Italy's Vintners to the Rescue of Cremisan Monks

The monastery's wine had fallen off the radar. The turning point 10 years ago arrived with Christian pilgrims.

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The trip on the road ascending from Jerusalem’s Tisch Family Zoological Gardens (a.k.a. the Biblical Zoo) to the Cremisan Monastery triggered an adrenaline rush I haven’t experienced for a long time, and not because I had crossed into Area C, beyond the Green Line. I have always been fascinated by monasteries. The silence and the mystery between their walls that seem to reveal only a little of what they have hidden - they arouse in me an uncontrollable desire to go inside. So when I recently tasted the new wines produced at Cremisan Cellars I saw a rare opportunity to combine two of my passions. I decided the next winery I visit would be the one at the monastery just a few kilometers outside Bethlehem.

There’s a reason the story of Cremisan Cellars is a breath of fresh air for the local wine scene. For quite a number of Israelis, the name of the winery conjures up a vague memory of a different time, when nobody had yet to dream of the term “boutique winery.”

After I published my impressions from the annual Sommelier exhibition in Tel Aviv, at which the Cremisan wines were first showcased under a new brand name, I was contacted by wine lovers who wondered what had happened to the winery. It had, after all, gone off the radar in the past two decades.

Apparently, the Marsala wines of Cremisan, which enhanced quite a few steaming cooking pots in Jerusalem of the 1980s, are not forgotten here so fast. But the Cremisan Cellars of 2014 is making every effort to shake the image of the too sweet, and cheap, Marsala wine, in a bid to make its way back to center stage. The appearance at the Tel Aviv exhibition is a first step in that direction.

'Hurts to see Italians preparing such wine'

The Cremisan Monastery, which was built in the late 19th century and today is located on the seam zone between Jerusalem and the West Bank, belongs to the Italian Salesian order, and is situated on a hill with a breathtaking view of rocky terraces and olive trees at its feet. In the not-too-distant past the place was bustling - insofar as monks are capable of bustling - and it housed a school for priests.

Nowadays, only six monks live here, and most of the training has been moved to other Salesian institutions in the area.

The turning point at the winery began about 10 years ago, at the end of the second intifada with the security situation became more stable. Christian pilgrims started visiting Bethlehem again, among them Sante Bonomo, the president of the Italian cooperative winery Civielle, which lies on the banks of Lake Garda. “Locals from Bethlehem told my father about Cremisan and he decided to visit the winery,” says Manuele Bonomo, the son of Sante Bonomo’s. “When he arrived at the place he was overcome with sadness. The vines were ruined, there was no proper equipment and the wine was bad. It hurt him to see Italians preparing such wine.”

The person in charge of producing the wine at the time was an elderly monk who had been the winery’s vintner for almost 40 years. According to Bonomo, the monk told his father that before him there had been an Italian vintner who expressed a desire to help, and that it would be a good idea to bring them together. That vintner is no other than Riccardo Cotarella, Italy’s leading wine consultant and the owner of the Falesco winery.

The connection between Cotarella, Bonomo and International Volunteer Service for Development gave rise to a cooperative project that in hindsight could turn out to be the hoped-for lifesaver for Cremison. Donations were collected from Italian wineries, Cotarella offered advice free of charge, and an Italian team consisting of an vintner and an agronomist were sent to the monastery in order to restore the winery, which meanwhile has been outfitted with modern and sophisticated equipment. At the same time, two young Palestinians from Beit Sahour and East Jerusalem were sent to study viticulture and winemaking in Italy. In the coming year the two locals will inherit the place of the current vintner, Daniel Carboni.

But will Israelis go for it?

One of the most important decisions was switching to local the grape varieties in the future wines. Export director Amer Kardosh says that the Italians decided to abandon classic species such as Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon and to return to species typical of the region: Baladi, Dabouki, Jandali and Hamdani. As part of the attempt to find their origins, samples were sent to a wine laboratory in Italy. The lab found no genetic connection to other species of grapes familiar in the literature. Despite the Arabic-sounding names, a large percentage of the grapes actually arrive at the winery from Salesian-owned land in the Beit Shemesh area.

The restored winery had its first harvest in 2009 an showcased a final product a year later. “Today the wines are exported to Japan, Germany, Austria, Great Britain and Italy, at the Vinitaly wine exhibition,” Kardosh said. “In Japan the wine is sold first of all as a sign of solidarity with the Palestinian people. In Germany they relate to it as assistance to Christian communities, and in Great Britain they purchase mainly semi-dry wines for masses in church. The wine has potential because it comes from Bethlehem. But we can’t rely on that. A German or an Austrian may help out once - but we have to bring them back to the wine based on its quality.”

Kardosh is even banking on making inroads into the Israeli market. The interesting varieties and attractive prices are likely to make the wines quite a good deal for Israeli wine drinkers. But will there be a demand for Palestinian wine in Israel? Time will tell. As of now the main point of sale is the monastery’s shop.

You get a lot for your money with these wines. Cremisan Dabouki 2012 is a light-colored white wine with light fragrances of pleasant tropical fruits. The taste is characterized by refreshing sweetness. Simple white wine, light and unpretentious, costs 33 shekels (under $10) at the monastery.

Cremisan Hamdani-Jandali 2012 is the magic of the winery. A combination of white grape varieties that disseminates prominent fragrances of green apples accompanied by a sip with the proper presence of fruit, cleanliness, good and attractive acidity and most important, enjoyment. A fantastic bargain for the price of 33 shekels.

Baladi Asmar 2011 is the winery’s red. It has no attractive fragrances or unique character, in the mouth it tastes better, although it doesn’t really leave an impression. On the other hand, Baladi 2012 when sipped straight from the barrel makes a more promising impression. The fragrances are still not similar to anything I’ve known but on the palate it’s full, direct and has strong flavors. A bottle to open at noon without any guilt feelings: 33 shekels.

The vineyards near the Cremisan Monastery, just a few kilometers outside Bethlehem.Credit: Itay Gleitman
Daniel Carboni, right, and Manuele Bonomo are part of the team behind the upgrade of Cremisan Cellars.Credit: Itay Gleitman
Vineyards near the Cremisan Monastery.Credit: Itay Gleitman

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