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Pouring a Nana Estate Winery rose while looking out toward the unlikely desert terroir of this Negev vineyard. (Courtesy: Nana Winery)
Main image: Pouring a Nana Estate Winery rose while looking out toward the unlikely desert terroir of this Negev vineyard. (Courtesy: Nana Winery)

In the Negev, a new breed of vintners are making the desert bloom

With the arid terroir producing a wine that’s ‘fruity but not jammy,’ the vineyards of the Negev are banding together in hopes of being recognized as a formal appellation

Jessica Steinberg covers the Sabra scene from south to north and back to the center.

Main image: Pouring a Nana Estate Winery rose while looking out toward the unlikely desert terroir of this Negev vineyard. (Courtesy: Nana Winery)

It doesn’t rain much in the Negev desert, with less than 300 millimeters (around 10 inches) of precipitation falling in an average year. Yet that lack of water creates a fruity, relatively un-vinegary grape, light on the tannins and easy to drink.

Who knew?

The ancient Nabateans did. As far as we know, the early Arab nomads were the first to grow grapes on farming terraces alongside the dry riverbeds, making wine from their harvests.

Now it is the same dry, sandy texture of the Negev soil, riverbed locations, and limited precipitation that have helped create what may be the most terroir-driven wine region in Israel.

“Because it’s very, very dry in the Negev, it creates grapes that are very different from anywhere else,” said wine guide and sommelier Guy Haran. “It’s not only different from Israel, it’s different from anywhere else in the world. That creates uniqueness.”

Israelis have been making wine for decades, but their products cannot compete with those made in France, Italy, or California on quality, nor can they match the value of South American, South African and Australian wines.

A view of Nana Estate Winery’s green vineyard against the arid brown desert of the Negev, a farming phenomenon that inspired the Merage Foundation to support the creation of a Negev wine appellation. (Courtesy: Nana Winery)

“The only place we can really compete is if we create our own style, something no one else can offer, something unique,” said Haran, who founded Vinspiration, an Israeli wine tourism company.

The Negev’s vineyards are now banding together to seek a Negev appellation, which would grant official recognition of the Negev as a distinct wine-producing region of Israel. August 2020 brought a declaration of the Judea appellation, Israel’s first official wine region.

Their guide in the process is Haran, who is working with the Merage Foundation Israel, a US-based family philanthropy supporting efforts to fully realize the tourism potential of the Negev — an area that remains sparsely populated and where development has often lagged behind the center of the country.

While the center of Israeli viniculture has always been in the verdant north, more and more vineyards and vintners have been popping up across the Negev in recent years, taking advantage of the region’s unique terroir and dry air.

Tourists just can’t believe that out here… we’re making this kind of wine. In this godforsaken desert?!

There are now more than 30 vineyards in the Negev Desert, more even than in the water-rich Golan Heights, with more than 1,000 dunams (247 acres) of planted vineyards, said Haran. Many are smaller establishments that sell the grapes they grow to larger, industrial wineries, or that make their own small run of wines. He estimates the addition of another 10 wineries in the Negev in the next year.

“The whole uniqueness of this place is the quality. I don’t have the quantity,” said viniculturist Eran Raz, whose Nana Winery is set deep in the desert. Nana, among the largest of the Negev’s wineries, makes 45,000 bottles a year, and plans to ramp up production to 80,000 bottles this year.

With each harvest, said Raz, the wines have different tastes and tones. He has been experimenting with new species of grapes for Nana’s Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, a rosé made from Grenache grapes, and a blend called “Tethys” featuring aromas of berries and pine.

“We’re still learning about the wines from the desert,” said Haran. He described them as “fruity but not jammy.”

While connoisseurs have talked up the development of wine-producing regions in areas once too cold to support grapes as a silver lining of climate change, Raz has found that areas once thought too hot to grow grapes can also produce excellent wine.

Nana Raz (right) of Nana Winery, with his winemaker, Dana Beny, in the Nana vineyards of the Negev Desert. (Courtesy: Nana Winery)

“Tourists come here and drink our wine and just can’t believe that out here in the desert, we’re making this kind of wine,” said Raz. “In this godforsaken desert?!”

There are advantages to scarcity.

In the Golan, grapes often get by with whatever water the skies provide. In the Negev, by contrast, Raz can tightly control how much water they receive. By keeping the vines thirsty, he has found that he can create a more flavorful grape that retains its strong color.

