In the Middle East, some notable Muslim areas include Palestine, Syria, and Lebanon. This article will extensively discuss the history of wine production and the related prospects of these areas.
Wine in Palestine
A historic Egyptian manuscript from the 14th century BC stated that :
“In Palestine, wine is more abundant than water.”
Palestine is officially governed by the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO). It also has claims over the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
However, in 1967, Israel took over the territory after the Six-Day War, also referred to as the June War.
As a whole, Palestine is comprised of land in the eastern Mediterranean. Moreover, it constitutes the Palestinian territories of the Gaza Strip—which is located on the Mediterranean Sea—and the West Bank—which lies west of the Jordan River. In addition, Palestine has been a controversial area in modern times.
Jerusalem Garden Tomb Wine Press by Gary Todd
History of Winemaking in Palestine
First millennium to the third millennium
In Palestine, viticulture and viniculture have a long history, and is considered to possess some of the oldest evidence of winemaking in the world.
Numerous archaeological studies and textual references have found that wine production saw immense popularity during the first millennium. It is thought evidence found of cultivated grapes date back to somewhere between 3300 BC and 1200 BC, during the era of the Bronze Age. Furthermore, the evidence of these records has been ascertained through various places in the Palestinian region, namely Arad, Jericho, Lachish, Ta’annek, Bab edh-Dhra, and Numeria.
The Natufian civilisation—originally known for being the ‘first agricultural civilisation’—was first named by archaeologists, having its roots as back as the 13th millennium BC. Located northwest of Jerusalem, this valley also had a site in the Raqefet cave south of Haifa in northern Palestine. Primarily, this region served as an internment place for the local Natufian people from 12,500 to 10,000 BC. It is most notably known for being the oldest alcohol-producing area in the entire globe.
Being the ancestors of the Palestinians, these people were the first to develop a habitation for themselves, and were able to cultivate the land and domesticate animals.
According to a British archaeologist, Kathlee Kenyon, Palestine had attained a high agricultural production standard by the 8th millennium BC. Moreover, it is predicted that the irrigation techniques developed for the oasis in Jericho must have been extremely well planned. For this purpose, there must have been a proper centralised system to manage it.
After understanding the different technologies the area possessed, one can envisage Jericho as a real city in terms of its social development.
Palestine has produced wine for export since 4000 to 3000 BC, or the Chalcolithic period. Evidence has been found showing wine was tremendously popular during this time. Around 3150 BC, Scorpion I of Dynasty 0, considered one of Egypt’s earliest leaders, was buried with around 700 jars of wine. Additionally, during that time, the inhabitants of Palestine were called the “Canaanites.” Archaeologists have also found evidence of a real wine industry which was either consumed locally or exported via the merchants to Egypt and Mesopotamia 4.
Moreover, Canaanite texts refer to wine on numerous occasions—stating it as the “blood of the vine“—used to be consumed in excellent glasses and kept in treasured jars. Records also show it was consumed along with sacred bread in the temple 5.
In the Roman era, it is stated that officials owned towns to control their winemaking production. It is also thought that the last meal of Christ was a driving factor behind wine’s popularity in the new faith 6.
During this time many regions were renown for quality wine including Askalan, Bissan, Al-Khalil (Hebron), Al Quds (Jerusalem), Gaza, Deir El-Balah, Ramallah, and Al-Jibe (near Jerusalem). So much so that a place called Al Quds, present in Jerusalem, was named the “mountain of wine, ” according to Arab historian, Yakout. The Romans loved Gaza’s wine, and actually exported it to Bordeaux, France during the 6th century 7.
Several Palestinian cities and villages carry names associated with vine and wine, including:
Carmel, Karma (“vine”)
Tulkarem (“mountain of the vineyard”)
Assira (“grape juice”)
Majd Al-Kouroum (“glory of the vines”)
Daliyat Al-Carmel (“hanging vine of Carmel”)
Fara near Safad (an Aramean word meaning “grape press”
Jet near Nablus (A Canaanite word that means “wine or olive press”)
Marousse (Syriac word meaning “those who press the wine”)
During the Islamic age, the export of Palestinian wine to the world was halted. However, production remained for local consumption. Moreover, during the era of the 10th Omayyad caliphate (724-43), an excellent royal wine press located in the Hisham palace depicted how common wine still was in this time. Many other pieces of evidence suggest that wine production was spread throughout Palestine.
