Palestine, land of promise

“Palestine was rich in vineyards long before Europe, and wine was produced here in all parts of the country”. It was with these words, filled with joy and a deep love for this great welcoming land, that we were receive by Sari Khoury, winemaker and founder of the Philokalia estate, at the gates of Bethlehem.

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THE OLIVE, THE VINEYARD AND THE WHEAT

I was looking forward to visiting Palestine. I have always wanted to visit here. This viticultural home full of promise fascinates me. A millenary terroir for the vine – less known than the Caucasus region, for example – but where wine and olive oil were already exported to Egypt 6000 years ago, for their recognized qualities. Which means that wine existed here before.

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The olive tree, the vine and the wheat have been domesticated for 7000 years in Palestine, especially in the Jordan Valley, where these plants did not grow naturally before“, according to Nasser Soumi, Palestinian artist and writer, who designs the labels of Philokalia.

The agricultural history of the country is great, as is the history of wine, full of forgotten native grape varieties, real treasures of the local wine heritage.

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Today, there are a dozen small estates in Palestine, half of which would market their wines. We set our sights on the most promising of them.

PHILOKALIA, FROM DREAM TO REALITY

Revive the Palestinian vineyard through forgotten indigenous grape varieties. A very nice idea. This was originally the dream of two men : Nasser Soumi, recognized for his historical work on wine in Palestine, and Pascal Frissant, a French winemaker established in the Loire and Languedoc.

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They shared this dream for almost 30 years. It only remained to find the person who would want to carry this project at arm’s length. I decided to make it a reality in my hometown“, Sari Khoury explained with stars in his eyes.

Sari was born and raised in Palestine. He studied architecture in the United States, then in Paris, at the School of Ponts et Chaussées, before becoming a renowned architect, in his country and abroad.

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If he puts on a winegrower’s hat for part of the year, it’s first of all for the love of wine and his country. “I like to explore the unknown with these forgotten grape varieties, and at the same time discover a little more of my own culture“. Although Sari has become a winemaker only recently (it’s his 3rd vintage), he knew exactly where he was heading from the start. He has chosen to call his project Philokalia, which translates into the love of beauty, the love of good. All a symbol.

WORKING WITH CONSCIENTIOUS FARMERS

The vineyards with which Sari works are located in the Bethlehem/Hebron region, between 870 and 930 meters above sea level, and seem to harbor an invaluable cultural heritage.

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Recent genetic tests have revealed about 23 endemic varieties, just in this region, with more research to be done in the future.

Sari surrounded himself by only a handful of farmers, chosen for very specific reasons. For their techniques of ancestral viticultural culture, undocumented and transmitted orally, first of all, but also for the autochthonous varieties that they cultivate. “I develop my wines exclusively with native grapes, on old ungrafted vines“.

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Sari also pays farmers in advance, to develop a long-term relationship of trust with them.

In a country with permanent instability, where land can be confiscated overnight and for no apparent reason, it is also a way to help one another and to view the future together in a positive light. “The sooner the financial aspect is settled, the sooner we can focus on the production and quality of the grapes“, Sari summarized.

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Strolling through centuries-old vines, growing naturally in goblet on soils untouched by any treatment, in the middle of older olive trees, I realized how ingenious this ancestral system was.

The vine, with its protective foliage, adapts perfectly to the arid climatic conditions of Palestine, where it is impossible to irrigate. In the end, some grapes will be more ripe than others during the harvest.

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And it is this natural balance between the over-ripeness of some grapes on one side and the acidity of some greener grapes on the other, which will give the wine its complexity, texture and unique character. Beautiful.

THE BLACK JARRES OF BETHLEHEM

Entering the garage of Sari’s family house in Bethlehem, where he built the cellar of the Philokalia estate and in which a few hundred liters of wine sleeps, gave me immense happiness. Everything here is thought of with simplicity and ingenuity.

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My goal is to work using black jars for both the fermentation and the aging of the native Palestinian grape varieties I use, in order to preserve the balance between these wines and the local cuisine, too spicy for barrel-aged wines“.

I wondered, however : why use black jars? “In the past, wine and olive oil were kept in black jars like these. It’s made from the same earth and the same material as the classic jars.

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Except that the temparature during its production differs from the classic jars: instead of 800°C, it rises up to 1100°C, which significantly reduces the porosity of the jar and gives it an excellent seal, offering the wine natural protection against oxidation“.
The results are incredible. No doubt, Philokalia is on the right track and puts Palestine more than ever on the world wine map!

Palestine is a wonderful land, full of hope, humanity and promise, notably with wine.