“Last year, I didn’t have a lot of cabernet grapes, but what I had was great,” he said. “That’s what interests me.”

Nearby, Carmey Avdat produces just 6,000 bottles a year from 25 dunams (6 acres) of Negev vineyards. The winery bottles a Cabernet Sauvignon and a Merlot, as well as a young rosé and a light red wine called Somek.

Among guests who have stayed at Carmey Avdat’s quaint, barrel-shaped cabins are French visitors from Bordeaux, who were shocked by the local Cabernet and Merlot, said Eyal Izrael, Carmey Avdat’s owner and winemaker.

“It amazes them because it’s so different than what they know from home,” he said.

Izrael also makes white wines, a new addition to the Israeli wine scene that will prove especially refreshing in the long hot summer when a cold glass is called for.

“It’s very extreme here, but if you’re careful and specific, you’ll have good results,” said Izrael.

Eyal and Hannah Izrael of Carmey Avdat Winery in Israel’s Negev region, where they were among the first desert pioneers to grow grapes and make wine (and host guests in their barrel-shaped tzimmers). (Jessica Steinberg/ Times of Israel)

Another vintner in the neighborhood, Tsur Shezaf, makes 5,000 bottles of natural wines — Chardonnay, Chenin Blanc, and Syrah — that are not officially considered organic although they are “more than organic,” he said.

His grapes are considered the best in the region, boasted Shezaf, a self-taught winemaker as well as travel writer, activist, and fiction author who moved to the Negev from Jaffa. He does not spray his grapes, but feeds them with compost and waters them with rain and desert floodwater.

“My story is different from the others,” said Shezaf, referring to his closest neighbors. “Not a lot of people here do things the way I do. It took some people a while to understand me; they thought I was cuckoo.”

Tsur Shezaf of the Shezaf Vineyard in Israel’s Negev region, an iconoclast among iconoclasts. (Jessica Steinberg/ Times of Israel)

There are probably four or five distinct grape-growing regions within the Negev, said Haran. One is the highlands west of Mitzpe Ramon, where Shezaf and Nana are located. Elevation in that area means it can sometimes snow, something Haran remembers from his military officer’s training in the area.

The desert extremes can often be felt acutely in the taste of the grapes. While Nana’s Chenin Blanc is not affected by the heat at all, Cabernet, which Raz calls his “workhorse,” gets bolder, fruitier, and more alcoholic as the mercury climbs.

“I can’t fight with [the temperature], so if I want red wine, I have to work with what I have,” he said.

He has fought hard.

Shachar and Nana Raz of Nana Estate Winery in Israel’s Negev region; he is the viniculturist, she runs the winery’s tourism and marketing. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Nana Estate Winery, situated some 25 kilometers (15.5 miles) from the border with Egypt, was chosen by Raz and his wife and business partner, Shachar Raz, for its location, 800 meters (2,624 feet) above sea level — the highest spot in the region. Low stone walls dot the landscape, visible reminders of farms and agricultural terraces active here some 2,000 years earlier.

“There was nothing here. It was starting from nothing, no water, no phone lines,” said Raz.

Security also proved an issue. The vineyard is located along an alleged drug smuggling route from the border used by local Bedouin, and criminal gangs would sometimes rip up his seedlings at night, Raz said.

He persevered, often sleeping in his vineyard, while his wife and kids — they now have six — stayed at home in nearby Mitzpe Ramon. They struggled through those early years, but were kept afloat by side gigs consulting with other fledgling wineries in the area who turned to Raz for his agricultural expertise.

The grapevines of Carmey Avdat Winery in Israel’s Negev region, where owners Eyal and Hanna Izrael were told they would never succeed. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Today, Nana has one of the largest grape-growing operations in the Negev, with 160 dunams (nearly 40 acres) of vineyards. The Ramat Negev Winery in Kadesh Barnea is said to have the Negev’s most extensive vineyard holdings.

Some augment their businesses with agritourism, such as Carmey Avdat’s rustic bed-and-breakfast.

Wine expert and consultant Guy Haran of Vinspiration, currently working with Negev vineyards and wineries to create a Negev appellation. (Courtesy Ella Barak)

“Wine and vineyards are a gateway to anything tourism-related,” said Nicole Hod Stroh, the Israel-based CEO of the Merage Foundation. “It’s about seeing desert, desert, desert and then, all of a sudden, a green vineyard.”

