“Is that the wine that Jesus drank?” This is the near automatic response I receive whenever I express enthusiasm for wine made from Israel’s native grapes. But my geek-like fascination is not unfounded. Although modern winemaking in the country tends to focus on transplant French varieties, like Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon (Baron Edmond de Rothschild of Bordeaux’s Chateau Lafite brought over plantings in the late 19th Century), a small group of winemakers have now gone back to the country’s viticultural roots. Some of these specimens are not only native to the land and country; they’re also very old. Ariel University researcher and oenologist Elyashiv Drori has found references to the white grapes Jandali and Hamdani (also known as Marawi) in the Babylonian Talmud dating back as far as 220 A.C. Now, those grapes are slowly making their way into the portfolios of Israel’s wineries. In a place that has antiquity in its DNA, why, I’ve often wondered, was this history ignored for so long?
As an impressionable young sommelier in February 2012, I traveled to Tel Aviv for IsraWinExpo – the country’s largest wine trade show. I was certain the tasting would be filled with local grapes I didn’t know—Israel’s equivalent of Greece’s Assyrtico or Lebenon’s Merwah grape. Yet I left deflated. Winemakers eagerly extolled their new French oak barrels and international blends. My inquiries about local grapes were met with a seeming sense of shame. The wines I tasted felt a little like imposters: made in Israel but not necessarily from here.
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But Drori was already on the case, surveying the indigenous grapevine population from his laboratory in the West Bank’s Ariel settlement. His team has identified a staggering 150 unique genomes from collecting grape samples—both wild and from growers around the country. Twenty show the most promise for wine. He is working to substantiate the antiquity of these grapes by matching them to plant material found in archeological excavations. “We may have the most interesting wine legacy,” he says, “but we need facts to actually support it, and that documentation was neglected here for too many years.”