Latroun is mainly known in Israel as a junction, off the Tel Aviv Jerusalem highway, set in the gentle curves of the Judean Foothills. Latroun Monastery was founded in 1890 by Trappist Monks, a silent Order related to Cistercians, which dates back to the 6th century. It is a beautiful, serene building, surrounded by flowers and bushes in a blaze of color. It is a quiet, tranquil oasis amid the noise of day to day Israel.
The Trappist charter promotes earning a living by using one’s skills and being economically independent. Life is based on three fundamental principles, prayer, labor and study & contemplation.
The Monks arrived to the Holy Land from France, immediately planted vineyards, orchards, olive groves and vegetables and made agriculture the basis of their work. They produced wine and olive oil from the beginning, making Domaine de Latroun one of the oldest wineries in Israel.
Father Paul Saouma, the Abbot of Latroun Monastery, was always keen to give a focus to wine, believing it was not only important economically, but also an integral part of daily life. Consumption with food was encouraged. Usually winemakers were youngsters, en-passant. One retrospectively became a wine great. That was the Lebanese born Mounir Saouma, who joined his uncle as winemaker in the 1990’s. We met occasionally at tastings. I remember his smile, friendliness and enthusiasm. When he moved on, we had no idea to what heights he would achieve. He married the Rotem, daughter of Avinoam and Michal of Barkanit Dairy, producers of some of Israel’s best goat’s cheeses. They moved to Burgundy and created the Lucien le Moine label, which won rave reviews and high scores at the very highest level. Then they bought property in Chateauneuf du Pape and he became a superstar. He is certainly the most famous winemaker ever to work at Latroun. We just did not appreciate it at the time.
Now I have visited many wineries in Israel, including those in unlikely, even dangerous areas. However, I had never visited Latroun Winery. Of course, I had visited the shop & monastery, but they were always lacking information to satisfy even the mildest curiosity.
When I was recently given the name of Adam Kassis, the winemaker, a visit was arranged within 48 hours. I turned up at the monastery, and was immediately redirected. The winery is situated off a dirt track in the outskirts of the monastery’s grounds, concealed from onlookers. A quad of old buildings includes an olive oil press, winery, cellars, storerooms and accommodation. When I walked in, two different elderly gentlemen, dressed in overalls, each separately looked at me in astonishment as though I was an alien from Mars, before politely enquiring what I was doing and where I was going. Someone different from the routine was apparently a cause for alarm.
Adam Kassis was virtually born in a bottle. He grew up with stories of his grandmother making wine. This was common in Palestinian culture amongst the Christian community. Whilst the men would work, the women did the chores, grew the vegetables, looked after the animals and made the wine at home. The vines were grown domestically like a tree, trained to make a pergola, in order to give shade and provide grapes. The grapes could be eaten as an energy giving food, dried to make raisins, or reduced by boiling to produce dibs, a natural, sweet syrup. However, many would make wine, squeezing local grapes like Dabouki with their hands into a stone receptacle, which was something between a stone bowl and a trough. The wine would be sweet, last forever, and be enjoyed by the family.
When I met Nemi Askar of Ashkar Winery, a spotless domestic winery producing excellent wines, he told me the same story of his mother. I felt privileged to taste his mother’s 20 year old wine, filled into an old Grant’s Whisky bottle. Sweet, cloudy and oxidized, colored brown with orange tints, it would not have received a high score from Robert Parker, but it gave me goose bumps. It was like drinking history and receiving an insight into a culture that was as old as time, but new to me.
At the age of 11, Adam Kassis was seconded to the winery at Latroun Monastery to help with the harvest. He has photos to show his participation and involvement as a ‘helper’ for the winemaker. He was able to get dirty in the wine, was allowed to do everything and along with the blackened hands from handling dark red, ripe grapes, the experience engraved an indelible feeling at such a tender, young age, that wine would be his career.
The Kassis family is from Birzeit, a Palestinian town north of Ramallah. His family has a vineyard, which is cared for by Adam’s father and brother. Wine and grapes were part of his past, present and future. When the time came, he made plans to go to Bordeaux to study oenology. He confided in the winemaker of Latroun, who was at that time from Chile, and was persuaded to change direction. ‘Come to Chile’, he was told, ‘you will learn everything you need to know…and it will be cheaper.’ He followed this advice, studied, learnt and gained work experience at wineries, before returning bushy tailed and eager to put his new found knowledge into action. He returned, where else, but to Latroun in 2015 and became assistant winemaker. He also decided to make his own wine (under the Domaine Kassis label) as he was born to do, from his family vines, focusing on a field blend of Merlot & Cabernet Sauvignon, and Chardonnay. He also makes a white, which is a Dabouki, blended with a little Hamdani and Jandali, grown near Hebron. (The best Dabouki I have tasted.)
