by Anna Greenhous

Making wine on the West Bank

Imagine a wine region where delays at checkpoints are a part of daily life and your land can be confiscated at any time for “security reasons”. Where daily life is made so unpredictable that it is hard to plan each day, let alone for the future. Most wine producers only have to worry about vintage variation – hail, drought, frost – and the threat of vineyard diseases, but on the West Bank there are other, even more pressing concerns.

Taybeh, the first micro-brewery in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, is branching out into wine-making. Despite the brewery’s success, it has faced a lot of challenges. The occupation has affected production dramatically due to the need to import raw materials (such as hops and barley) into the West Bank and the restriction to water access, with beer production itself under constant threat as it can, and has been, suddenly halted if the borders are shut down.

The idea to open a winery came because brewer and winemaker, Canaan Khoury (pictured), wanted to create something more sustainable in terms of production by sourcing everything locally. Even if the borders are shut, “we can get the grapes from local farmers, produce our own wine and sell it without the need for anything from abroad.”

However, problems have blighted the venture: “I received a letter saying that 14,000 square metres of our land, our future vineyards, were being taken away from us by the Israeli government for ‘security reasons’.” The letter took three months to arrive having been sent, not by normal post, but via a Bedouin nomad who gave it to a supermarket in Taybeh, who then passed it on to the Mayor, who then handed it to them.

By the time they received the letter, the deadline within which they were allowed to oppose the decision had passed, so they couldn’t appeal it. His frustration is evident: “if the claim is ‘for security reasons’, according to the Geneva Convention, that basically makes it legal. They don’t have to specify what the security reason is… I have no idea how my vineyards are going to affect the security of Israel. They can claim anything”.

This has meant losing 36% of the vineyards. Despite the financial hit, it’s very demoralising “it’s not a nice feeling to get a letter overnight saying everything you’ve been doing for the past two years has been taken away for a very vague reason” he explains. The land itself remains untouched, although he doesn’t dare try to access it for maintenance work, in the remote hope it is returned to them. There’s a watch tower close by manned by armed Israeli soldiers so “There’s always that worry that something might happen.” to him if he does.

Exporting is also expensive and challenging. It costs more to transport their beer to Ashdod [one of the main cargo ports in Israel) than all the way to Japan. Khoury explains “We send it in a Palestinian truck, it goes through an Israeli checkpoint where it has to be unloaded from the truck, and inspected, then loaded onto an Israeli vehicle. So we have to have two drivers and the process takes the whole day.” Without these obstacles it would take about an hour, and considerably less money to get the cargo to port.

Whether or not the checkpoints are even open is unpredictable. Some of the reasons cited by Israeli soldiers for sudden closures are hard to foresee –such as the ground being too hot for the sniffer dogs (who inspect the trucks) to walk on. Despite attempts at careful planning they simply aren’t able to predict if a particular checkpoint is going to be closed.

Availability of water is another major problem. Israel controls Palestinians’ access to water. Khoury describes how you can differentiate between Palestinian and Israeli settler homes and businesses in the West Bank. Those belonging to Palestinians have large, water storage tanks clearly visible on their roofs, something Israeli settlers don’t need because they have a constant, abundant supply of water.

By contrast, Palestinians don’t always know when the water will be turned on, it could be at any time of day or night, or on any random day. So when the water is turned on, he needs to make sure he fills up all his tanks to get as much water as possible stored for later use. Taybeh village should get water once a week, but often gets less in the summer when it can come as little as once a month.

The winery mainly needs water to irrigate the vineyards, but also for winemaking. During harvest, in August to October, a lot of water is needed for cleaning. Khoury finds it hard to schedule a specific day to clean the tanks, because he doesn’t know when the water will come. “For the brewery it’s a bigger problem because the beer is basically 90% water. If you can’t have water you can’t really brew beer,” he says.

The expansion of the Israeli settlements in the West Bank, which are considered illegal by the United Nations under international law, has made the problem worse. “We’ve noticed more restricted access with the water due to the expansion of the settlements around Taybeh. There are three settlements and they are expanding constantly. That is why we get less water every year – they control the supply”. And when it does come, it’s expensive for Palestinians, while Israeli settlement vineyards have a subsidy for water for agriculture.

Making wine on the West Bank

Vine cultivation for wine as a Palestinian tradition:

The winery was originally founded in 2013, building on the success of Khoury’s family’s brewery in the Christian Palestinian village of the same name. “My father and uncle started Taybeh brewery in 1995”, he says, both having spent time studying in Boston which had a burgeoning brewing scene. It was “after the Oslo agreement, so they assumed there would be peace. They were very optimistic”.

Winemaking can be traced back thousands of years in this region, one of the earliest in the world to cultivate grapes for wine. The area around the winery is called “El Enbaat” meaning ‘the vineyards’ because the area used to be covered with vines before they were destroyed by phylloxera. Now most of the vines are grafted onto resistant American rootstock, a technique used across the world to stop the insects causing irreparable damage which kills the vines.

