Four years ago, Dr. Elyashiv Drori, a scientist and winemaker, couldn’t help noticing the grapevine growing wild near Gvaot, his winery in Israel. Upon closer inspection, he realized it wasn’t a wild vine, known as Vitis vinifera sylvestris, but an abandoned cultivated vine, Vitis vinifera sativa, that had managed to survive on its own in Israel’s harsh climate, its name lost to history.
“I had a dream: producing wine from local, indigenous grapes,” said Drori. That dream has transformed into a quest to identify Israel’s unique wine grapes and reproduce the ancient wines served 3,000 years ago during the reign of King David.
Ancient Hebrew texts provide evidence that wine was part of ancient Judean culture, and early vintners produced both red and white wines. Archaeologists have discovered wine presses and other equipment, but the region’s winemaking identity was lost over the centuries as Muslim culture took hold. Today, international varieties dominate Israel’s vineyards.
Drori’s dream might change that. With financial backing from the Jewish National Fund, he has gathered a team that includes an archaeobotanist, a geneticist who specializes in genomes, a bioinformatician and a historian. Students have spent three years scouring the countryside in search of vine samples. “We have 300 new grapevine [types] in our collection—100 unique to Israel,” said Drori, who is the principal investigator on the project, based at the Samaria and Jordan Rift regional R&D Center at Ariel University.
“Most varieties are found along riverbeds in the north where there is a big population of Sylvestris. Otherwise, we find them near mountain creeks and along the coastal area,” said Drori. “I’ve found indigenous Vitis vinifera all the way down to Egypt. It’s amazing.”
That particular region only gets less than 2 inches of rain a year. “They perform well—they are sustainable. They can handle water stress,” said Drori.
Not only are the local grapes particularly hardy, but DNA specialist Dr. Mali Salmon-Divon said they have an intriguing ancestry. “We saw that the native Israeli grapes are different from European grapes.” In fact, early results show that the native grapes are genetically close to the wild Vitis vinifera sylvestris, suggesting an earlier origin.
Key to the investigation are the many archaeological digs underway in Israel, where winemaking equipment has been found as well as botanical remains like grapes, pips and must. Drori’s hope is to find a living wine grape whose DNA matches the plant remains found at an ancient site.
Working with small batches, Drori makes wine from the grapes he finds in the wild. So far, at least 10 are suitable for winemaking, but the possibilities are vast. “We find a new grape every week,” said Drori.