Wine industry going high-tech

While Israeli high-tech innovations have earned much press attention — especially in education, commerce and medicine — it is surprising that the amazing advances in the ancient art of wine production have received scarcely a peep. The most recent case in point is that of Hebrew University research, which has resulted in improved grapes grown with saline water, and the "unflattening" of hot climate wines' taste and aroma by the addition of specific natural enzymes.

The legacy of wine-making in Israel goes back to biblical times. The grape is one of the "Seven Species" of Holy Land fruits and every biblical book but one (the Book of Jonah) makes a reference to wine. Ancient wine presses, vats, amphorae and goblets have been unearthed at archaeological sites all over the country, attesting to the tremendous importance of wine production, which reached its peak during the Second Temple period.

The Hebrew influence on wine spread far outside the boundaries of the Holy Land — the English wine, the French vin, the Latin vinum and the Greek oinos all related to the Hebrew word for wine — ya'in.

Many vineyards were destroyed following the conquest of Judea by the Romans in 70 C.E., and the remaining vines were torn up during the period of Muslim rule, which began about 600 C.E. This continued for over a millennium, despite a brief period of wine-making during the Crusader period.

The return of Jewish settlement to the Holy Land during the late 19th century brought with it a revival of viticulture and wine-making. The first Jewish vineyards, sponsored and planted by Baron Edmond de Rothschild, used vine roots imported from the south of France. French tradition also held sway over wine production, which was considered an art, not a science, and vineyards received only naturally irrigable, salt-resistant root stocks; they are now using them to produce high-quality wines from new vineyards of the Ramat Negev area. The first bottles of these wines — bottled under the name Negev Wines by the Tishbi family in Binyamina — have been enthusiastically received by wine critics.

In an additional project, the university's researchers have proven that the taste of wine can be enhanced by adding specific enzymes to the must (grape juice before fermentation) or the wine. This discovery eliminates the problem of wine flatness caused by the disappearance of taste and from acidity substances because of hot climate conditions.

These high-tech advances in wine production have also resulted in positive offshoots, such as increased cooperation between Israeli and Egyptian wine-growers, particularly following the Negev grape-growing experiments. Thanks to the spread of production process computer technology, there is also a greater variety and individuality of wines. In addition, other growers in the Negev region, keen to get in on the bonanza, have switched their crops from tomatoes and pistachios to grapes.

But perhaps the most interesting development for the new century is the formation of a number of Israel "wine trails" à la Napa Valley to encourage not only production but also tourism.