In 1890, the Franciscans built the Latrun monastery, 15 kilometers south of Jerusalem, next to their winery. Similarly, in 1885, the Cremisan winery was built near their monastery, about five kilometers from the town of Bethlehem 6.
In 1935 Gustav Dalman, the German anthropologist published seven volumes revolving around wheat, olive, and wine themes. His books feature illustrated images depicting winemakers from Bethlehem pressing wine. The author observed that wild grapes grew in Galilee, which the Palestinians referred to as “Barrïeh,” meaning wild. In addition, he noticed that the new settlers shipped in European grapes, whereas the native Palestinians continued utilizing their local grapes.
Perhaps one of the most intriguing aspects of Palestinian wine production is their increasing use of indigenous grapes. Although some wineries blend indigenous and European grapes to make their wine, like the Cremisan Winery.
Famous Palestinian Wineries
There are various Palestinian wineries, and some of the most notable include Domaine de Latroun, Cremisan Winery, Ashkar Winery, Taybeh Winery, Jascala, Philokalia, Domaine Kassis, Holy Land, Chateau Laffey, Mony Vineyards, and Julia Winery .
Wine in Syria
Syria, or the Syrian Arab Republic, is a country in the region of Western Asia. Regarding its geographic zone, Syria is a Muslim-majority country located on the east coast of the Mediterranean Sea in South-Western Asia.
Moreover, Syria’s borders consist of the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Turkey to the north, Iraq to the east and southeast, Jordan to the south, and Israel and Lebanon to the southwest.
Regarding geographical area, today’s Syria does not correspond with ancient Syria. In ancient times it consisted of fertile land between the desert of Northern Arabia and the eastern coast of the Mediterranean.
Limestone stele depicting a Syrian mercenary drinking wine; reign of Akhenaten, Amarna Period, New Kingdom, 18th Dynasty Gary Todd from Xinzheng, China, CC0
In Syria, the wine culture is approximately as old as its capital, Damascus, which was formed in the 8th millennium BC. Moreover, Damascus is considered one of the oldest continuously inhabited regions in the world. One of the oldest preserved wine remnant in the world, a grape press dating back to 8000 BC, was discovered near the area. During the Ancient Greek-Roman period, grapes were densely grown over the slopes. At first, Christian Orthodox monks developed and systematically cultivated wine in Syria, which at that time was not very widespread.
Currently, due to political instability and civil war the total number of wineries in Syria is unknown. But the most famous is called Domaine de Bargylus.
Domaine de Bargylus
Domaine de Bargylus is found on the slopes of the Coastal Mountain Range in Syria. In the Hellenistic and Roman ages, these mountains—collectively known as ‘Mount Bargylus’—were significant in producing wines until the dawn of Islam. Today, this winery is being handled by two brothers, Karim and Sandro Saadé, with the aid of the well-known consultant, Stephane Derenoncourt 9. These brothers bought 12 hectares of land around a place called Latakia, at a altitude of approximately 900 meters in 1997. In 2003, they planted vineyards and created their winery. Some wine critics describe their wines as “the finest wine of the Eastern Mediterranean.” However, since the civil war began, the two brothers have not been able to visit Domaine de Bargylus for security reasons. Consequently, they are managing the entire business by telephone from Lebanon .
Various red wines are made, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, and Merlot. For whites, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc are used.
Wine in Lebanon
Lebanon, or Republic of Lebanon (also called the Lebanese Republic), is located in Western Asia. Lebanon is a Muslim-majority country located on the eastern coast of the Mediterranean Sea.
Lebanon is one of the smallest countries in the world in terms of geographical area. The third-largest city in the Levant state, Beirut, is the capital of this country. It is located to the south and west of Syria, the north of Israel, and the east of the Mediterranean Sea. Lebanon’s population is approximately six million people, spread over 10,452 square kilometers (4,036 square miles).
