The Negev combines an area of ancient vineyard activity with the exciting efforts of current pioneers to make wine in this challenging region.

This large desert area makes up 60 percent of Israel but remains relatively sparsely settled.

David Ben-Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, was determined to make the desert bloom. In the early 1960s he decided to plant what is now the Yatir Forest.

His advisers told him, “The scientists say it is not possible.”

Ben-Gurion retorted; “Change the scientists!” The forest was planted in 1964. Who would have thought that it would become arguably the most exciting new wine region in the 2000s? Elsewhere in the Negev, particularly along Route 40, there has been an awakening.

Within the last 10 years, new farms have sprung up with boutique dairies, vineyards, olive groves, farm animals and horses. There are also new wineries joining in the Israeli wine boom, but in the most exacting wine-growing region of all.

It is also a place to understand the wine-making procedure in ancient times. The wine presses at Shivta and Avdat give an insight into the scale of wine production then. It is finds such as these that make Israel such a unique wine country.

A problem that sets this region apart is marauding camels. If a camel gets into a vineyard, it will eat a vine down to the ground within seconds as though enjoying a salad! Vineyard owners have to hope that the Beduin keep their camels under control.

The pioneer of the Negev in modern times was Carmel Winery, which planted the Ramat Arad Vineyard in the northeastern Negev in 1988. Later, Tishbi Winery began to use grapes from the Sde Boker vineyards, and Barkan Winery began to use grapes from Mitzpe Ramon. The largest winery of the Negev is Yatir Winery, followed by Kadesh Barnea. There are now others producing wine with courage, determination and no little passion.

Some of the wineries to visit are as follows:

Yatir Winery – This is one of the finest wineries in Israel. It is situated in the shadow of Tel Arad, an archeological site with 3,000 years of history. Inside an uninspiring agricultural building lies one of the country’s most technologically advanced wineries. Tours must be booked in advance. It is also worth hiking through the winery’s vineyards in the Yatir Forest, Israel’s largest planted forest, which is the meeting place between the Judean Hills, the Judean Desert and the Negev. Yatir was founded in 2000. Eran Goldwasser, the winemaker, graduated from Adelaide University in Australia. The winery is managed by Ya’acov Ben-Dor and supported by his dynamic assistant Etti Edri.

Yatir Winery, Tel Arad. www.yatir.net. Tel: (08) 995-9090

Midbar Winery – Ya’acov Oryan is a pioneer. His Asif Winery was established in 2006. He believed passionately in two things: producing exclusively white wines and exploring the terroirs of the desert. He moved his winery to the artists’ quarter in Arad. He is religious, wears a kippa and is meticulous about making wine that complies absolutely with kashrut, but his wines were not originally certified as kosher.

Now he is the winemaker of the new Midbar Winery, which he is launching with the 2010 wines. However, the person is worth meeting and the wines are worth tasting whatever is on the label. He is making quality wines, now some reds as well as whites, with character and individualism.

Midbar Winery, 8 Hasadan Street. Arad, www.midbar-winery.co.il. Tel: 052-593-2200

Rota Winery – This winery was founded by Erez Rota in 2002. This is a real pioneer’s effort, with local vineyards in the backdrop of the Negev mountains. The winery produces about 10,000 bottles a year. The wine will be kosher from the 2010 vintage onwards.

Havat Rota, near Kibbutz Revivim. www.rotawinery.co.il. Tel: 054-496-8703

Kadesh Barnea Winery – Kadesh Barnea is not far from Nitzana and the Egyptian border. Alon and Nira Zadok began by growing vegetables commercially in the arid climate.

They then opened the winery in 2000. Today, the winery produces more than 75,000 bottles a year. Their son Yogev has now taken over the winemaking after studying in Italy.

Kadesh Barnea Winery, Moshav Kadesh Barnea. www.kbw.co.il. Tel: (08) 655-5849

Sde Boker Winery – This winery was founded in 1998 by Californian Zvi Remick. He produces a few thousand bottles a year and is one of the industry’s enthusiasts. In any conversation, his knowledge and passion come to the fore.

The winery is situated at Kibbutz Sde Boker, where David Ben-Gurion made his retirement home.

Sde Boker Winery, Kibbutz Sde Boker www.sde-boker.org.il/winery

Carmey Avdat Winery – Farther south off Route 40, near the Nabatean city of Avdat, lies the Carmey Avdat Farm. Owned by Eyal and Hanna Izrael, it has farm animals, stables, olive groves and vineyards. The farm includes a gallery where Eyal displays his handcrafted metal work. The winery is close to the Avdat National Park.

Carmey Avdat Farm, www.carmeyavdat.co.il, Tel: (08) 653-5177

Neot Smadar Winery – This is the southernmost winery in Israel, located 60 kilometers from Eilat. It is part of an organic farm at Kibbutz Neot Smadar, which sells olive oils, jams, and cheeses alongside its wines. Neot means “oasis.”. The winery produces a few thousand bottles a year.

Neot Smadar Winery, Kibbutz Neot Smadar. Tel: (08) 635-8111

Now the Negev is no longer a place you drive through as quickly as possible on the way to Eilat. It is place to go to when you have time on your hands. Stop at a farm there, taste the goat’s cheese from there, stay at a local bed and breakfast…and sample the wines. Just watch out for the camels!

Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications. adam@carmelwines.co.il

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