Long before Burgundy and Bordeaux, winemaking blossomed in very different regions, including the Caucasus and the Holy Land. Today, people in these areas continue to make wine from indigenous varieties of grapes, using techniques that are ancient, modern, or a blend of both.
A new book shares this compelling saga: “Tasting the Past: The Science of Flavor and the Search for the Origins of Wine” by acclaimed journalist Kevin Begos takes readers from the mountains of Georgia to the monasteries of the Middle East and then westward across the Mediterranean.
All the while, Begos tastes wines previously unknown to him, beginning with a red wine from the Cremisan Cellars winery, part of a monastery of the same name located between Jerusalem and Bethlehem.
“It was completely unexpected, completely by accident,” Begos told The Times of Israel about his chance discovery of this wine at a hotel in Amman, Jordan, in 2008. “I hadn’t thought many monasteries make wine in the Middle East. I knew there were monasteries, but I thought [their winemaking] stopped long ago.”
When he returned home from Amman, Begos made further discoveries that challenged other assumptions.
He learned that there were indigenous Middle Eastern grape varieties, including Jandali, Hamdani and Baladi — “grapes with clearly Middle Eastern names that I had never heard of,” Begos said. “Experts said Israel had no indigenous varieties of grape. Later, this was corrected in the ‘Oxford Companion to Wine.’”
But at the time, he said, “I wondered if I made a mistake, or what was I really tasting.”
Consulting respected sources who provided encouragement, such as Swiss biologist Jose Vouillamoz, Begos pursued a modern-day odyssey along the scholarly-accepted historical route of winemaking. His itinerary included the Caucasus, where 8,000-year-old evidence exists of what he describes in the book as the “mother” wine grape — “a single ancient grape variety whose DNA shows a link to almost all the vineyards of the world.”
Winemaking spread “down out of the Caucasus to the Fertile Crescent and the Holy Land,” then “west across the Mediterranean,” Begos said. Although he did not visit the Fertile Crescent due to safety concerns, he was able to see other parts of this extensive route.
At the outset, he considered himself a “very average wine lover… still learning, [and with] not many preconceptions.”
But he had one expectation. “I certainly hoped to taste a lot of interesting wines,” he said.
A fine 2008 Cremisan red
The wine that originally piqued Begos’ interest was the Cremisan red from 2008. “Wow,” he describes his reaction in the book.
Still tasting it in his memory, he would eventually visit the historic winery, located in a monastery perched atop a ridge in the Cremisan Valley.
The monastery was founded in the late 19th century, with the winery dating to 1885, according to its website. The Salesian monks who continue to run Cremisan are heirs to a tradition that long predates their arrival.
“Clearly, a region right between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, there’s been winemaking and vineyards for thousands of years,” Begos said. “I think the generally accepted figure is roughly 5,000 years for evidence of people making wine in the Holy Land.”
Historic wine from the region might taste a little differently than the perhaps more familiar to Diaspora Jews, Manischewitz, a standard wine for Shabbat blessing.
“Manischewitz certainly has a reputation as a traditional Jewish wine during the holidays,” Begos said. “Generally, it’s very sweet … [It] may be more of an Eastern European Jewish tradition, a sweet type of wine. I don’t think Jews who knew the Holy Land 1,000, 2,000 years ago had the same taste for sweet wine.”
The dry Cremisan red he tasted “had a spicy flavor, sort of Syrah-ish, but not quite,” he writes in the book. “It was drinkable, balanced, and pleasingly different.”
But changes have come to Cremisan. When he visited the winery, the red that had originally entranced him now tasted differently. (“It was not that I didn’t like it,” he said. “It was notably different.” He did say that he “really liked” the Cremisan white wine.)
He discovered that one elderly, experienced winemaker, Father Ermenegildo Lamon, had moved back to Italy after developing both Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s. Lamon’s expertise had produced the red wine Begos savored in 2008, but “new, younger winemakers couldn’t duplicate that,” he said. “Perhaps they were not even trying.”
The monastery is trying to get advice from outside experts from Italy — including oenologist Riccardo Cotarella.
“He did make some changes,” Begos said. “I think he encouraged Cremisan to focus solely on native grapes.”
Why use imported vines?
