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Like most Middle Eastern deserts, the Negev is usually associated with sand, rock and the odd camel. However, this seemingly dry and arid region in southern Israel is now home to a burgeoning wine route, thanks to a group of pioneering 21st-century farmers and their use of computerized drip irrigation.
The Negev gets less than 100mm of rain per year, most of which is washed away in flash floods down mountainsides, so the use of irrigation is not necessarily new. The Nabataeans – the ancient desert nomads who built their capital in Petra in the Hellenistic period – were so good at conserving water that their kings used to deliberately waste it in front of guests to show off. You can still see traces of their ancient irrigation systems at the ruined cities of Shivta and Mamshit in the Negev. The Romans, who later controlled this region, were also partial to a drop of wine. Indeed, the ruins of Avdat even include an old Byzantine wine press.
But modern drip irrigation uses underground computerized probes and long plastic tubes to slowly release water over long distances. Today, this efficient method is used in more than 100 countries to grow crops using less water, energy and fewer chemicals, including projects in South Africa, China, India and even for growing tea in Tanzania.
Polish-born Simcha Blass is credited with introducing new "spaghetti tubes" to Israel in the 1950s, with longer passageways that would not get blocked by small particles. And now, for the first time in centuries, grapevines are taking root in soil that was once considered infertile.
The wine route started in the late 1990s, when Zvi Remak, who studied winemaking at California's Napa Valley College, decided to plant a vineyard on the grounds of the Sde Boker Kibbutz in the northern Negev. The Sde Boker Winery opened in 1999, and today specializes in handcrafted red wines made from zinfandel and carignan grapes. The winery is next to the former desert home of Israel's first prime minister David Ben-Gurion, and offers tastings in its small shop.
The Yatir Winery, which is close to the Dead Sea and the ancient 3,000-year-old Canaanite settlement of Tel Arad, released its first wines in 2004. Known for its sauvignon blanc and cabernet merlot blends, Yatir achieved meteoric success and was the first Israeli winery to be listed in London's exclusive department store Selfridges. The actual vineyard is located in the Yatir Forest underneath the Judean hills, the biggest planted forest in Israel, where you will find carob, pistachio and pine trees.
Most of the Negev desert wineries are located along Route 40, between the city of Be’er Sheva and the hilltop town of Mitzpe Ramon. Maps are available at the Negev Highlands tourist office.
Heading south on Route 40, the Boker Valley Vineyard has an excellent wine lodge and restaurant, as well as a farm store that sells wines and olive oil. The vineyard is run by a friendly Israeli-Dutch couple and offers accommodation in its modern, South African-style wooden cabins. An outdoor jacuzzi in the desert valley is the perfect place to sip champagne and watch the sunset.
Further south still, just before the town of Mitzpe Ramon and opposite the ruined Nabataean city of Avdat , the Carmey Avdat Winery is a family-run, ecological farm that cultivates grapes using ancient irrigation terraces. The winery produces fine merlots with a unique, salty desert taste, and they also offer bed and breakfast in six luxurious rooms.
Located 60km north of Eilat in the Arava valley, Neot Semadar (“Neot” means “oasis” in Hebrew) is the southernmost winery in Israel. This alternative organic farm and vineyard sells its own range of boutique wines, olive oils, jams, homemade ice cream and cheeses in its rustic roadside restaurant surrounded by desert terrain.
Dan Savery Raz is co-author of Lonely Planet's Israel & the Palestinian Territories guide.