For Israeli Wine Makers, Sometimes Innovation Means Rediscovering the Past

A strange section of an Upper Galilee vineyard reveals an old vine-growing method - the vines do not hang on any structure. They look like little trees. They also look like they may belong to an old landscape

Vines grown in the cup method
Gil Eliahu

Behind the rows of blossoming grapevines on green mountains covered with wildflowers in the western Upper Galilee, there is another section of vintner Gabi Sadan’s vineyard that looks a little strange. This plot is also planted with grapevines, but in contrast to the first plot they each grow alone. They do not hang on any structure. They look like little trees. They also look like they may belong to an old landscape, the kind that existed before the age of fences and railings, and for good reason.

They grew in Israel’s distant past grapes in a vase shape (goblet) without trellising system (without support). "They did it because it was cheap, a dearth of means led to this method,” explains Dr. Pinny Sarig, a viticulturist (vine growing expert) and researcher at the Jordan Valley Research and Development Center, which consult wineries and growers about vine growing in Israel and abroad. So they moved to "free canopy" trellising – a single support wire, when the grapes are spread out like a fan, and from there they moved to straight rows, which is what we are familiar with today, vertical shoot positioning (VSP) trellising.”

Sadan, the owner of Shvo Vineyards in Gush Halav, says he chose to grow the vineyards in this method, not out of economic considerations or a nostalgic sense of adventure. Rather, he explains that although the cup method isn’t suitable for all varieties, he believes that if a variety allows it, that is preferable. The grape without the trellising according to him grows in three dimensions, and then there is less direct sun on the bunches, the temperature is lower and there is less radiation from the ground. “It’s not for nothing that they grow this way traditionally,” he says. “It is a method that is not suitable for cold regions and very suitable for hot regions.”

However, not only has this type of vineyard returned to use in recent years, but Sarig, who gave a lecture on the topic at a Galilee researchers’ conference at Tel Hai Academic College, explains that in the world of wine there is more than one trend, and that development is going on in different directions. Besides innovation and standard growing of conventional varieties, he also points to a return to the old ways, and not only in ways of growing grapes. For example, he mentions grape varieties that were brought to Israel by agronomists of Baron Rothschild at the end of the 19th century, such as Carignan, Alicante, Grenache Noir and Muscat of Alexandria, which suffered severe image problems for years because they had been used to produce low-quality popular wines. Now they are getting a second look with an emphasis on adapting the method of growth. Signs of the past are also emerging among the winemakers. The stainless-steel fermentation containers that anyone visiting wineries for decades have seen were not always made from stainless steel.

“People today are going back to fermentation in wood. The containers look like stainless-steel containers, but it is wood with all its advantages,” he says. “It contributes something to the character of the wine.” He says that wood containers are much more expensive than stainless steel, such that a 5,000-liter wood container costs about five times as much as the steel version. “Yet because of the quality, they choose to ferment in wood,” said Sarig.

Besides the wooden containers, there is also a renewed use of aging – in containers made of concrete. “For years, they switched to stainless steel, mainly because of the sterility, cleanliness and convenience. However, there are winemakers today who prefer micro oxygenation,” he says. “Stainless steel is completely airtight, and there are microscopic air bubbles in concrete. It also maintains the temperature better.”

The changes are most visible among the small wineries. “Boutique wineries are much more flexible,” Sarig explains. “They are like little boats, not ships, and they are able to maneuver and react more quickly. They have the need to be unique and to differentiate themselves from the major wineries. In one of the things that relates to the ‘what used to be here’ trend in the world – we won’t grow Cabernet, which is a French variety, instead we will find the ancient Land of Israel varieties.”

But despite it all, Sarig isn’t trying to paint the story of a return to the old days in nostalgic colors. Instead, he explains that it has become hard in this world to innovate. “Basically, almost everything has been tried, and part of the story is going backwards,” he says. “It is not returning to the same place, but rather returning to the same technology and same varieties, based on trial and error. We are not going back for the sake of going back. The return is an educated choice and the result is continuous improvement.”