Drinking the Wine of the Kings of Israel

Drinking the Wine of the Kings of Israel
When we talk about aged wine we are usually referring to wine that is several decades or perhaps even a hundred years old. However, cutting edge research in which KKL-JNF is a partner is attempting to take this concept a few steps further back into the past in order to reproduce the wines drunk by the kings of Israel in Biblical times.
Ariel University, Bar Ilan University and KKL-JNF are all engaged in scientific research designed to locate and identify ancient and modern Israeli grapevines. This research, which is being conducted by the Samaria and Jordan Valley Research and Development Center, will be presented at the Expo international agricultural exhibition in Italy in 2015; it has already aroused great curiosity among scientists, vintners and the general public.
When we talk about aged wine we are usually referring to wine that is several decades or perhaps even a hundred years old. However, cutting edge research in which KKL-JNF is a partner is attempting to take this concept a few steps further back into the past in order to reproduce the wines drunk by the kings of Israel in Biblical times.

The researchers locate and categorize the unique varieties of grapevine that grow today in various different corners of Israel; they are not to be found in commercial vineyards, where imported varieties are grown. They also search for ancient grape seeds at archeological sites and subject them to genetic and morphological tests that highlight correspondences between ancient and modern varieties of grape. The researchers have already succeeded in producing their first specimens of authentic Israeli wine, which has turned out to be not only historically fascinating but also – no less importantly – extremely palatable.

The research team is headed by Dr Elyashiv Drori, a molecular biologist and amateur oenophile, who coordinates agricultural and oenological research at the Samaria and Jordan Valley Research and Development Center. “The Land of Israel has a 4,000-year history of wine making, but where have all those ancient species of grapevine disappeared to?” asks Dr. Drori, before answering his own question: “During the Muslim era wine-making died out because of the Muslim prohibition against alcohol. Fortunately for us, however, these vines found ways to adapt and survive in nature.”

Yaakov Henig, an MA student at Ariel University, is responsible for locating the vines. To this end he travels the country from north to south searching for them in open fields, gullies, riverbanks and even amid the desert sand dunes. As the son of one of KKL-JNF’s veteran foresters, Henig has been familiar with the Israeli countryside since his boyhood, and he is now translating this early love of nature into a piece of fascinating research.

A laboratory for research into grapevines and wines

On the day we accompanied them the researchers’ first stop along the way was Ein Misla, on the northern slopes of the Gush Etzion Ridge. There they have located an unknown type of grapevine which they are now eager to check in order to see if it might prove suitable for wine production. The vine was found growing wild in a magnificent orchard of native Israeli trees and its branches are intertwined with those of neighboring olive and fig.

“This vine has been sitting here waiting for us,” said Henig. The researchers picked some of the fruit and performed an on-site preliminary test to determine its sugar levels. “Twenty-three percent!” declared Dr Drori with satisfaction. “There’s no doubt that these are wine grapes.” He picked a large bunch and examined it closely. Did these grapes resemble those of the cluster cut down by the spies sent by Moses into Canaan to check if the land was fertile? Could these grapes produce the wine drunk by King David, or perhaps the libation served at Jesus’ Last Supper? As the research progresses, answers will be found to these burning questions.

In-depth testing will be carried out later on at the laboratory, but in the meantime we can smell and taste the fruit. One does not have to be a professional vintner in order to declare that these grapes are sweet, tasty and aromatic. Near the site where this wild vine was found is a commercial vineyard where Cabernet Sauvignon grapes are grown, but, truth to tell, there is no comparison between the two types of fruit: the large, sweet, juicy natural grape is much tastier than its imported cousin.

The researchers load boxes of the wild grapes into their all-terrain vehicle and for a moment they look as if they are about to go off and sell them in Jerusalem’s Mahaneh Yehuda market. But no, our next stop is Ariel University’s wine analysis and grapevine genetics laboratory where local varieties are tested for acidity, color, sugar and alcohol content and genetic profile. Every unknown vine branch and twig found in the wild is brought into the laboratory for DNA testing by the staff, who determine whether or not it does indeed belong to a new and unique variety.

So far the research has turned up 300 different varieties of vine, all specific to the Land of Israel and all completely different from the European and American varieties grown here, which belong to a separate genetic branch of the grapevine family. Ten of these newly discovered varieties have been found suitable for wine production.

The research winery – An Israeli wine with an ancient history

Not far from the laboratory Dr Drori has established a small winery for research purposes adjacent to the university campus. Here, as in all wineries, the grapes are removed from the vine and pressed, and the wine is fermented in wooden barrels. The winery is pervaded by ancient bouquets: one of the wines currently fermenting in its barrel is of the ancient Marawi variety, which is mentioned in writings from the end of the Second Temple Period.

