Turning barren desert soil into fertile wine country

Israel’s Negev winemakers pioneer growing techniques that could be adopted widely across the Middle East as the earth gets hotter and drier



Winemaker Assaf Galai

NIR AKIVA, Israel – Assaf Galai stands at the end of a row of cabernet sauvignon vines that are hibernating during Israel’s short winter. He remembers what it looked like when he moved to this Negev desert village more than 20 years ago.

“When we bought this land there was nothing here – no pavements, no roads, no sewage,” the 58-year-old vintner told The Circuit. “It was a ruined territory with villages that were bankrupt. People here said this is not an area for growing wine and it won’t succeed. For me it was like a natural casino, and I thought I had a 50-50 chance of winning.”

Galai’s is an estate winery, meaning that he grows all of the grapes he uses to make his 10,000 bottles of prize-winning wines in Nir Akiva, 60 miles (100 km) south of Tel Aviv. His flagship wine, Casa Negev, a blend of 70% merlot and 30% cabernet sauvignon,  won gold medals last year at Israel’s Terravino Mediterranean International Wine & Spirit Challenge. Another best-seller is the blanc de noirs, a white wine made with black grapes, in this case cabernet sauvignon.

What makes his wines unique, said Galai, is the “terroir,” that amalgam of soil, climate and weather conditions that make each wine-growing area in the world different. Roughly 60% of Israel is desert. “It’s poor land but it gives the wine a nice quality. You can actually taste the dusty desert flavors in the wine.” Galai said his winery’s terroir is “loess,” a geological term that means it’s made up of windblown dust and silt – in this case about 17% limestone.

Zohar Galai, right, and Itamar Baram pick grapes grown in Negev desert soil

The great difference in temperature between night and day in the desert is good for the grapes, and the lack of rainfall means that fungus, which can be a problem in other wine-growing areas, does not pose issues here.

The Galai estate is part of a group of almost 40 wineries and vineyards that are working together to expand wine tourism in the Negev, which houses only 10% percent of Israel’s population. Others include the Midbar, Pinto, Nana Estate, Neot Semadar and Sde Boker wineries. The effort is being spearheaded by the Merage Foundation Israel, a family fund that has been involved in developing the Negev since 2005. 

Israel’s emergence as a maker of fine wines has developed over the past 30 years, starting with the Golan Heights Winery, built on land Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 Six-Day War. While Israeli wines were once dismissed as sweet and syrupy because they were largely produced for sacramental purposes, today there are more than 300 wineries in Israel, 65 of which won medals at the 2020 Decanter World Wine Awards held in London’s Canary Wharf.

The Negev winemakers represent “a new wave of pioneers,” Nicole Hod, Merage’s executive director, told The Circuit. “There is a powerful story here of archaeology, sociology and tourism. The Nabateans grew wine here 2,000 years ago.”

In the eastern part of the Negev near the city of Arad, the Yatir winery is also making prize-winning wines. Yatir is owned by one of Israel’s largest wineries, Carmel, and was established in 2000. Today it produces 150,000 bottles, a third of which are exported.

Among the Yatir wines, Har Amasa is a well-reviewed blend of petit Verdot, cabernet sauvignon, syrah, malbec and tannat that is aged for a year in small oak barrels. 

The 2014 Har Amasa was “surprisingly fresh and rather elegant,” international critic Mark Squires said in his tasting notes for Wine Advocate. “Right now, this looks like a winner, and I’m leaning up. It does have a few things to prove in the cellar. At worst, it is a solid wine with some distinction and sophistication in demeanor.”

Yatir’s wines are kosher while Galai’s are not. Certifying a wine as kosher means it has been supervised by observant Jews from the time the grapes are crushed until the wine is bottled. It also means that winemakers who are not observant like Assaf Galai are not allowed to possess the keys to their own wineries. Wines that are exported are almost always kosher as the market abroad is mostly religious Jews.

The Yatir grapes are grown in a forest that was originally planted in the 1960s to stop the desert from encroaching on fertile land. There are remains of ancient wine presses in the area, meaning wine was made here thousands of years ago.

“We don’t get much rain and [when] the vine suffers a little, you get the best wine,” Yatir’s export manager, Etti Edri, told The Circuit.

The Merage Foundation has launched a new website as part of an effort to create a Negev wine “appellation,” a legally defined and protected geographical area that originated in 18th century Europe and identifies where the grapes for a wine are grown. Wineries in the Judean Hills outside Jerusalem established an appellation in 2020. Elsewhere in the Middle East, Lebanon has an established wine industry, best known for Chateau Musar, a winery north of Beirut that grows its grapes in the Beqaa Valley. Muslim prohibitions on drinking alcohol has limited the development of wine production in the region, though Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia have active wine industries.

Hod Stroh said she also intends to lay out a Negev wine route so that tourists can plot a wine route and drive through the desert from winery to winery.

The new Negev website lists events happening in the region as well as background information on the area. The website launched in January, comes as a successful annual “Darom Adom” festival – meaning the “Red South” – kicks off, celebrating the carpet of crimson anemone buttercup flowers that bloom in early spring in the Negev.

Hod Stroh said the Darom Adom model appeals mostly to Israeli tourists who come to see the flowers, perhaps have a meal and then head home. She said she hopes the wine tourism will be different, with people staying overnight in several upscale hotels like the Six Senses Shaharut, where a room costs $860 a night, in Hevel-Eilot or Beresheet for $390 a night in Mitzpeh Ramon. 

For both international tourists and local Israelis to spend more time in the Negev, there have to be more restaurants and more hotel rooms.

“In order for tourists to come and spend the night we need to strengthen the Negev from a culinary perspective,” Hod Stroh said. “There are not a lot of good restaurants in the Negev, but it’s a chicken-and-egg problem.”

Guy Haran, the owner of Vinspiration, which leads wine tours around the world, said the Negev can be a good example of how to grow wine in a time of growing global concern about climate change. 

“As the world becomes warmer and drier, we need to find ways to grow wine in changing conditions, and everyone looks to the Negev,” Haran told The Circuit

Haran led a Merage-funded trip to Barolo, in the Italian Piedmont, to show the winemakers how a wine region was created in Italy. “My end goal is to get Israel to become a wine destination for people from around the world,” Haran said. “Israeli wine has made amazing strides, and wine tourism can be the anchor for cultural tourism.”