He did a good job, so much so that he was invited to be the new winemaker of Domaine de Latroun in 2016. He arrived to find an old winery, but with all the equipment. The underground cellar is intriguing, with nooks and crannies, a few large old foudres (large barrels), disused rusting cement tanks and old, musky oak barrels. However, amongst the old winery memorabilia, were newish small, shiny stainless steel tanks and a few new oak barriques (225 liter French oak barrels.) A ray of hope, amongst all the history.
As I arrived at the unsung winery building, a nun dressed in a habit was squatting in an undignified pose, crushing olives in a small crusher. It was explained they provide the service for individual growers. Then I saw Adam Kassis, who welcomed me in. He was young, confident, friendly, yet also ambitious, passionate and knowledgeable. I like that in a winemaker. He was short haired, with a well-trimmed beard, and dapper in a blue Latroun Winery polo shirt and blue shorts. He gave me the tour of the rabbit warren winery, mostly underground. It was a time warp of an old winery, but the few modern pieces of equipment showed a new professionalism.
They have 40 hectares of vineyards with over twenty grape varieties. Latroun was the first winery in Israel to plant varieties like Pinot Noir and Gewurztraminer. Domaine de Latroun produces and sells 200,000 bottles a year. Most is in their bright, nicely laid out wine shop, which is certainly better than the dusty, dirty, dark shop I remember visiting in the past. It is situated at the entrance to the monastery. Visitors may book tours to the monastery and they are encouraged to visit the shop to buy the wine, liqueurs, brandy, wine vinegar and souvenirs. However, visiting the winery is discouraged. It is a work area, a production factory and not geared to receiving visitors or tourists.
I tasted some wines from barrel and white wines from tank. These were good and showed promise. Certainly, they were better than what I had tasted from Latroun in years gone by. Adam then disappeared and returned cradling a clay jar, with the love and care as if he was carrying a newly born baby. This was his arak, which really was his baby. Distilled three times, made from grapes as it should be (most commercial Israeli araks are distilled from molasses), it had a delicate anise nose, and was not blowsy and in your face like many cheaper araks. The clay jar aging gave it a smoothness, and it went down beautifully. Watch out for this when it is bottled. We tasted the brandy, which they are very proud of. Finally, I was given the privilege of tasting the Latroun Elixir, a liqueur reminiscent of Benedictine made from a secret recipe of spices and herbs. It is a speciality of the monks. It was not my cup of tea, but it would settle the most topsy turvy stomach.
After returning home, I tasted the 2018 Chardonnay which was a little flat, certainly ok, but no more than that. I preferred the Sauvignon Blanc I tasted from tank, which was aromatic with good acidity. I also tasted the Reserve Syrah 2017 which was full of sweet juicy fruit. A far cry from the Latroun of old.
In wine as well as in politics, we are very ethnocentric. We tend to forget that 20% of the population are Israeli Arabs. There are some good wineries we will miss if we don’t take the blinkers from our eyes. Ashkar, Jascala, and Mony, (which I have visited), are wineries owned by Israeli Arab families. There is also Julia, whose wine I have yet to taste. They have great stories, quality wines and they are each no less passionate about wine than we are. They add to the color of the wine scene, and contribute a lot more than they take. In the Central Mountain region, there are Palestinian wineries such as Cremisan Monastery, Domaine Kassis and Taybeh Winery. They make Palestinian wine in the same region and terroir where there are also Israeli wineries. Certainly, it is an interesting region. A vineyard is in a specific place, and the vine grows in a certain terroir. The grape is not aware of political divides and does not need a flag for wine to be made from it! Then there is Domaine de Latroun. A monastery in our midst, with a young, internationally trained Palestinian winemaker. Wine transcends politics any day. I will be following them closely from now on.
Adam Montefiore has advanced Israeli wine for over thirty years and is referred to as ‘the English voice of Israeli wine’. www.adammontefiore.com