Driving through Israel’s Negev desert, amidst shrub brush and sandy mountains, along the extraordinarily saline Dead Sea, it’s hard to imagine what might grow in such a seemingly hostile environment. One of the well-publicized goals of Israel, of course, has been to “make the desert bloom,” and Israel has had many successes in their efforts to cultivate crops. The modern state of Israel, however, was not the first to farm in this forbidding landscape.
In the third century BCE, the city of Avdat was founded, and it became one of the most important cities on the Incense Route, second only to Petra. Over the millennia, Avdat was inhabited by successive waves of Nabataeans, Romans, Byzantines and Muslims. The ruins of Avdat sit on a steep hill in Israel’s Avdat National Park, a forbidding and dramatic environment. Years ago, it was the set for the film of “Jesus Christ, Superstar.” Now, visitors can climb through and explore ancient residences, temples… And what was once a winery.
Through careful management of spring water and run-off from nearby mountains, the ancients were able to grow grapes and produce wine, always a sought-after commodity, especially in places where water might be tainted. According to Dr. Shahar Shilo, historian and head of tourism studies at the Ashkelon Academic College, the environment of the Negev Desert provides “excellent conditions for cultivating grapes: high altitude, cold winter, good soil for grapes and few ‘bad’ insects.”
“Wine was used for rituals and religious needs of Jews since the First Temple period” (970-596 BC), Shilo adds. Wine is mentioned 140 times in the Bible, and Jesus, of course, showed himself quite capable of making the stuff from water.
Down the hill from Avdat, at the Sde Boker kibbutz, wine is produced by Zvi Remak. During a tasting of his wines, he tells us that “The Negev Desert seems like a very bad place to grow wine, but underneath the Negev is an ocean of water. We also have low humidity during the day, and high humidity at night. And even if you get a small amount of rain, it’ll channel down the hill because the hill doesn’t have soil on it.”
So Where Are All the Israeli Wines?
If Israelis can cultivate wine grapes in the middle of the desert, and if they’re making a fair quantity of the stuff, why don’t we see more Israeli wine on the tables of Chicago’s restaurants? That’s the question I put to Zach Engel of Chicago’s Galit restaurant.
“When we opened,” says Engel, “what was available was not stuff that I was interested in putting on the list. I didn’t want to serve it just because it was from the region. I wanted good, food-friendly, well-made wines. So, we had to speak with distributors very bluntly about our commitment to what our wine program would be, our vision for it, and to get them to follow through on a commitment to carry the wines we wanted. I also had to write some checks, to make sure that the wine would be available, because distributors weren’t already carrying it, and we were probably the only ones that were going to purchase it. I had to pre-purchase it. And then over time, those relationships became stronger as people saw what we were doing.”
I ask if he thinks Israel is now producing world-class wines. “The Cabernet blends from Domaine du Castel are some of my all-time favorite wines; they stand up against anything from Napa or France. They’re in the Golan Heights. Remember, too, that Israel is not a third-world country. The people there want excellent products to be available. Israeli consumers are just like in the U.S. and Europe. The culture, in fact, is very European, and wine is what they drink, more than liquor or beer. Over time, we’ve gotten to know the winemakers and love supporting them because they’re great people doing cool things.”
Last Saturday was National Drink Wine Day, but you still have lots of opportunities to purchase and sample Israeli wine for Passover seders and Easter dinner.
Israeli Wines at Binny’s
Our local Binny’s has quite a few value-priced wines from Israel, so I bought several and drank them over the course of a few weeks. Overall, I was impressed; each was much more enjoyable than the Mogen David I had in the late sixties, when this unbearably sweet and grape juicy wine, along with jugs of Gallo, was pretty much the only vino available in these parts. These wines from Israel seem underpriced, and we’re guessing most of your Passover or Easter guests have never had them.
Tishbi, Cabernet Syrah, 2020. This wine is produced in Lower Galilee, which encompasses Nazareth. Pleasant nose, not at all aggressive, quite soft, and smooth (probably thanks to the Syrah grapes). First sip has a hint of sweetness, close to zero tannins and with dryness on the backend, notes of blackberries. We paired it with a very un-Kosher Vito & Nick’s pepperoni pizza, so the wine’s sweetness and tartness made it very complementary with the ‘za. Light as a Beaujolais and versatile as a pinot noir, I would buy it again (my highest compliment). $14.99
Barkan Classic Pinot Noir, 2020. This is one of the softest wines that’s ever passed my lips. I searched hard for its personality, but decided it was, simply, a shrinking violet, hiding in the corner, without much to say, inoffensive and not all that interesting. Usually, I’m looking for a little more oomph, even with this grape, but I could see pairing it with cheese for sure, even a fatty fish like salmon, something with a little more flavor but not overwhelming as this laidback sip could be lost with a steak. Priced right at $11.99.
Binyamina, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2020. Fruit-forward nose, low tannins, and balanced acidity make this a good wine to serve with tzimmes or latkes, lamb, or ham (depending upon whether you’re celebrating Passover or Easter). The relatively light body, and very slightly sweet notes of cherries, make it suitable for sipping or pairing. One of the least expensive wines from Galilee, this Binyamina cab seems to be one Israeli wine that’s readily available stateside. $14.99.
Dining and Drinking Editor for Newcity, David also writes a weekly food column for Wednesday Journal in Oak Park and is a frequent contributor of food/drink and travel pieces to the Chicago Tribune, Plate Magazine and other publications. David has also contributed chapters to several books, including Street Food Around the World, Street Food, and The Chicago Food Encyclopedia. Contact: email@example.com