“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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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“.
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.