When Begos visited Israel, he interviewed Israeli wine experts, including Ido Lewinsohn, at the time a vintner at Recanati Winery, whose bottles for one of its newer wines are lettered in Arabic, Hebrew and English. He quotes Levinsohn telling The New York Times that the grapes for this wine “are not Israeli; they are not Palestinian. They belong to the region — this is something beautiful.”
Begos was puzzled as to why some winemakers in Israel use French grapes instead of native ones, and why they make French wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Riesling and Merlot.
“Anyone who visits Israel, there’s all the wine and food history, so much great hummus, tabbouleh and other types of food, olive oil, great history, trends, research,” Begos said, “I was surprised so many of the vineyards in Israel are just planting French grapes.”
He links this to “part of a broader cultural [development] over the last 150 years” in which “many countries around the Mediterranean” opted for the more prominent French grapes, sometimes tearing up their “own native vineyards” to do so.
“I think there will always be some Bordeaux, Burgundy, Riesling made in Israel,” Begos said. “Some winemakers are just good [at it].” But, he said, “in the sense that they’re competing with Italy and France, it’s tough to do, not just because of the history — the terroir and climate are different.”
“Israel has a Mediterranean climate, much drier and hotter than France,” Begos said, raising the subject of “trying to make French grapes work in a climate they’re not designed to work in.”
He added, “I’m certain native grapes of the Holy Land may be more suited for a Mediterranean climate.”
Begos contends that the Holy Land has a more continuous winemaking history than generally imagined. He gained perspective by speaking with archaeologist Aren Maeir, director of the Tell es-Safi/Gath excavations.
One conversation helped challenge the conventional wisdom that winemaking in the Holy Land stopped with the Muslim conquest in the seventh century and did not start up again until the arrival of Baron Edmond de Rothschild in the late 19th century.
“I always questioned that,” Begos said. “I knew there were large Jewish and Christian communities throughout the Middle East from 600 C.E. onward, and even earlier. There were Jewish communities in Aleppo, Jerusalem, Gaza and Baghdad, and Jewish and Christian communities throughout the region.
“Then Aren Maeir made a good point. He said that America had Prohibition in the 1920s, then the 1930s, and theoretically alcohol was banned all across America. It did not stop people from drinking,” he said.
Similarly, Begos said, the Ottoman rulers of the Holy Land found “some financial benefit from wine, exporting wine, relying on taxes, charging the Christians and Jews making it.”
Begos investigated the future as well as the past. He spoke with scientist and winemaker Shivi Drori, whom he said is doing “excellent research” into the DNA of grapes.
“He’s looking for wild grapes, native grapes, from the Negev all the way up [to] the northern border, all over the country,” Begos said. “He believes there are at least 20 grapes with winemaking potential, some completely unknown.”
“I think Israel will benefit from Shivi Drori’s work, Cremisan’s work,” Begos said.
How politics affect the palate
Wineries have been impacted by disputes between Israel and the Palestinians. During the Second Intifada, Begos writes in the book, “Cremisan had trouble transporting wine, and people who had been visiting the monastery gift shop for decades no longer came.”
The construction of the separation barrier has also had an impact, Begos writes: “the dispute continues over how it cuts through Cremisan lands.”
The case has reached Israel’s Supreme Court, and in the book, Begos speaks about its ramifications with one of the winery’s regional distributors, Amer Kardosh, who “said that if the wall is fully built, Cremisan workers who now have a five-minute walk from a nearby village will have a much longer commute by car, creating numerous problems.”
Drori, meanwhile, is a researcher at Ariel University, located in the West Bank settlement of Ariel. The UN denies the legitimacy of Israeli settlements under international law.
Regarding the tensions of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Begos said, “I mentioned that a little, but did not go into it in the book. It’s so complex, so multilayered, there’s so much discussion about it. I just try to introduce people to wines, people all over the Middle East and Mediterranean making [wine from] native grapes.
“I know Cremisan does have to bottle wine differently for export to different countries. Shivi Drori has similar pressures. It’s beyond my scope of expertise where it will head or end up. I hope everyone in the region can start enjoying native grapes, and keep traditions alive,” Begos said.
He has similar hopes for readers across the globe, citing the interest in recent decades in “the origins of food and heirloom seeds, as we call them in America.” And while he thinks wine is “a little behind” in this department, “it is catching up,” he said.
Consider his own tastes.
“Now my whole palate of wine has seen an explosion of flavors beyond what it was,” Begos said. “Hardly a week goes by without people introducing me to a new wine I’ve never heard of before.”