Wednesday, April 18, 2018

Wine grapes from the Biblical era resurface in a Palestinian fruit market

Table grapes from a vineyard near Hebron. I shot this from a car. Who knows what ancient varieties may be there?
If you are a fan of unusual grape varieties, the Israeli winery Recanati has a couple of wines for you. Their story is, literally, epic: centuries spent in hiding until Israeli-Palestinian cooperation brought them back. The ancient white wine has been available for four years; the ancient red is just coming on the market this year.

Marawi and Bittuni are ancient grapes that disappeared from wine production during the centuries that Israel was ruled by Muslims. Wine was important in the Biblical era, and there is plenty of archeological evidence of wine production in the Holy Land. But in the modern era, until Edmond Rothschild restarted wine production in the 1880s, the area was a viticultural desert.

Rothschild brought the best-regarded French grapes at the time, including Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and the Jewish community made generally lousy wines with them for decades, before and after the founding of the state of Israel. Cab and Merlot aren't well-suited for the Mediterranean heat of the low-lying areas where they were planted.

Much of the best terroir is in the West Bank
Israeli wine has been on a resurgence for about two decades, led mainly by growers planting in higher-elevation, cooler areas. (Complicating things, many of these areas are in Palestinian territory.) Everyone understood that Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which are believed to have originated in the 1700s in France from natural crossings in vineyards, were not the grapes of the Bible. Most people just assumed that the grapes behind sage advice like "Use a little wine for thy stomach's sake and thine often infirmities" (1 Timothy 5:23) were lost to time.

Dr. Shivi Drori at Ariel University thought he knew how to find them.

Grapevines are essentially weeds: highly venerated weeds, but weeds all the same. They're hardy if they have a source of water and they can live a long time. Drori decided not to look at old vineyards, but at places where vines might grow wild without anyone noticing.

"He started looking around in isolated places. Not in vineyards. In creeks," says Recanati winemaker Gil Shatsberg, who studied at UC Davis. "The best thing was to look for them close to military bases. Nobody touches these areas. It's forbidden to approach. He found samples of grapevines and started propagating them."

Drori eventually found 120 varieties and sent samples to the University of Milan for DNA fingerprinting. He learned he had many unique grape varieties that obviously were suited to the Israeli climate, as they had survived in the wild for centuries.

Recanati committed itself to making wine from the most promising of these indigenous varieties, and it planted some samples in its vineyards. 

The project got a jumpstart when Drori discovered two grapes, Bittuni and Marawi, hiding in plain sight -- as table grapes in Palestinian markets. Recanati bought the grapes and began making wine with them. Recanati introduced the Marawi first, and is already on its fourth vintage. Recanati's first wine from Bittuni is out this year.

I'd love to tell you about the Palestinian grower who sells these grapes, but, Shatsberg says, "We want to show the world that there is cooperation and there is mutual life in our troublesome area, but this guy refuses to be exposed to the media because he is afraid of pressure from his government."

Right now, Recanati has no control over the viticulture. The grapes are trellised for table grapes, and that's not going to change until Recanati's own plantings start producing. Moreover, Shatsberg cannot even visit the Bittuni vineyard because it is in a part of Hebron where Israelis are forbidden to go. (I've been and it made me miserable: read all about it.)

Both wines' character is delicate. Think about a table grape, and about how much more water it has inside than a typical wine grape. I like both of these wines, but they're not powerful. That said, there are no off flavors and they're easy to enjoy with just about any kind of food.

Gil Shatsberg
"Having done winemaking for many years, you can taste the grapes and know there's something there," Shatsberg says. "Bittuni is a late ripening variety. It is in a high elevation vineyard and relatively cool. But the characteristic is, I would say something in between Pinot Noir and Blaufrankisch with a little bit of spice like Grenache. It's a challenge for me as a winemaker to maintain this fragile character. You cannot over-macerate it. We do add to the fermentation a little bit of stems to bring some green spices. I had to be very very gentle with the barrels. All of the barrels are used barrels. Not even one new barrel. It is very gentle fruit and very delicate wine."

Shatsberg, who worked in California for four years at Trefethen and at Jordan, is excited about developing wines that are uniquely Israeli. He gave up a lot for his winemaking career. He grew up on Kibbutz Tzora, a collective farm, and the kibbutz sent him to Davis because it wanted to start a winery. But the kibbutz's economic committee changed its mind.

"They wanted me to come back," Shatsberg says. "I had to leave the kibbutz because I wanted to follow my passion."

This could be more traumatic than it might sound. Shatsberg's entire family still lives at the kibbutz, but he is no longer a member and cannot rejoin -- even though Tzora changed its mind again and did create a winery.

"It's difficult for a person who lives in this, almost a dream house, very comfortable place, safe and secure," he says. "You have to leave the nest and live by yourself." He now lives near Recanati.

Recanati is a mid-sized producer making about 80,000 cases per year. Marawi and Bittuni are still a tiny part of its production: there are only about 500 cases of them combined. In fact, Recanati Bittuni is still so rare that when FedEx somehow managed to destroy the first samples Recanati sent me, it took more than a month to locate a replacement bottle. (Word to the wise: If a bottle of wine is important to you, do not ship it by FedEx.)

"I'm not going to tell you that Bittuni and Marawi are going to replace Cabernet and Chardonnay," Shatsberg says. It's going to take a long time before we can master these varieties. Having these varieties will add some kind of character to our wine industry. It's not going to be another Australia, another California. We need something of our own."

Recanati Judean Hills Bittuni 2016 ($35; 12% alcohol)
A very light-bodied, mild-flavored wine. Not particularly fruity, though it does have some nice red currant. Most reminds me of a village-level Beaujolais, or a lighter CĂ´tes-du-Rhone.

Recanati Judean Hills Marawi 2016 ($35; 12% alcohol)
A smooth, delicate white wine. Very gentle, with good mouthfeel and white melon character. Buy it here.

(For something more intense, but not as ancient, you might try Recanati Wild Carignan, made from dry-farmed grapes from bush vines tended by an Israeli Arab Christian. Buy it here.)

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