The Vineyard on the Israeli-Palestinian Border

Courtesy of Cremisan Wine Estate

By Priya Krishna Posted October 18, 2016

This beautiful vineyard also happens to sit directly on top of one of the most contentious borders in the world.

Situated about seven miles from Jerusalem is one of the most beautiful wineries you will ever encounter: the Cremisan Wine Estate. It has all the qualities of an Instagram-perfect landscape—sloping hills, breathtakingly tall pine trees, and wide-open fields—plus a rare selection of wines made with grapes that have been cultivated on the land for hundreds of years.

The winery also happens to sit directly on top of one of the most contentious borders in the world: that of Israel and Palestine. Cremisan is a true study in boundary breaking. While many of the grapes are grown on the so-called Israeli side, the wine production happens largely on the so-called Palestinian side. This may seem like an unconventional set-up—and it is—but in fact, the winery, its buildings, and its vineyards have existed for centuries, predating even the beginnings of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the late nineteenth century.

This area is just like heaven," says George Ziad Bitar. "We understand there are problems with the political situation, but we invite people to come visit us. Because if you don't see it with your own eyes you will never understand how beautiful it is."

Cremisan was built in 1863 by an Italian missionary named Antonio Bellone—it was originally meant to function as a shelter for orphans. In order to keep the shelter running and guarantee the orphans work, Bellone established a winery for producing mass wine, used for church proceedings. Before his death, he partnered with Don Bosco, the founder of the Salesian congregation (a group of Roman Catholics), and since then, the Salesian community has supported the winery—turning it into an institute for philosophical studies and cultivating new vineyards and olive groves. The name, "Cremisan" comes from "Kerem Zan," a reference to the Zan grape varietal that grows on the vineyard.

For most of the twentieth century, Cremisan served a simple purpose, offering only mass wine—but sales started to decline after the Palestinian uprising in 2000. Around the same time, the winery was discovered by world-renowned Italian enologist, Riccardo Cotarella. He realized that the region was filled with interesting local varieties of grapes that could produce "unique, special wines" that spoke to the location's distinct terroir, says George Ziad Bitar, the Executive Director of Cremisan. Cotarella decided to partner with Cremisan to help the winery go beyond just mass wine, and to showcase these particular Middle Eastern wines that would eventually put the Cremisan name on the global map.

The varieties that have since been developed serve to highlight the area's ancient grapes, which date back several hundreds of years, according to Bitar. These grapes have a "special aroma," according to Bitar, producing wines that are distinctly "fresh" and "longlasting." These wines include Dabouki, a red with strong notes of grapefruit, salt, and lemon, and the Hamdani & Jandali, a white blend that tastes strongly of pineapple and banana. Bitar says the wines pair uniquely well with the rich, savory dishes of the region, like Maqluba, a dish of meat, rice, and potatoes that have been cooked in a pot and then flipped over when served.

In over a hundred years, Bitar says, the winemaking process has not changed—though the machinery has been slightly upgraded. The winemakers still abide by the Italian traditions of using oak barrels and stainless steel tanks that Bellone would have followed in the nineteenth century.

Bitar is reticent to talk about the conflict that surrounds him, for obvious reasons. But he does tell me that he laments that the winery does not receive more visitors due to the situation in the West Bank. "This area is just like heaven," he says. "The ambiance, the atmosphere, the greenery, the cleanliness of the area—the panorama here is incredible. We understand there are problems with the political situation, but we invite people to come visit us. Because if you don't see it with your own eyes you will never understand how beautiful it is." One side effect of the conflict is that because the area is so contentious, very few factories or houses have been built in the vicinity of the winery—so the place's natural beauty has been uniquely preserved over time.

Bitar also views the winery's purpose as an opportunity to show people how much the Middle East has to offer by way of wine—a category that has not often figured into the food culture of the area before, as every city has its own very particular drink. "We are trying to get wine in every house in the Middle East," he says. "And slowly, slowly, we are succeeding." Cremisan's wines have already proven to be a hit outside of the Middle East; they recently partnered with an international distributor to bring their wine to acclaimed restaurants in the United States (like Dizengoff, in New York) and parts of Europe (like Ottolenghi, in London, which named Cremisan's Hamdani & Jandali white as a wine of the month).

So while the Israeli-Palestinian conflict certainly affects the winery's day-to-day existence, Bitar is confident that Cremisan will always remain an important landmark of the area.

"I get the question, 'What would you do about the wall—if it was here or there?' I answer with a few words: with the wall, without the wall, we do not care. Cremisan will exist forever."

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