Apart from being a scientist, Dr Drori is also a vintner who has his own private winery. “My wife refers to it as my expensive hobby,” he told us with a smile. So far his research has yielded three wines – two white, one red – from authentic Land of Israel varieties of grape. Professional wine tasters have been complimentary, and a commercial winery has purchased grapes belonging to one of the varieties with the intention of exploring its suitability for wine production.

“We have links to an ancient wine-producing culture, but today we grow foreign varieties of grape imported from France, Italy or the USA,” said Dr Drori. “The world is full of wines of this type, and in truth we have nothing new to offer as far as they are concerned. Israeli wine, however, has links to the ancient history of the Land of Israel, and it is extremely palatable.”

A short distance away from the laboratory the researchers have planted a compendium vineyard that contains an
assortment of all the grapevine varieties they have discovered so far. Today sixty-one different varieties are growing there, with another thirty due for planting soon. Plans for the future include the establishment of a visitors’ center that will provide information on the various types of vine unique to the Land of Israel. Even now groups of enthusiasts are already coming along to observe the results of the research.

Archeology in the service of grapevines

Once the Israeli varieties of vine have been located, another link in the chain of research has to be activated: identification of the ancient varieties of grapevine. This is the point at which archeologists involved in research at digs all around the country are brought into the picture. When they uncover an ancient winepress or a larder full of pitchers, just before they sift through the dust and discard it as lacking in interest, Dr Drori turns up and asks if he can examine it to see if ancient grape seeds are concealed within it.

At Tel Shilo, for example, a magnificent wine press with a mosaic floor and plastered pits was uncovered in a wonderful state of preservation. While the upper level is Byzantine, from around 1,600 years ago, the even older layer found beneath it would appear to date back to the Second Temple period. The site includes a large winery with a capacity of up to 6,000 liters.

At the bottom of the collection pit where the juice once accumulated the researchers found some pale soil that was obviously not local. This type of soil was used by ancient wine-producers to absorb the proteins and render the wine clearer, and it was brought in from elsewhere especially for this purpose. This pale earth was found to contain piles of grape seeds that dated back two thousand years or more, and there was even a grape skin in amongst them.

These seeds and many others garnered from archeological sites all over Israel are brought to Bar Ilan University’s archeological botany laboratory and handed over to its director Professor Ehud Weiss. The laboratory examines numerous seeds from different periods that have been found at a variety of archeological sites including the City of David, Tel Afeq, Ashkelon, Timna and Caesaria.

“The seeds survive when they burn slowly in an oxygen-poor environment, as a result of war, for example, or even if the pot burns while sitting on the fire,” explains Professor Weiss. “These seeds enable us to enter a time machine and explore the larders of people who lived here thousands of years ago.”

DNA can no longer be obtained from the burnt seeds, but another advanced form of technology can be used instead: three-dimensional laser scanning, which reveals the morphological properties of the seeds. The resulting detailed three-dimensional image provides a form of morphological identity card for the seed and thus enables the researchers to compare ancient varieties with modern ones and search for points of similarity between the two.

Researching the past to create modern agriculture

This research into the different varieties of native grapevines has been underway for three years now, and KKL-JNF has funded it and been involved in it from the outset. “KKL-JNF is engaged in locating the genetic origins of trees native to the Land of Israel in Biblical times in order to restore the tree varieties that grew here long ago,” explained Elisha Mizrahi of KKL-JNF’s Public Relations Department. “We believe that these species will also provide us with solutions for modern agriculture. Locating a grapevine that dates back to Biblical times will make an immediate contribution to the wine industry.”

This groundbreaking research will be presented at the Israel pavilion at the Expo 2015 international agriculture exhibition to be held in around six months’ time in Milan, Italy. The theme on this occasion is “Feeding the Planet, Energy for Life,” and the focus will be on world resources and nutritional problems.

Elisha Mizrahi explained the context: “These ancient varieties of grapevine have shown themselves able to withstand aridity, a harsh climate and poor soil conditions over a very great many years, and have survived in the wild with no human intervention. It’s quite reasonable to suppose that some of them will prove suitable for cultivation both in Israel and abroad. All forms of expertise that KKL-JNF has helped to develop are freely available to everyone everywhere in the world.”

The ancient varieties of grapevine that are in the process of being discovered in Israel will in the future allow vineyards to be cultivated in areas where this has not so far been possible. And, who knows, perhaps in just a few years’ time we shall be able to pop into the local supermarket and buy genuine Land of Israel wine whose taste and bouquet have descended to us directly from the Bible. There is, after all, a good reason why the Book of Psalms tells us “Wine maketh glad the heart of man.”
Drinking the Wine of the Kings of Israel