The Bible makes frequent reference to wine and to the promised land’s suitability for viticulture, and archaeologists have evidence of wine production in the Levant going back at least to the beginning of the third millennium BCE. Yet oenologists long assumed that the Muslim conquest in the 7th century CE put an end to the wine business, and modern Israel’s many wineries uniformly rely on European varieties of grape and styles of wine. Kevin Begos wants Israeli vintners to revive indigenous varieties:
Today, cabernet sauvignon is the most-planted variety in Israel, followed by a long (and typical) list of French and European grapes, few of which are really suited to the hot climate of the Levant. . . .
[Contrary to what was once believed], Middle Eastern Christians and Jews were always allowed to make wine under Islamic rule. Aren Maeir, an Israeli archaeologist, wryly notes that assuming no one drank wine because of the Quran is a bit like suggesting that Christians always follow the Ten Commandments, or that no Americans drank during Prohibition. Numerous historical records confirm that winemaking continued in the Holy Land throughout the Middle Ages, though certainly on a scale smaller than pre-Islamic times. . . . The northern Israeli city of Safed had a thriving Jewish community in the [late] Middle Ages, and . . . a visitor in 1818 described five kinds of wine there, including some for the rich that were fifteen-to-twenty years old.
But in the 1880s, the founding father of Israel’s modern wine industry had a cultural blind spot. The Frenchman Edmond de Rothschild invested vast sums to expand agriculture [in the Land of Israel], and wine production in particular. Yet he ignored advisers who saw potential in native wine grapes and instead began planting European varieties. For more than 100 years, those decisions influenced the whole industry.
Then, around 2008, a few people noticed that Palestinian Christians at the Cremisan monastery and winery, located between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, were using local . . . grapes: jandali, hamdani, and dabouki. A few years later the Israeli scientist Shivi Drori launched a comprehensive search for native wine grapes. . . . Drori found about twenty varieties with winemaking potential, including the ones Cremisan uses. DNA analysis confirms that some of the local Israeli grapes are older than the famous French varieties, and perhaps linked to grapes from the Caucasus Mountains, where winemaking began roughly 8,000 years ago.