This article first appeared in the Wine Talk column in the Weekend Supplement of the Jerusalem Post
The Negev is a desert area that comprises 60 percent of Israel. In historical times it was a major center of winemaking on a commercial scale. The Nabateans and Byzantines each had wine presses of a scale designed to produce large quantities of wine, much of which was sold for export. Simply visit the old wine presses at Shivta and Avdat to appreciate that even then, or especially then, Negev was a thriving wine country.
It was the fervent wish of David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, that the Negev would be settled and agriculturists would learn to conquer the desert. He wanted the desert to bloom and set a personal example by retiring to Kibbutz Sde Boker when he resigned as prime minister.
He had started his career in Israel working for Carmel Winery at Rishon Le Zion Cellars. There he challenged his fellow harvest workers to see who could tread grapes for the longest time. He won his bet, but the smell of wine during fermentation made him feel so nauseous, he was not able to enjoy wine for years afterwards.
The folklore says he organized the first strike there and was eventually fired for his efforts. Fortunately, for the State of Israel that is, he was better at state building and politics.
In fact, it was Carmel Winery who were the first modern pioneers of the Negev. They planted their Ramat Arad vineyard at Tel Arad in 1988, in the northeastern Negev. I remember when Carmel first came out with their Merlot from its desert vineyard in 1992. Today the vineyard, surrounded by Bedouin and camels, is alongside an agricultural looking building housing one of Israel’s most technologically advanced wineries, Yatir.
Yatir Winery is Israel’s most famous desert winery, but their grapes come from the high altitude Yatir Forest. Ben-Gurion decided in the early 1960’s, that he wanted to plant a forest on the hills north of Arad and south of Hebron.
His advisers told him, “The scientists say it is just not possible.” Ben-Gurion retorted; “So, change the scientists!” The forest was planted in 1964 and became Israel’s largest planted forest. This initiative stopped the encroachment of the desert and Yatir Forest, a meeting place between the the Judean Hills, the Negev, and the Judean Desert, became one of Israel’s most interesting ‘new’ quality wine growing areas in the 2000’s.
Then Tishbi and Barkan wineries began using vineyards at Sde Boker and Mitzpe Ramon respectively. However, the real pioneers of the Negev wine country are Alon & Nira Zadok. They were firstly pioneers in the Sinai, and when that was evacuated for peace they moved across the border to Moshav Kadesh Barnea, near Nitzana, and became pioneers again.
The original Kadesh Barnea is where the Children of Israel camped, when Moses sent the twelve spies to scout out the Promised Land. Two of them returned with a bunch of grapes so large, it had to be held on a pole between them, and then uttered the immortal quote: “it is a land of milk and honey and this is its fruit…”
Alon & Nira helped settle the area, planting vegetables & table grapes. They looked back in history and gained strength from the agricultural activities of times gone by, and decided if the Nabateans had made wine so successfully, it was something they could do. So they became pioneers for a third time. This time wine pioneers.
They planted Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in the sandy soil in 1997, and founded the Kadesh Barnea Winery in 2000. Alon took wine courses at the Derech Ha’Yain Wine Store, Sorek Winery Winemaking School and at the Faculty of Agriculture under the tutelage of Dr. Yair Margalit. In that first year they produced 3,000 bottles. The enthusiastic amateur transformed into a wine professional and fulfilled his dream of making wine in his beloved Negev.
In 2010 he passed the winemaking baton on to his eldest son, appropriately named Yogev. (The word ‘Yogev’ means a worker of the land). Now, he is an internationally trained winemaker. He learnt Italian so he could study in Florence. Most Israelis go to learn winemaking in California, Adelaide, Montpelier or maybe Milan…but Florence! Can there be a more beautiful place to study winemaking Uniquely, he was accompanied by his wife, Eden. She did not only go with him to Italy, but also into the class room and laboratory. She also took the three year course.
Both Yogev and Eden were inspired by the Italian style of reds. Good acidity, not overoaked and wines that are designed to go with food.
Today the winery has reached production of 90,000 bottles. Their grapes are harvested from vineyards all over the Negev Heights region from Haluza to Sde Boker and Ein Avdat down to Mitzpe Ramon. Not forgetting, of course, their own Nitzana vineyards.
Recently they have renamed the winery ‘The Ramat Negev Winery’. This is to emphasize their unique wine region and the labels have been modernized to reflect the needs of a more commercial winery. The wines may be recognized by the initials RN, stylishly written in metallic bronze on all their labels. They have taken ownership for this newest of the developing wine regions in modern Israel.
Yogev Zadok believes passionately in the Negev Heights. He now has the knowledge and expertise to match with the pioneering dreams and enthusiasm of his parents. He says the altitudes are high, up to 900 meters above sea level. Temperatures are hot, but averages out cooler than what you would expect, because nighttime temperatures can be very cold. There is no humidity and vine diseases are at a minimum. There is also no rain, but drip feed irrigation allows him total control.
David Ben Gurion would be proud. The Negev is sprouting vineyards. There is nothing like coming across an expanse of green vineyard in a sparse, sandy, scrubby desert where nothing else grows. See what I mean on the way down to Eilat. Look out for the vineyards at Sde Boker or Mitzpe Ramon.
Within the last 10 years, new farms have sprung up with boutique dairies, vineyards, olive groves, farm animals and horses. There are new small wineries joining in the Israeli wine boom, in this most exacting wine-growing region of all. Midbar Winery has joined Yatir in the northeastern Negev and Carmei Avdat amongst others, is off Route 40 in the central Negev. However the Ramat Negev Winery is the one showcasing the terroir of the Negev Heights and reviving a 2,000 year old tradition.
Ramat Negev has three labels. The basic label is called Kadesh Barnea. Neve Midbar is mid way blends and the Ramon label is their premium varietals. My favorite wines I tasted were as follows:
Neve Midbar White 2013
Dry White Wine
An intriguing blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Cabernet Franc. The wine is dry. It is made like a Blanc de Noir, and there is a faint blush color from the red grapes. It has tropical fruit notes and a delicate acidity. Good value.
Price: 69 shekels
Neve Midbar Red 2011
A Bordeaux style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Merlot. Aged in a combination of American and French oak barrels. Quite oaky & full bodied, with aromas of ripe black fruits and vanilla. A full flavor in the mouth with good length.
Price: 89 shekels
Ramon Petit Verdot 2011
This is a single vineyard estate wine from their own vineyards. It is a rare varietal Petit Verdot, but one of the best. Deep colored with a nose of blueberry, blackberry and black cherry, a chewy mid palate and a long finish that remains long after swallowing. This may well be their calling card.
Price: 120 shekels
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine for both Israeliand international publications.