There is one country in the Middle East that has reintroduced the art of wine making to international acclaim, after centuries of barely producing any wine at all: Israel.
Ancient History of Wine in the Holy Land
The Old Testament is full of stories of the use of wine in the Holy Land, and Judaism features wine prominently in many of its commandments.
Ancient synagogues in Israel are replete with vines and grapes adorning mosaics and columns in the Galilee, Golan Heights and Judea and Samaria. The architecture and art of the Romans who ruled in the region 2000 years ago also feature grapes and wine prominently.
Ancient Synagogue in the Golan Heights featuring vines and grapes
along the portals to the Torah Ark (photo: First.One.Through)
The prevalence of vineyards and wine in the Holy Land came to a stop when Arabs invaded en masse in the 7th century, bringing Islam’s ban of alcohol to the region. Further, an earthquake in 749CE led to a destruction of most of the synagogues and buildings that featured grapes and wine in the region.
For the next 1100 years, whether ruled by Arabs or non-Arab Muslims (the Ottomans), the land barely produced any wine at all.
Jews Bringing Wine back to the Holy Land
Some of the earliest records of wineries reopening in the Holy Land include Rabbi Yitzchak Shor in 1848, and Rabbi Avram Teperberg, who opened a winery in the Old City of Jerusalem in 1870. The modern record of the longest continually operating wineries goes to the efforts of Baron Edmund de Rothschild, who established vineyards in Palestine and shortly thereafter the winery, Carmel, with a location in Rishon Le Zion (1890) and another in Zichron Yaakov (1892).
Winemaking spread further after the Six Day War in 1967, after Israel took control of Judea and Samaria which had been illegally annexed by Jordan in 1950. Israel seized the Golan Heights from Syria in that war as well, as Syria had used that high plateau to bombard Israel’s Galilee region below it. Israel turned both of those areas into thriving wine making regions, as they had been historically.
While there were 14 wineries in the Holy Land when the Jewish State was reestablished in 1948, there are over 200 wineries in the country today, with some estimates that include the very small wineries to being over 350 wineries.
Wine Production in the Middle East
Today, Israel stands apart from the rest of the Middle East regarding wine production. The only neighbor that approaches the Jewish State’s fondness for wine is Lebanon, which not coincidentally, has a large Christian population.
Israel produced 31 million liters of wine in 2014. Lebanon placed second with just half Israel’s volume, 15.4 million liters. Egypt only produced 3m liters, while Syria, Jordan, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia (KSA) and the other regional countries did not rank at all.
Meanwhile, the Lebanese drink much more wine than they produce locally, 21.3m liters. In contrast, Israel consumes a small portion of the wine it produces, only 7.8m liters, and exports the rest around the world.
While the Muslim-dominated countries in the region do not produce wine, they do consume negligible amounts: Jordan consumes 373,000 liters, Egypt 225,000, KSA 114,000, and Syria just 15,000, a combined total that is less than 10% of Israel’s consumption, even while their population dwarfs Israel by over 17 times.
Medals, Awards and Notables
The Israelis have not just begun producing wine in the region again, they have perfected the art form.
Over the past several years, the Israeli wineries have produced excellent wines and have entered various competitions, including those held in Europe. Wineries like Carmel (2010) and Golan Heights Winery (2011) even started winning top prizes at those events.
The Vineyards in Disputed Territories
Many of the award-winning wines are derived from grapes grown and wineries located in the disputed territories.
The Golan Heights was allocated to Syria under the Sykes-Picot Agreement after World War I. Syria ruled the area until 1967, when Israel took the region from Syria to protect the Galilee region from persistent Syrian shelling. Today, even in the midst of a bloody civil war that has claimed nearly half a million people, Syria continues to demand that the lands be returned.
The land east of the 1949 Armistice “Green” Line, (east of the Green Line, EGL, or the west bank of the Jordan River) was allocated to be part of the reestablished Jewish homeland in international law in 1920 and 1922 in the San Remo Agreement and the Mandate for Palestine, respectively. However, in 1947, the United Nations sought to divide the mandate into distinct Jewish and Arab states (which the Arabs rejected). The Arabs attacked Israel in 1948, took hold of EGL in 1949, and in 1950 the Jordanians annexed the area and renamed it the “West Bank.” The Arabs want this land for a new country to be called Palestine.
Due to the disputed nature of the Golan Heights and the EGL/West Bank, there are international efforts underway to use distinct labels for the products from these regions. Some governments contend that labeling the products as “Made in Israel,” is inaccurate, even though countries around the world use labels in such fashion for territories regularly. Some stores have gone further, and boycott wines and other products produced in these contested areas. The various products made in the Israeli territories account for about $250 million in exports, or about 1% of Israel’s export economy.
It is interesting that some of the countries that lead this boycott effort are the largest consumer of wine in the world. They include: France (#2); Italy (#3); Germany (#4); the UK (#6); and Spain (#7). One would imagine that those countries would be thrilled that Israel has brought back award-winning wine production to the region that Islam had obliterated for centuries. The Israelis not only share their values, but export items they adore.
Israel produces a wide variety of great wines today. The wines run from the ancient – yes ancient, as Israelis are using science to bring back old wine recipes extracted from sediment found in ancient pottery, to brand new wines like Jezreel, a new winery established by an American family that made aliyah.
For lovers of wine around the world who are thrilled to see the Jewish State bring back the holy land’s great history of producing wine which was destroyed for a thousand years, don’t just buy the wine, insist that your local store stock the shelves with Israeli wines as well.
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