Roman grotto at Chateau Ksara winery in Lebanon MyaBell117, CC BY-SA 4.0
It has been reported that Lebanon is one of the oldest wine producing areas in the world. Wine has been made here for over 5,000 years. It all began when the Phoenicians started domesticating grapes. Coming from the coastal strip, these Phoenicians primarily spread their wine culture and viticulture across the Mediterranean. Despite the various conflicts in this region, the country still manages to have an annual production of about around 8.5 million bottles of wine.
Originally, the term ‘wine’ was coined from a Phoenician word describing grape fermentation. The Phoenicians were highly skilled in viticulture; thus, it was not only a source of pride for the people, but also revenue. Interestingly, Robert Ballard—a retired Navy officer who discovered the Titanic wreck—found two Phoenician ships dating back to 750 BC. They contained a cargo of wine still intact. It proved the Phoenicians kept their wine in amphorae, which they closed by by layering it with olive oil and sealing it with resin and pine. The Egyptians, who had difficulty making quality wines compared to the Phoenicians, became a leading consumer of their wines. The Ancient Greeks were taught winemaking techniques from the Phoenicians and eventually brought the knowledge to Europe.
When Lebanon became part of the Arab world, alcohol production was halted, except for Christian religious purposes.
Modern Lebanese winemaking began in 1857 when Jesuit Monks planted grapevines in the Bekaa Valley, and created a winery called Chateau Ksara. The monks planted Cinsault, Grenache, and Carignan grapevines that were brought from Algeria. After nearly a decade, Domaine des Tourelles was established by French engineer, Eugene Brun. At this time, the Ottoman Empire ruled the area of Lebanon. Afterwards, it was held under the French mandate.
Moreover, Lebanon’s most famous winery, the Gaston Huchar, was founded by Chateau Musar in 1930. The country’s capital emerged as an international city after World War II, owing to its strong French influence. As a result, this raised the quality of the Lebanese wine industry, and the wines became more French in terms of style.
Although the wine industry in Lebanon is now well established, unstable political issues have brought significant challenges to production. Due to the constant wars with Israel and terrorist attacks, winemaking has become a life-risking attempt. An example of this is Morard from Chateau Kefraya, who was an Israeli spy arrested for knowing how to make wine. Similarly, in the 2006 Israeli bombing, the winery lost most of its harvest due to a lack of workers.
Having about 300 days of sunshine each year, Lebanon has a long growing season. In the Bekaa Valley, vineyards flourish, and many wineries are located here. Due to its past, the wine industry’s French influence can still be felt. Some of the region’s most densely planted grape varieties include Merlot, Carignan, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cinsault, and Mourvedre. In total, Lebanon produces approximately 0.6 million cases of wine each year.
In Lebanon, the largest winery is known as the Chateau Ksara. The name was derived from the word Ksar — previously a stronghold utilised during the Crusades. Originally, the Jesuits created this winery and planted their first vineyard in 1857. At first, the wine cellar was a Roman grotto or a natural cave. Then during World War I, the Jesuits expanded these grottos to develop an employment system for people similar to the WPA 12. In 1972, it was sold to private investors. However, this winery almost went out of business due to the Civil Wars and other divergences. However, in the 1990s, further investments helped this winery get back on its feet. Today, Chateau Ksara makes about 1.6 million cases on an annual basis. Their wines include seven reds, three rosés, and a fortified wine.
After Chateau Ksara, the second-largest winery in Lebanon is Chateau Kefraya. It was established in 1951 and sold to Walid Jublat in the 1980s. Their wines include four reds, two whites, four rosés, and a dessert wine.
Chateau Musar is the best-known winery in Lebanon, and possibly even the Middle East. This winery was a favourite of the English journalist and novelist, Auberon Waugh. Musar attained international fame at the Bristol Wine Fair of 1979.
This winery is the only Lebanese winery that is widely exported around the world. Moreover, Musar is also known for transporting grapes on the frontline during the Civil War.
Lebanese winemakers use many French varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Rhône varietals. The more specific indigenous grapes to Lebanon—such as Obaideh and Marwah—are also present.
Currently, the wine industry exports over 50% of its production, mainly to the United Kingdom, France, and the United States.
“Wine in Palestine | Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung | Palestine and Jordan.” n.d. Heinrich-Böll-Stiftung. Accessed August 29, 2022. https://ps.boell.org/en/2021/08/21/wine-palestine.