In this little sliver of the Holy Land, in the southern Levant, lying on the eastern basin of the Mediterranean, wine has been made by the Canaanites, Phoenicians, Israelites, Greeks, Romans, Nabateans and Byzantines. With the Muslim takeover of the region, wine production on an industrial scale was discontinued, however domestic winemaking and wine production for religious ritual always continued. In modern day Israel, it has returned to its winemaking roots.
The Canaanites were quite simply the best winemakers in the world of their time. The Phoenicians (from south of Mt Carmel northwards) were producers and exporters, spreading wine far and wide and using glass for the first time. The Israelites used wine in their day to day ritual, which firmly established the strong connection between wine and Judaism. The Greeks introduced wine literature and the symposium, a glorified wine tasting. The Romans brought in the idea of wine with food at the Roman banquet, first used the cork and barrel, and set up the roots of the modern wine industry. The Nabateans conquered the desert. The Byzantines established wine in the Christian world in the Near East. The Ottomans preserved some of the indigenous grapes by using them as table grapes, and towards the end of the Ottoman Empire, a modern Israeli wine industry was founded.
The Israelis today have a dynamic, quality driven industry. There are 350 wineries producing 45 million bottles a year and 12 million bottles of grape juice from wine grapes. The vineyards and wineries cover the country from the northern border with Lebanon, down to Eilat on the Red Sea. There are vineyards on mountains over 1,000 meters above sea level, in the valleys, in the deepest desert and even on the way to the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth. There are wineries in cities and villages, and moshavs and kibbutzes. Some wineries are owned by Ultra Orthodox Jews and Monasteries; Others by Jews, Christians or Arabs; Israelis and Palestinians. It is a true mosaic, truly brought to life in the last thirty years.
Covering the country are ancient wine presses. These are flat limestone basins that are found everywhere. Many are near modern day wineries or vineyards. These illustrate the extent winemaking existed in the same place over 2,000 years ago. Archaeology, the Bible and religious texts provide an insight into the importance of wine in the region. A few years ago a winery was excavated at Tel Kabri in the Western, Upper Galilee, which dated to nearly 4,000 years ago. The Galilee is today one of Israel’s most well-known wine regions.
Now archaeologists have announced they have excavated the largest Byzantine winery ever found, at Yavne, south of Tel Aviv. Such is the size of the wine factory, that they estimate two million liters of wine were produced here annually, and the famous wines known as Gaza and Ashkelon were made here. They say these wines had a quality image then, similar to the Jaffa orange in modern times.
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