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.
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
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
Dan Savery Raz is
co-author of Lonely Planet's Israel
& the Palestinian Territories guide.
The article 'The Negev desert wine route' was published in partnership with Lonely Planet.