Filmmaking in the desert ‘Sounds absurd’, but Israeli vineyards in the Negev showed the way

SDE BOKER, Israel – Say “taste” and these words immediately conjure up images of the verdant hills of Napa Valley or Tuscany. What they didn’t think of: the desert.

But at a small cafe on a public farm in the Negev desert in southern Israel, a local winemaker poured a variety of crimson nectar last month, inviting a number of guests to shake their glasses. Release fruit flavors and aromas.

As grape growers in the older wine-producing regions of Europe and other parts of the world face extreme, unpredictable weather, including intense heatwaves, The Israelis found themselves on the front lines of dry-weather winemaking, experimenting with methods that could soon be adopted globally.

And work is being done in the Negev, home to hundreds of tech startups and a future solar tower – and long ago a laboratory for testing in Israel.

“It is in the Negev that Israel’s creativity and pioneering power will be tested,” reads an inscription on the cafe’s wall – an iconic quote by David Ben-Gurion, the founding prime minister of Israel, who spent the last years of his life about fifty yards away, in an austere wooden house.

Yet even Ben-Gurion probably couldn’t have anticipated the unexpected sight at the cafe, whose shelves were lined with bottles of locally produced malbec, merlot and petit verdot syrah. He might as well have paid the price. The boutique winery produces a selection of 5,000 bottles in a good year, and they are quite expensive – by local standards – $27 to $45 a bottle.

Zvi Remak, a local wine producer, said: “The water here is very expensive.

The cafe and winery is part of the Sde Boker community farm, founded in 1952 and once better known for its less bourgeois produce, peaches and sheep. But in the 1990s, Remak, a cooperative member and agronomist, planted a vineyard and, after studying in his native California, turned to winemaking.

“It was a bit complicated,” Mr. Remak recalls. He needs the permission of the community, whose orientation has begun to be “almost Soviet” in pragmatism and decision-makers need some time to adjust to the idea of ​​handmade red. in oak barrels.

But he convinced them, and then others followed in his footsteps. Today, about 40 small wineries are scattered throughout the Negev, their jade green vineyards dotted in a beautiful beige landscape.

Desert viticulture, and tourists beginning to explore this relatively new wine route, has become vital to the growth and branding of the arid regions that make up half of the country’s territory. territory of Israel.

Some stops on the Negev wine route are still a bit rough around the edges, in the survival spirit of the desert.

Tzel HaMidbar Winery and Farm, on the edge of the scenic Ramon Crater, offers accommodation in sparta-style mud houses, furnished with little more than a bed and air conditioning. Some of its vines grow in a valley below a prison and are irrigated with recycled sewage from the prison.

“Wine and desert sound ridiculous, like an oxymoron,” said Ziv Spector, co-founder of Tzel HaMidbar, as he poured a bottle of local red wine.

But his vines have risen to defy the poor desert earth, which has only made them harder, he says, as opposed to easy vines like “a spoiled child.” “.

While these Negev vineyards are new, the winemaking here is not. The area is famous for its locally produced wines in ancient times.

But the climate was probably more pleasant then than it is now, and wineries in the region are developing farming techniques that could soon be replicated globally, as the effects of climate change intensify. more serious.

“To succeed in the Negev, you have to be bold and experiment,” says David Pinto, a vinedresser who planted his family plot with vines about three years ago.

Taking a cork to a 2021 rose on a vivid green lawn of his vineyard on the edge of Yeruham, a small desert town, Mr. Pinto said a new chardonnay from his winery he’s coming out in January and a sparkling white, Negev’s first, will be ready in two years’ time.

Heavy clusters of purple and syrah grapes ripen quickly on the vine under the intense desert sun. The trick, says Pinto, is to find a sweet spot with a high sugar content that is kept in balance with the acidity level.

So the harvest time here comes earlier than in other Israeli wine-producing regions to the north with a more Mediterranean climate. A number of Bedouin women were hired to come and pick bunches of berries in the cool of dawn.

With about 325 days of sunshine and little annual rainfall, desert vines depend on a drip irrigation system, an innovation developed by another Negev collective in the 1960s that gives farmers tight control amount of water.

Desert vineyards also come with a number of natural advantages.

At night, the temperature drops sharply, even in mid-summer, in favor of the vines. With low humidity, Negev vines are exposed to less pests and fungi and less need to be sprayed with pesticides, making most of the wine production close to organic.

While artificial irrigation is unacceptable in traditional wine-growing regions in Europe, and even banned in some localities, it may become more of a necessity.

In a global wine industry that must adapt to climate change, Israel could be a role model, said Aaron Fait, a desert and agricultural research expert at Ben-Gurion University in the Negev.

“The wine industry needs to understand that things are not as they are,” he said.

Shahar Shilo, a researcher specializing in tourism in the Negev Highlands, says modern Israeli grape growers mainly produce New World wines from imported grape varieties rather than Old World wines from different varieties. originating in the region. The region’s orange wines, which are essentially whites blended with grape skins, have strong fruit flavors, including notes of apricot and lychee.

Wineries are working to trademark Negev as a wine-producing region, with the help of the David & Laura Merger Foundation, a charity focused on desert technology, agriculture and tourism .

That means identifying any specific characteristics shared by the wines, ensuring that the majority of the grapes are grown in the region and showing off, said Nicole Hod Stroh, the fund’s chief executive. that “there is a history, a tradition”.

That last part shouldn’t be a problem.

Among the ruins of Avdat, an ancient city in the Negev Plateau existed from the Nabatean times in the fourth century BC until its fall shortly after the Muslim conquest in the seventh century AD. A.D., archaeologists unearthed wine presses and cisterns dating back up to 1,600 years. formerly – evidence of a flourishing Byzantine-era wine production and export industry.

According to Lior Schwimer, an Israeli archaeologist, the region’s ancients grew grapes on terraced hillsides and could produce up to a million liters of wine per year. Remnants of special jars used to store wine have been found as far away as France and England.

Israeli researchers have identified at least two ancient seed varieties and are now trying to recreate the white and red colors of the Byzantines.

“There are not many places in the world that can boast 1,500 years of winemaking tradition,” said Mr. Shilo.

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