Palestinian family seeks to make a ripple with a tipple
NEARLY 20 years ago, Nadim Khoury created the first Palestinian brewery. Now, with his son Canaan, he wants to add Palestine to the map of the world’s wines.
In 2013, after Canaan returned from studying in the United States, they founded a winery in the village of Taybeh set in the hills of the occupied West Bank.
The Khourys, a Christian family, are one of only a handful of significant producers of wine in the Palestinian territories, along with the Salesian priests from the Cremisan monastery near Bethlehem.
“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 who can be found as far back as pre-Islamic poetry.
“My grandmother and grandfather pressed grapes at home,” added Khoury’s daughter Madees.
Their descendants now 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.
Vine-dotted terraces cling to steep hills, while in kitchens across the territories, the fruit is used for desserts and consumed freshly squeezed.
Their leaves, stuffed with rice or meat, are a staple of family meals and holiday feasts.
Vineyards cover about 5 percent of cultivated land in the West Bank, and annually produce more than 50,000 tonnes of grapes, according to the Palestinian agriculture ministry.
But Palestinians, 98pc of whom are Muslim, produce little to no wine despite the West Bank being far from devoid of it.
Some 400,000 Jewish settlers have moved to the land Israel occupied in 1967 in a situation never recognised by the international community.
And these 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 also represent 90pc of the population of Taybeh – one of the highest concentrations in the West Bank.
Every year the Khourys produce 30,000 to 35,000 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah red and white wines made from local grapes, using oak barrels imported from Italy and France.
Farther south, near the city of Hebron known as one of the most conservative in the West Bank, the Zeini grape is cultivated.
At the vineyard nearly 1000 metres (3280 feet) above sea level, they make a fragrant wine that is fermented and aged in steel tanks – perfect for the summer heat of the Palestinian hills and as an accompaniment to grilled chicken.
The Khourys are now seeking recognition of the Zeini as the first Palestinian grape.
Helping to sort the fruit on a conveyor belt leading to a mechanical press, Madees says they want to help publicise Palestine, despite the state still not having received 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 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 US,” 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 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 bemoans the lack of skilled labour in the sector.
Nadim, 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 Palestine”.
Nadim Khoury fills a glass with his locally made wine.
A Palestinian youth holds grapes at a vineyard in the West Bank.