Haran and Hod Satro have been introducing the wineries to wine competitions and exhibitions, traveling with some of them to experience Italy’s wine regions (although many of the local viticulturists see Australia and New Zealand as a closer approximation of their desert vineyards), and laying the groundwork for the Negev appellation, which will make it a legally protected wine region, the same as Burgundy or Napa.

This band of Negev viticulturists are open to joining and benefiting from the Merage efforts, but ultimately, they are an idiosyncratic crew. Many in the loosely affiliated community of isolated, individual farmers and winemakers had not met before Haran brought them together when mapping out winemaking in the wild desert plains of the Negev.

But even before Haran came along, competition was less than fierce. Raz, who was initially hired as a consultant by some of the other wineries in the region, and other growers keep in touch via WhatsApp, chatting about who is ordering fertilizer or if anyone is heading to Beersheba, the closest big city.

“People who make wine don’t hold the information close to their chest,” said Carmey Avdat’s Izrael. “You bring a bottle of your wine when you visit your neighbor — there’s no secret formula. There’s an openness to talking about things.”

Where to visit

Route 171 meanders east from the border with Egypt toward Mitzpe Ramon. As it descends toward the city, the road runs past Nana and Shezaf, skirts Ramon Vineyards, and ends at Eshkolot Orchard, where the road meets Route 40, the main drag into Mitzpe Ramon.

There, Simcha Marom taps into ancient desert farming traditions, producing a small run of 800 bottles of kosher wine each year as well as olive oil from the orchard on her property.

Simcha Marom tasting one of her Negev-grown and pressed olive oils at Eshkolot Farm Israel’s Negev region, part of a new effort to bring more tourism to the area. (Jessica Steinberg/Times of Israel)

Her husband, Roni Marom, is now the mayor of Mitzpe Ramon, but the olive oil tastings and biblical farm are Simcha Marom’s passion.

Working with Yaacov Oryah, an Arad-based winemaker, she makes organic wine from her Mishor grapes, along with several types of cold-pressed extra virgin olive oil from three varieties of olives — Syrian, Picual, and Barnea — grown on their property.

Tours of the orchard, where the seven biblical species of Israel are grown, come with samples of the fruits and stop at an ancient cistern and other archaeological ruins among the trees and vines. Visit the Eshkolot Orchard website to book a tour or order olive oil.

Tzur Shezaf, the non-conformist of the bunch, would love to have visitors, but cannot officially host tourists in his tasting room, due to a dispute with municipal authorities. But he welcomes visitors who want to buy his (non-kosher) wine —  around NIS 120 ($36) per bottle — particularly during harvest times.

Nana Winery’s former Patriot missile Tiny House Airbnb cabin in the far reaches of the Negev Desert. (Courtesy: Nana Estate Winery)

Nana Estate Winery is open to visitors Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday, 11-3 p.m., preferably booked in advance.

There is a full tasting experience at the kosher winery. A vineyard experience costs NIS 90 (around $27), and includes three wine tastings. Cheese and crackers cost NIS 45 ($13.5), and most bottles cost between NIS 100 and NIS 130 ($30 to $39).

The winery also features a single Tiny House cabin for overnight guests, fashioned out of a former Patriot missile. The missile was a gift from Shachar Raz to Eran for his 50th birthday. Reservations are available via Airbnb, for NIS 1,900 ($575) a night.

Visitors are welcome down the road at the Ramon Vineyard, where a visit can include an agricultural tour of the vineyard, picking grapes in season, and tasting wines made from the Ramon grapes.

The Carmey Avdat visitors center is open most hours of the day and visitors are welcome without advance notice. Groups that want to bottle their own Carmey Avdat wine (ages 16 and up) must book in advance.

Carmey Avdat’s wines are not kosher, although they do produce three kosher wines at the Ramat Negev winery in the nearby moshav of Kadesh Barnea, and their wines are sold only from their remote oasis idyll. Wines cost NIS 120 ($36) and up.

The Carmey Avdat cabins are for couples or small groups of friends, not families. Prices range from NIS 880 ($266) per person for Garden Cabins to NIS 1,150 ($348) per couple for Secluded Chalets.

There’s also a café for visitors or anyone stopping by, where the Izraels’ pastry chef daughter augments the bread-and-cheese menu and breakfast options with delectable-looking confections.

They will pour you a glass of wine too.

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