change our labels,” said Nadim Khoury.
The front of the bottle says “Palestine” but the label on the back of the bottle reads “Taybeh, West Bank”.
“God willing, before Christmas our wine will be sold in the United States,” said Khoury. He is, he said, proud of his “great achievement of having kept the name of Palestine”.
The Palestinian territories suffer from a lack of organised industries and regulations, so it took two years to get the Palestinian Authority label required for export.
The environment is favourable to viticulture, said Ghassan Cassis, who farms in the family vineyards in Bir Zeit near Ramallah, selling the grapes to Nadim Khoury for pressing.
“We are 750 metres above the sea, humidity and dew evaporate quickly and the sunshine is good,” said Cassis, who trained in Australia before coming home.
However, he bemoaned the lack of skilled labour in the area.
Khoury, meanwhile, is realistic about the future of Palestinian viticulture.
“Latrun, which was a Palestinian city of wine until the 1967 war, is now in Israel and produces a wine sold as Israeli,” he said.
The monastery of Cremisan has for years been under pressure from the nearby separation wall built by Israel in a bid to protect Israelis from attackers from the West Bank, he said.
Khoury said he worries that Taybeh could one day become the only traditional winery in the Palestinian territories.