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Blossoming Vineyards in the Negev Desert

Nine wineries make modern use of the ancient Nabatean grape-growing terraces in Israel’s Negev Desert

Hannah and Eyal Izrael founded Carmey Avdat, one of nine Israeli vineyards established along the path of the old wine and spice routes in the Negev Desert highlands. These farms have brought back to life ancient grape-growing terraces from a forgotten civilization.


They and eight other families were able to realize their dream of cultivating grapes and bottling wine with the help of the Wine Route Project of the Ramat Hanegev Regional Council, which provides the land and access to agricultural expertise.

Mother Nature helps, too: Wine grapes thrive on the winter flash floods in the Negev mountains, as well as the winter cold and summer dry heat.


“In ancient times, there were farms growing grapes for the wine industry in the city of Avdat, and there they found the remains of a winery and cellar,” Izrael tells ISRAEL21c.


“They’d harvest grapes in the nearby vineyard, put them on the backs of camels and bring them to Avdat, where they would stomp the grapes and store the juice in clay jars in big cellars underground to keep out the heat. They exported some to Europe and some to Petra, so this was actually a known wine region.”


The Izraels used to work for the Society for the Protection of Nature in Israel. After deciding to start a farm where they could also grow fruit and host guests in cabins they built, Eyal learned the art of winemaking at Ben Shoshan Winery on Kibbutz Bror Chayil and at the Soreq Winery in Tal Shachar. They began with Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes, harvested by hand.


“We are producing 6,000 bottles a year,” says Izrael. “We have also planted some Chardonnay, Petit Bordeaux, Vilana and Barbera grapes, and will start producing white wines this year for the first time.”


Kadesh Barnea Vineyard


The Kadesh Barnea Winery, the largest in Ramat Hanegev, produces more than 80,000 bottles annually under the management of founder Alon Tzadok, and his wife, Nira. Their son Gilad handles sales and marketing, while their other son, Yogev, and his wife, Eden, are the winemakers. The couple studied winemaking in Florence, Italy.


They press their own grapes and others from area farms, producing varietals including Petit Verdot, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Mourvèdre, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. “All the grapes are from the desert because that’s what we believe in,” says Tzadok.


The wines are sold in the United States, and exports probably will be expanded to France and England.


Sde Boker Vineyard


Zvi Remak was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area, earned a degree in agronomy from California State Polytechnic University, and moved to Israel’s Kibbutz Sde Boker – the retirement home of first Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion — in 1980. For 13 years, he tended the fruit orchards.


“Sde Boker was based on agriculture for many years, but in the early 1990s the price of fruit had really dropped and there was an idea to try growing wine grapes in the brackish water we have in the area,” Remak tells ISRAEL21c.


“The brackish water experiment did not work, so we use freshwater,” Remak says. At the region’s agricultural R&D center, agronomists continue attempting to find a way to use the abundant and less expensive salty water for wine grapes, in cooperation with the nine area growers.


“We make a few thousand bottles a year,” he says. “I realized I wasn’t the first person to make wine in the area, and that was exciting, though it was difficult to start something new on a kibbutz especially when the wine industry was less developed. Everyplace has its own qualities and that’s what makes wine interesting.”


Israel 21c 1/10/13

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