Will an Ancient Grape Revolutionize Israel’s Wine Industry?

Made from native Holy Land grapes, Recanati’s Marawi 2014 is the result of a partnership between an Israeli winery and a Palestinian vineyard.

Marawi grapes, growing in a vineyard near Bethlehem.
Marawi grapes, used in Recanati's new wine, growing in a vineyard outside Bethlehem. Yakov Henig

I can already tell that the newly released wine from the Recanati winery is this year’s most important Israeli wine – and it has nothing to do with how it tastes.

The Recanati winery, located in the Hefer Valley in central Israel, has just introduced its Marawi 2014. Marawi is the name of the grape varietal. Never heard of it? That’s not a surprise.

This is the first commercial wine made from an indigenous variety of grapes with deep roots in the Holy Land. This is a white wine that is making history. It also has a chance of helping the local industry avert the dead end it has been approaching for the past few years.

After 30 years of birthing pains, local wineries are now looking for the next step that will propel the industry forward. On one hand, the quality of Israeli wines is constantly improving. On the other hand, the local consumer wine market is not developing at the same rate as the industry. Thus, the industry is setting its sights on exports.

Yet despite the great efforts to promote Israeli wines in Asian countries including China and Japan, for example, most of the exported wine is sold to Jews in North America seeking a kosher product. Beyond that market, Israeli wine is proving a hard sell.

One of the main reasons for this is that locally produced wine is expensive relative to its quality and to comparable wines from other places. But another problem is that even when Israeli wine is well made, reasonably priced and well regarded by international critics – it simply isn’t unique enough to pique the interests of overseas buyers.

After all, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot – the main red wine varieties produced in Israel – can be found nearly everywhere that wine is produced. Chardonnay? It’s all over the place. Shiraz has been aggressively marketed by the Australians; Sauvignon Blanc, by New Zealand; and French Malbec, by Argentina. And thus it goes.

So what’s left for the latecomers? Not much, aside from trying to make a hit out of local grape varieties. That’s what’s happening in Greece, Turkey, Hungary and Georgia, and that’s probably the only strategy available to Israel as part of its effort to grab the attention of wine lovers around the world. Instead of trying to market wine of different kinds made in Israel – it can offer a truly Israeli wine.

Arabic and Hebrew labels

Against this background, a team at Ariel University in the West Bank has been conducting a fascinating study that pulls together experts from several fields. The team is trying to identify ancient grape varieties native to this land.

One of the researchers, Dr. Shibi Drori, who also owns the Gvaot Winery, located between the Israeli settlements of Shiloh and Eli, says that so far they’ve identified nearly 120 varieties, including 20 that could be suited for winemaking. Two of the varieties, which DNA tests proved to be unrelated to any other type of grape in the world, are Hamdani and Jandali. The small winery run by the Salesian Monastery in the Cremisan Valley, on the Green Line between Jerusalem and Bethlehem, released wines just last year made from these white grapes, and they have won warm praise.

The white Marawi variety, which is being used by Recanati, has the same characteristics as Hamdani, according to research by Drori, Prof. Zohar Amar and their colleagues. Their theory is that Marawi is in fact the same variety but goes by a different name, and that it survived until this day because its grapes are also good for eating.

Why did Recanati choose the name Marawi and not Hamdani? According to Recanati CEO Noam Jacoby, they wanted to differentiate their product from the Cremisan Cellars’ wine, as well as preferring the sound of the name.

The new label bears the name in Arabic script as well as Hebrew. One must presume that in a land such as ours, with the political atmosphere being what it is, some people will try to “inject” the political conflict into these grapes.

In any event, an article by the researchers in a book entitled “Yehuda and Shomron Research,” which was published by Ariel University, presents only uncertain evidence that the Hamdani and Jandali varieties are mentioned in the Talmud (the ancient collection of writings that constitute the Jewish civil and religious law.) The first clear mention of them comes from Rabbi Menahem di Lonzano, who lived in 16th-century Jerusalem, and wrote: “Until this day there are in Jerusalem two varieties of wine: Jindali wine and Hamdani.”

Recanati’s 2014 Marawi is the product of a partnership between Drori, the winery and a Palestinian vineyard near Bethlehem. The vineyard’s identity is being kept secret due to the controversial nature of the partnership.

“Suddenly we received a variety that we weren’t familiar with and don’t necessarily know how to work with,” said vintner Gil Shatsberg. His colleague at Recanati, Ido Lewinsohn, added, “And yet, we believe we created excellent results. Beyond the matter of whether it tastes good, I believe we’ve made history.”

This is only a first attempt, which yielded a meager 2,480 bottles of the new wine, and it’s too early to draw conclusions regarding the future. Given that Recanati received the grapes as a finished product, as it were, from a vineyard that raises them for eating, not winemaking – the result is both well made and interesting, and piques the imagination regarding the variety’s potential when grown for the express purpose of making wine.

Is this the beginning of a new era for Israeli wine, or will it go down in enological history as an oddity? It’s hard to say. But even if we don’t conquer the world, maybe we’ll gain an Israeli wine of a variety that exists nowhere else. And if it also tastes good – hallelujah!

Recanati, Marawi 2014: This white wine opens slightly in the glass with gentle aromas of apple and peach. On the palate the wine is thin and a bit diluted, but with good, refreshing acidity and clear hints of mineral saltiness. Ultimately, this is a good-tasting, pleasant and easy-to-drink wine that leaves one optimistic vis-a-vis the future of this variety of grape. Score: 86. 120 shekels ($31).