Winemaking is a local tradition. In Christian Palestinian towns and villages, families make their own wine at home and almost every family has their own vine. These huge vine trees “provide shade for the family to sit under as well as fruit”, explains Khoury. The wine is made around August, then at Christmas, it’s traditional to visit family members to celebrate and share the wine which is typically sweet and high in alcohol. Khoury started winemaking with his grandmother as part of this tradition.

Having now tried wines from all over the world, Khoury set out to make mainly dry styles of wine for an international palate, whilst keeping a local identity using locally grown grapes cultivated by Palestinians. Although, Taybeh gets a lot of requests for sweet wine, so have also made a more traditional, sweet style using Cabernet Sauvignon” “I let the grapes hang until October so they were dried with a high sugar content” using them to make a very sweet, viscous wine with a good alcohol content “but using a modern approach, without adding any sugar”.

Establishing a local terroir:

Most of the grapes used to make the wine are sourced from local, mostly Christian farmers in nearby Birzeit and Aboud, where they grow international grape varieties: Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah and Sauvignon Blanc. Palestinian farmers had historically grown olive trees there. However, these were cut down by Israeli settlers, so the Italian and French government donated vines to enable the Palestinian owners to replant their fields and regain their livelihoods.

Initially there were no Palestinian wineries needing to buy their grapes, so they were sold to Israeli wineries. But the quality of the grapes suffered because they had to travel through Israeli checkpoints, often sitting in trucks for hours in the sun. The opening of Taybeh winery created a solution to the farmer’s problems, enabling them to sell their grapes locally, with no need to travel through checkpoints. So, the farmers don’t need to worry about their grapes getting spoilt, the grapes maintaining their freshness and quality, while simultaneously providing a sustainable source of grapes for the winery.

It hasn’t all been smooth-sailing though. Problems for the owners of the Birzeit vineyards continued, with settlers returning to vandalize their vineyards: “A lot of their vines were cut down -you’ll see a couple missing here and there, the farmer was forced to make a huge fence around his vineyard to make sure that doesn’t happen again.”

Taybeh’s other main source of grapes is Hebron where indigenous Palestinian grape varieties are grown, mainly by Muslim farmers, using traditional techniques: “The most common way is to grow the vine like a tree. The really old, traditional method is to grow the grapes on the ground, using hay to shade the grapes from the heat of the sun.”

Khoury has also planted his own vineyards mostly with local grape varieties. This is in part due to the difficulty of obtaining permits to import vines from outside of Israel, but also to do with their philosophy of making authentically Palestinian wine.

The majority of the wines produced are full to medium bodied, oak-aged reds made with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah, along with a little Sauvignon Blanc. There are also lots of local grape varieties he is experimenting with which he believes have great potential. “We’ve had a lot of success with Zeini, a 100% indigenous, Palestinian grape” he says excitedly.“Zeini makes a light-bodied white wine, with a low alcohol content,” Khoury says. It’s also very acidic which is unusual – growing grapes in a relatively hot environment tends to create grapes with more sugar and less acidity. Taybeh’s Zeini Blanc 2014 is most similar to Chardonnay or Chenin Blanc but with less acidity and ripe apple notes. Khoury recommends pairing it with grilled chicken, it also pairs beautifully with cheeses like Gruyère and Comté.

He’s also been making some wine with a red variety, Bittouni, which will hopefully be bottled in the next month. Canaan explains: “I can’t tell you what that’s like yet, the wine constantly changes in the barrels, which is so interesting to me”.

Despite being a relatively small area, there are many different microclimates in Palestine, each with their own unique terroir. Khoury explains: “Taybeh is around 1000m above sea level. In the winter there’s snow, and the summers are hot with cold nights. But drive 20 minutes East to Jericho and it is 400m below sea level, extremely hot, and there’s no winter. Harvest in Jericho is in May, in Taybeh it’s late August to September”. This gives the potential to make many different styles of wine, with different grape varieties suited to different terroir.

Making wine on the West Bank

The Future:

So what plans does he have for the future? “I hope to grow my own vineyards, be completely sustainable, experiment with all the different indigenous varieties, microclimates and terroirs that we have available.”

“We made around 30,000 bottles last year. We hope to expand to double our quantity, but don’t wish to exceed that number so as to maintain a boutique winery.” For Khoury, the hands on process is important: “I remember every barrel. Exceeding that quantity would diminish the point of our winery. If we mass produced we’d lose touch with the whole process”.

Israel already has a reputation for making quality wines, with vineyards in settlements near to Taybeh making wine mainly from international red grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz. Given the opportunity, Palestinian wine also has a great potential. It’s still early days, and a lot of work and obstacles lie ahead for Taybeh winery. But considering the reputation of the Khoury family’s already well-established brewery, and the sheer perseverance they’ve shown in making it work, we can expect to see some interesting wines coming out of Taybeh.

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