Wine Talk: Quest for the holy grail

Dr. Shivi Drori’s groundbreaking research on local grape varieties could change our wine narrative forever.

Groundbreaking research on local varieties: Dr. Shivi Drori (photo credit: Courtesy)
Groundbreaking research on local varieties: Dr. Shivi Drori
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Let’s dream for a moment. Think of the bunch of grapes the spies brought to Moses. If you remember, it was so big that it had to be carried on a pole between two men. Referring to the Promised Land, they said, “It is a land of milk and honey, and this is the fruit!”
Have you ever wondered which grape variety it was? It was probably a table grape because of the size of the bunch and the berries. Maybe Muscat of Alexandria, one of the oldest varieties?
Isaiah’s Song of a Vineyard is enlightening about viticulture of the time, but have you ever wondered which variety was planted in the vineyard? Could it possibly have been Carignan, which has almost become the national variety of Israel in the absence of a true indigenous variety? Maybe the Phoenicians or Crusaders later took it to Spain and the South of France.
When Jesus changed water into wine at Cana in the Galilee, which variety was the wine made from? It was likely to have been a white wine because it was difficult to tell the difference between the wine and the water. Maybe it was Chardonnay, which those with a good imagination say comes from the Hebrew phrase “Sha’ar Adonai” – the Gate of God.
At the Last Supper, a Passover Seder if ever there was one, which variety produced the wine of bloodred color? Could it have been Syrah from Syria? Note the similarities of the name! Or maybe it was from Shiraz, the city in Persia?
And what about Noah? Which variety was it which he took in the Ark so he could later plant a vineyard and become the first vintner? Wouldn’t it be appropriate if it was Cabernet Sauvignon, the king of grapes? Now, you know I am joking! The answer to all these questions is either “No” or “I don’t know.” I was just being fanciful and trying to be humorous.
Just to be factual for a moment, Carignan arrived initially at the Mikve Israel Agricultural School in the 1870s. Cabernet Sauvignon made aliya as long ago as the late 1880s. The first Chardonnay was planted in Israel in the early 1980s, and Syrah (a.k.a. Shiraz) was a latecomer, only coming here in the late 1990s.
Of course, one should not spoil a good story by the truth, but really, wouldn’t it be fascinating to know the answers to these questions! Enter Dr. Shivi Drori, the agriculture and oenology research coordinator for Samaria and the Jordan Rift. He is in the midst of groundbreaking research on local varieties, which could transform the Israeli wine narrative.
Drori’s research, based at Ariel University, is threefold. Firstly, to find out if there are local, indigenous varieties that are suitable for making wine. Thanks to the Mamelukes and their form of Prohibition, most of the local varieties here are used for table grapes, not wine. Secondly, to find out if there is any relationship between the local and the classic European varieties. And finally, to find if there is any relationship between the indigenous varieties and ancient grape pips found by archeologists going back hundreds and thousands of years! Exciting, no?
He has been pulling in samples of any local grape varieties that he can find, whether wild or cultivated vines, and so far has trawled up no fewer than 150 samples.
Some are from cultivated vineyards, others from lone wild vines found growing up trees, or even from someone’s pergola on a private balcony. Suffice it to say that no vine in Israel is safe from his research.
So far, he and his colleagues – and he is assisted by a team of many of the leading local experts – believe that six varieties have the potential to make wine.
They are Marawi (a.k.a. Hamdani), Jandali (sometimes written Djandali) and Dabouki, which are white varieties, and Balouti, Zeitani and Karkashani, which are red. Historically, Dabouki was the most planted. I remember it was also used for the distillation of brandy in years gone by.
The whites are table grapes with large berries, but they have the aromatics for wine potential. Of the reds, Balouti and Zeitani are small-berried grapes. In Hebrew, balut means “acorn,” and zayit means “olive,” which are presumably names given because of the size of the grapes. They may even prove to have more potential for wine than for food.
When the first domestic and small wineries opened in the mid-19th century in the Old City of Jerusalem, these were some of the very same varieties they used to make their wines. I love the story about Shor Winery, founded in 1848. The family folklore tells how the children would wake up to find the courtyard full of donkeys, each having carried two baskets full of juicy ripe grapes from Hebron to the winery.
In Israel everything is connected, and a story about a mere grape can go back to the dawn of history. It was also from the Valley of Eshkol, from the same Hebron area, where more than 3,000 years earlier the spies found their enormous bunch of grapes. It is also the major wine-growing area for some of these varieties today.
Of course, it is now history that when Baron Edmond de Rothschild founded a modern wine industry, they first planted varieties from southern France and, later, Bordeaux, and these dominated the winemaking from then on.
Drori has a micro-winery at Ariel University. He is experimenting with these six varieties and making wines to see which has the potential for quality. He has a tasting panel of 10 of the leading winemakers in Israel, who are tasting and monitoring the results with him.
There, I had the opportunity to taste the Marawi (Hamdani) and Jandali separately. The Jandali was very flowery and aromatic, without much substance. The Marawi was more balanced, with aromas of grapefruit, guava and tropical notes, better acidity and a longer finish.
Blended together, they made a very good wine, as we discovered from a tasting by Jancis Robinson MW, when the Cremisan Star of Bethlehem Hamdani Jandali 2011 was the highest-scoring white wine in a tasting of Israeli white wines.
Cremisan is a Salesian monastery not far from Bethlehem, founded in 1885. The legendary Italian Riccardo Cotarella is the winemaking consultant in this project. The monastery produces a Hamdani Jandali blend, a Dabouki and a red Baladi.
I tasted them, too. The red was the most disappointing of the three, a little thin and harsh. But the whites were not only good but a great topic of discussion. It is kind of ironic that the first quality Palestinian wine is of great significance to the future of Israeli wine.
Drori is an ex-paratrooper from Kiryat Shmona. He is not only a researcher that Israeli wine is placing its hopes on but also a very accomplished winemaker at Gvaot Winery, 800 meters above sea level at Shiloh. The winery was founded in 2005 and produces 30,000 bottles. Most of the vineyards are the winery’s or are in the family.
His Gvaot Chardonnay Cabernet Sauvignon blend, a white wine, is totally original. This reflects the Israeli curiosity for pushing the boundaries, trying the unexpected. He sells wines under three labels: Herodian, Gofna and Masada. My favorite is the Gofna Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, a deep, concentrated, well-focused Cabernet.
What blew me away were two wonderful and very different Pinot Noirs, not yet bottled. They must be the best Pinots produced so far in Israel. I don’t want to give away any trade secrets, but look out for these in about six months’ time.
So this passionate man of the vine and wine, who makes a white with Cabernet and tames the temperamental Pinot Noir in Israel, has a further dream. Nothing would please Shivi the winemaker more than if Dr. Drori the research academic would come up trumps. What do you think if in say five years’ time Israel has its own indigenous varieties? It could revolutionize and energize the whole industry!Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications.
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