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The potential for great wines is undeniable, especially if they are made from indigenous grape varieties, whose names are for the moment a carefully kept secret. This is normal. Palestine, we will be back soon. For your welcome and your good wines.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Sari Khoury and his family for their warm welcome. Thank you also to Nasser Soumi for welcoming me to his home in Paris to tell me more about the history of wine in Palestine. Finally, thank you to Clément Marcorelles, for having so kindly put me in touch with Sari Khoury a few years ago.
The world is beautiful and we are all brothers, with the same rights.

Israel, a perfume of renewal

Welcome to Israel, land of wine since ancient times. A vineyard in full change over the past twenty-five years, where dozens of small cellars emerge, producing a few thousand bottles each, alongside a handful of giants, which dominate the industry.

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FROM THE SHADOW TO THE LIGHT

The Israeli vineyard dates back far. In the middle of the seventh century, the Muslim conquest marked a brutal stop for viticulture, for more than 1,200 years. It was only from the end of the 19th century, in 1882 to be exact, that the culture of the vineyard restarted under the impulse of a Frenchman, the Baron Edmond de Rothschild (château Lafite).

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Divided into five regions – with Galilee to the north, the Judean Hills, surrounding the city of Jerusalem, Samson, located between the Judean hills and the coastal plain, the Negev to the south (semi-arid desert region) and the plain of Sharon, near the Mediterranean coast – the wine industry in Israel has developed a lot in terms of quality since the 80s. Previously, there were only about fifteen players. Currently, it is estimated that around 250 wineries exist in Israel. Although 5 large producers still dominate the Israeli wine landscape, accounting for more than 80% of the total production.

RECANATI WINERY, THE BEAUTIFUL ASCENT

Founded in 2000 by Lenny Recanati and Uri Shaked, the Recanati estate is one of those soaring vineyards that in just a few years has managed to make a name for itself on the international market.

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The winery, located an hour north of Tel Aviv, works with 90 hectares of vineyards under contract across the country, on some of the most beautiful terroirs, such as the Golan Heights and the Judean Hills. Recognized for working with Mediterranean grape varieties such as Petite Sirah, Marselan and Carignan, Recanati also relies on international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, which appeared in Israel in the 1970s-80s.

In the company of Gil Shatsberg, the chief-winemaker and vice-President of the estate, we visited a new plot of 3 hectares, planted by Recanati a year ago in the north of the country, less than 1km from the Lebanese border and only 15 km from the sea.

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A beautiful place at 650m altitude, with a cool breeze coming from the sea and where Recanati planted the local varieties Argaman(1) (red) and Marawi (white). We are already longing to taste the result of this new production!

TZORA VINEYARDS, THE ART OF BLENDING

Established in 1996 in the Judean Hills, west of Jerusalem, Tzora Vineyards is a key estate of Israel. Located at an altitude of 700 meters, this 20-hectare vineyard is surprising.

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I felt a great energy from the soil there, consisting of very old fossil stones. It has been divided into meso-climates. A methodical process which has allowed the recognizion of different soils on the same site, in order to plant the right varieties in the right place : Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay (there is even a touch of Gewürztraminer).

I believe in international grape blends“, Eran Pick MW, the winemaker and estate manager, who excels in this exercise, confessed.

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A meticulous art in collaboration with the French consultant Jean-Claude Berrouet (formerly Petrus’ technical director). The result : beautiful and elegant wines with a lot of freshness, depth and balance, even for white wines. Superb!

A NEW WAVE OF WINEMAKERS

We talked about it in the preamble, the Israeli vineyard has seen many talents emerging in recent years. Small ventures for the most part, which do not lack ideas.

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As at Kadma, a family estate as small as it is charming, established in 2010 in Kfar Uriah, in the foothills of Judea. It is currently the only winery in Israel to use large clay jars in the wine production process, made in Georgia (not to be confused with Georgian amphoras, named qvevri, which are buried in the ground).

A lovely winery which is the result of extensive research, in collaboration with Professor Amos Hadas (author of Vine and Wine in the Archeology of Ancient Israel) and Dr. Arkadi Papikian, a recognized Israeli wine producer.

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The fermentation in these clay jars gives the wine unique aromas and flavors“, Lina Slutzkin, the founder and owner of Kadma explained: resin, tobacco, black fruit and exotic woods. Fresh and juicy wines that go well with local grilled meat. The Israeli vineyard has not finished surprising us.

The goal now is to understand what will be the next stage in the development of this booming wine industry of incredible potential. Investing in native grape varieties, to give more identity to the local vineyard, could be one of the keys.

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As far as I know, the main objective is to educate young Israelis to love wine, so that the industry has a solid future to rely on“, Itay Gleitman, journalist at Haaretz said. To follow closely.

WineExplorers’cheers,
JBA

 

Thank you to Recanati, Tzora Vineyards and Kadma, for their warm welcome. Finally, thanks to Haaretz journalist Itay Gleitman for this valuable information about the Israeli vineyard.

(1) Argaman is a crossing of Souzão (a red grape from Portugal) and Carignan (a red grape from France).