Making Fine Wine in Palestine, Despite It All | Wine Enthusiast
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Making Fine Wine in Palestine, Despite It All

Winemaker Sari Khoury of Philokalia Wines is not allowed to check on his vines right now. The 100-year-old vineyard, located in the West Bank of Palestine, sits against the border wall of an Israeli settlement. A military watch tower looms overhead.

Khoury is one of a dozen winemakers in the West Bank. It is about 45 miles from Gaza, where war has been waging since the October 7, 2023 Hamas-led attack on Israel that left more than 1,200 Israelis and foreigners dead. A May report by the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs puts the death toll in Gaza at 34,735 Palestinian fatalities.

Khoury and other winemakers have struggled to keep their businesses afloat in the aftermath.

Most wineries in Israel and Palestine were in mid-harvest when the attacks and counterstrikes began. Many harvest workers were called to military service, leaving grapes to rot.

“Can Palestine produce quality wine, even in these difficult circumstances?” Khoury asks. “I say, ‘yes.’ Most Palestinians will say ‘no.’ I am testing that on myself.”

Though Khoury lost his olive harvest last fall, he was one of the few winemakers in the area who completed his 2023 grape harvest. It happened mostly by chance.

Because he wanted to celebrate his father’s birthday on October 7—the day of the deadly attack—Khoury decided to pick his grapes on October 6.

There’s no telling if harvest will be possible this year or if it’s top of mind for locals, but Khoury hopes it will be permitted.

“Wine is taboo for the majority of the population here. [Winemakers] are not considered important,” Khoury says. “So, you start to question yourself—does this matter? Is it superficial?”

Portrait of Sari Khoury
Portrait of Sari Khoury – Image Courtesy of Sari Khoury

Why It Does Matter

Formerly an architect in Paris, Khoury is a poet at heart. Philokalia translates to “love of the beautiful, the good” and Khoury says he’s on a mission to find beauty through his wines.

Like any winemaker, his pursuit begins with terroir. It’s a popular word, “terroir,” which often gets muddled. At its core, terroir is the soil—a grounding source of place and history in a wine—giving it an identity. Where Khoury lives, terroir, identity and a sense of normalcy are precious commodities.

Khoury’s vines, the oldest of which are 110 years old, have both experienced hardship and healed over the years. He says they were crushed under boulders by the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) to make settlements and roads in the early 2000s and again in 2021. Despite the work, some of the vines grew around the boulders, enabling him to produce his first vintage in 2015.

“If you stick to it, you learn to find beauty in suffering,” Khoury says. “It becomes a guiding star and a source of hope. For me, the wine has to rise above the suffering.”

The winery sits about 3,000 feet above sea level, with the Mediterranean Sea to the west and the Dead Sea to the east, offering a large diurnal shift in temperatures. The well-drained soil is a mixture of clay and limestone. Khoury’s production is small, with 10,000 bottles total, a thousand of them dedicated to arak, a fragrant liqueur made from fermented grapes and aniseed. The vineyard is dry-farmed with no tilling, and the wines are made with minimal intervention, fining and filtering.

Among Philokalia Wines’ offerings is the 2022 Stubborn Saints, a chillable red with a pale ruby color and notes of wild strawberries, roses, hard candy, watermelon and herbs. Its low alcohol and light body make it an elegant summer sipper.

There’s also the 2021 Grapes of Wrath (a cult favorite among many wine lovers), an amber wine made with a blend of indigenous grapes aged in amphorae. With notes of honey, orange pith, honeysuckle, dried apricot, herbs and a distinct aroma of golden raisins warmed in ghee, this wine has a long finish and balanced structure.

Also in the mix: the 2021 Anima Syriana, the boldest of the lineup, with a medium ruby color, velvety mouthfeel and notes of blackberries, blueberries, bramble and maraschino cherries.

All are dry and benefit from decanting. The grapes are not revealed on the bottles, which contain a blend of old-vine native varieties. Khoury’s reasoning for keeping the grapes unknown is that he believes not enough research and wine history exists for the vinifera of his region. Until there is adequate literature on the grapes, Khoury believes in safeguarding the varietals to prevent them from being exploited for their exoticness.

“While the rest of the world enjoys sharing its viticultural heritage, I don’t know of anyone having theirs stolen so blatantly,” Khoury says.

Zachary Engel
Zachary Engel chef at Galit - Photography by Sandy Noto

Limited Supply and Increasing Demand

Though local wine consumption has declined substantially because of the war, with domestic sales plummeting over 60%, according to the Israeli Wine Producers Association (IWPA), demand for Middle Eastern wines has increased in the U.S.

Zachary Engel, the executive chef and owner of Galit, a Michelin-starred restaurant in Chicago, says people have become increasingly curious about wines from the region.

“The demand for a lot of our wines, specifically through Palestine and Lebanon, was a lot higher this year,” Engle says. “It seemed like people were not paying attention or really interested in a lot of these wines until the war started. I think that people were like, what can we do to be in solidarity with the Palestinians in Gaza? And I think that's a really nice sentiment.”

Engel is Jewish, and his business partner and wine list curator, Andrés Clavero, is part-Palestinian. Together, they have built a regionally-inspired menu of foods and wines from both Israel and Palestine, including Philokalia Wines’ Grapes of Wrath, Stubborn Saints and Red Bethlehem.

Those bottles are also on the list at Albi in Washington D.C., another Michelin-starred restaurant, and on retail shelves in Michigan, California, New York, Chicago and other U.S. cities.

“We’re seeing a boom,” says wine importer and distributor Jason Bajalia of Terra Sancta Trading Company. “Some of it is for fundraisers, for Gaza charity dinners. But that won’t exist once the war is over. At the same time, thousands of new people are being exposed to [Palestinian] wine.”

War may be a commoditizing factor in the popularization of wines from the region in the U.S., though Khoury and Bajalia both believe the wines can stand on their own accord, pointing to their quality and unique history. Case in point, Philokalia’s 2021 Grapes of Wrath won a gold medal at the San Francisco International Wine Competition in 2023.

Bottles of Philokalia wines at Galit
Bottles of Philokalia wines at Galit - Photography vy Kevin White / Kinship

The Future of Palestinian Wine

“Circumstances are what I’ve been given in life, so I deal with it,” Khoury says. “What happens tomorrow when things get back to a more normal?”

For now, Khoury is unsure when he can work on his vines. He will attempt to do so in the coming weeks, to check for mold and other diseases. If there is a military action in the area, he will be forced to retreat and let the grapes take their own course. But Khoury is cautiously realistic about this year’s harvest.

“I’m interested to produce one of the finest wines in the world but it’s a long-term game,” Khoury says. “We have to go one day at a time, really. We don’t know.”

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