The Negev Desert constitutes 60% of Israel’s land, and yet for so many Israelis, this arid landscape remains an area that is shrouded in mystery. Throughout its short history, the State of Israel has sustained great hopes and dreams to make the vast desert in the southern part of the country bloom, including, of course, our country’s first prime minister.
In recent years, it’s been wonderful to see that the Negev truly has been flourishing, with a special emphasis on the Har Hanegev Region, which has been developing incredible agricultural innovations and an expanding agritourism sector. In fact, a new Negev Wine Club was formed in 2020 by the Merage Foundation, with the aim of strengthening all the small-scale wineries spread around the region, as well as the Negev’s agritourism sector. Currently, 25 wineries have joined forces in the Negev Wine Club.
Some of you might be wondering how it is possible that so many wineries have opened up in this arid area that seems like it wouldn’t be the best climate for growing grapes. So, interestingly enough, it’s been proven that grapes were grown in this region thousands of years ago, which means that these new wineries are continuing a long history of vineyards in the Negev Desert.
If you find this idea interesting, then you should definitely take a visit to the Negev Wine Route and see for yourself. The wine route, which was inaugurated on August 19 at Avdat National Park, will take you back 2,500 years ago, to when the Nabateans used floodwater agriculture to irrigate their vineyards. Remains of ancient terraces have been found by archeologists adjacent to the creeks, and some of the current wineries have even planted vineyards in the exact spots where grapes grew thousands of years ago.
The Nabateans constructed channels to bring water to their fields. Some archeologists claim that these channels would prevent flooding during the rainy season. Instead of all the rainwater draining into one place, these irrigation stations rerouted the water into many small channels. This prevented flooding and also helped to evenly irrigate all the fields.
Visitors are welcome to climb up to the top of the hill, where they’ll find the ancient Nabatean city of Avdat, one of the largest communities that thrived during that period of intensive international trade. They can view the four wine presses that were excavated and renovated, including the space where people would stomp on the grapes with their bare feet, the duct through which the grape juice would flow into a shallow silo, where the waste was separated, and a deep silo in the ground that could hold thousands of liters of wine. Afterwards, the wine was bottled in ceramic flasks and stored in niches in caves or cool cellars.
Below, you will find descriptions of just a few of the wineries that are proud members of the Negev Wine Route, where you can join a tour and enjoy wine tastings.
1. Pinto Negev Winery
Founded by the Pinto family in Yeruham in 2018, this is one of the youngest wineries to join the Negev Wine Route club. The Pinto family, in partnership with local growers, created the winery near Yeruham in an effort to promote local agriculture. The very first crop of grapes at the Pinto Negev Winery is currently being harvested. If you can manage to visit there in the upcoming days, you will catch the young winery at the peak of its harvest activities. Chief winemaker Ya’acov Oryah, one of Israel’s leading winemakers, was chosen to oversee operations at this new winery.
The price of the tour, including tasting of three wines, costs NIS 95. Cheese and bread are available for an additional fee.
2. Sdeh Boker Winery
Negev residents are proud pioneers, and some of them decided to show their dedication to the region and its long history by founding wineries in locations where ancient wineries once stood. One example of this is Sdeh Boker Winery, whose founders, in the 1990s, wanted to carry out a unique experiment in which they would test whether they could grow quality grapes in vineyards on Kibbutz Sdeh Boker property by irrigating them using the brackish water found underground in the Negev.
Unfortunately, the experiment failed, but the incredible winery was formed, which is thriving today. Visitors can hear about the winery’s history from the owner and winemaker Zvi Remak, who will, of course, offer tastes of a number of the winery’s excellent wines. Remak made aliyah from San Francisco in the 1980s after completing a degree in agronomy and crop science from California State Polytechnic, to fulfill his Zionist dreams.
The winery currently produces 5,000 bottles a year. In the past, the winery produced wine from the grapes of other local growers in the region, as their own crop was ruined by disease, and the winery is slowly reviving its own vineyard. Remak mostly makes classic red wines. If you find yourselves on site at Sdeh Boker Winery, make sure not to miss out on tasting one of the fruity Malbec wines. Coffee and refreshments are also available at Pola Café nearby, which is open all week long.
3. Nabato Winery
This small boutique winery is part of Desert Shade Camp, a freedom-tourism venture that was created by Ziv Spector 34 years ago. Freedom-tourism is a worldview that holds that people should not be stuck vacationing in one place but instead need a place to sleep at night so that they can explore surrounding areas during the day. This concept is completely the opposite of all-inclusive hotels that try to keep you busy within the confines of the hotel all day long so that you can spend more money on each of these activities.
Desert Shade Camp, which was created to counteract this approach, offers overnight accommodation in ohelogim, which are air-conditioned ecological cabins that will help you connect with your natural surroundings. The winery planted its vines on land that had grown grapes for centuries until the 7th century CE. This young winery, which began operations in 2009, currently produces 8,000 bottles of wine a year. Nabato wines, which are only available for sale at their local shop, include an orange Chardonnay that undergoes a similar process to red wine, in which the wine is fermented with the grape skins and then aged for a year in oak wood barrels that were imported from France.
Details: (08) 658-6229.
4. Ramat Negev Winery
The boutique Ramat Negev Winery was founded in Moshav Kadesh Barnea by the Zadok family. Nira and Alon Zadok moved to the Negev in the 1970s. To celebrate his fortieth birthday, Alon decided to take a class in viticulture. Soon after, he planted his first vineyard and the first grapes were harvested in 2000. Alon passed on his love for wine to his son, Yogev, who followed in his father’s footsteps and studied winemaking in Italy. Yogev is currently the winemaker at Ramat Negev Winery.
The visitor center offers tours, a short film and tastings of three white and three red wines, which costs NIS 50.
5. Midbar Winery
Midbar Winery is another boutique winery that is located in Arad, with vineyards in Mitzpeh Ramon. Since there is very little rainfall in the desert, growers have complete control over the amount of water the grapes receive, which affects their flavor and quality. Midbar specializes in white wines, which have acquired a rich mineral flavor from the unique climate. Wine lovers are invited to join a tour and wine tasting at Midbar Winery, which costs NIS 50. It includes tastings of a number of wines, as well as snacks.
Located at 10 Sadan Street in Arad (in the Artists’ Quarter).
6. Tzoof Winery
If you’re already in Arad, then you definitely should not miss out on a visit to Tzoof Winery, which was founded by Eliezer Bar Sadeh, one of the early pioneering tourism entrepreneurs in the region. Eliezer and his wife, Dganit, who are well known for the fabulous meals they offer in their home, established the boutique Tzoof Winery. The organic wine they produce, which does not contain yeast or metabisulfite, is fruity and refreshing. The couple hosts visits and workshops at the winery, which is located in their garage.
Located at 3 Sayarim Street in Arad.
7. On Debo’s Patio
After tasting so much wine, you’ll most certainly be ready to sit down for a nice meal to take the edge off all the alcohol running through your veins. I recommend going for a meal at Debo’s Patio, which is located in the backyard of Deborah and Ori Nachimov’s home in Kibbutz Tlalim. The Nachimovs, both of whom have worked in the restaurant world for years – they were among the founders of El Gaucho – prepare delecatble meat meals on the weekends.
The meals begin with an array of salads and appetizers, which are followed by a grilled meat dish of your choice, which costs NIS 140. Guests must be 13 years old or older.
Translated by Hannah Hochner.