By Joshua E. London
Ben-Gurion University researchers inspecting a Negev vineyard. (Credit; Aaron Fait)
The secret to creating good wine, it is often said, is to start with good grapes. The trick, of course, is ensuring a stable supply of quality fruit. With increasingly undesirable weather patterns and events making life difficult for wine growers in much of Europe, wine-industry interest has been piqued as to how Israel works its magic. The ability Israel has developed, to make the desert bloom despite high temperatures and arid conditions, includes highly innovative approaches to viticulture.
“European wine producers are worried about climate change,” noted Enrico Peterlunger, professor of
viticulture and vine biology at the University of Udine in Friuli, Italy. “They are looking at the way producers in Israel are dealing with harsh conditions because due to climate change they are concerned that this is the future that awaits them.”
The term “climate change” is the common or popular catchall for the phenomenon of significant long-term shifts in temperatures and weather patterns. Viticulturalists and winemakers tend not to focus on the partisan politics that climate change sometimes engenders, but rather towards practical, constructive, and localized approaches to coping with the very real environmental conditions they face each vintage. Simply put, they try to do the best they can with what they have, because the grapevine is a woody perennial with an annual growing cycle. Even minor changes in environmental conditions can lead to significant shifts in how grapes develop. Increasingly, many in the wine world have become very receptive to, and nervous about, the dire predictions from climate change experts.
As Laurent Audeguin of the French Wine and Vine Institute told France24 news this past summer: “The 2022 vintage is complicated for the French wine industry … The heat causes the grapes to burn and ripen too early in most regions; the necessary aromas don’t have time to develop” while the rise in temperature also “lowers the acidity of the wine and increases the alcohol content … So the whole balance is disturbed … The quality is affected but so is the quantity of wine we can produce.”
Meanwhile, the widely celebrated agricultural developments in Israel seem to offer a hopeful counterpoint. Developments in the Negev region have attracted particular outside interest. The modern state of Israel, driven by necessity, had to cope with the harsh and extreme realities of its environment very creatively. Amazing agricultural technologies like drip irrigation were created, pioneered, and scaled in Israel, and soon thereafter exported around the world.
Israel is mostly arid land, after all, with the Negev making up more than 50% of the landmass of the country. Israel wine expert Adam Montefiore noted that although “only around 5% of Israel’s vineyards” are in the Negev, “there is immense interest worldwide in Israel’s desert wines.” His compelling hypothesis is that the Negev vineyards “symbolize the prowess of Israeli agriculture in ‘making the desert bloom,’” and “represent both advanced technology and Israeli creativity.”
Last winter, winemakers from Bordeaux took a trip to the Negev to look at the technology and vineyard strategies that winemakers have developed. One of the wineries they visited—one that has been pioneering its own trial-and-error path of ingenuity since its founding—was the Yatir Winery. Established in 2000 as a joint venture between the Carmel Winery and local winegrowers, Yatir was built at the foot of the Tel Arad archeological site in the northeast Negev desert, about 10 minutes away from the vineyards of the Yatir Forest.
As Yatir winemaker Eran Goldwasser put it, the hot and dry conditions the Bordeaux region has been experiencing of late illustrate “why they need to learn and adapt.” Goldwasser’s recollection of the French delegation’s visit to Yatir was that “they came to us very open [minded]; they didn't have a clear agenda, they just wanted to listen and see and understand what we are doing to try and mitigate the facts they are facing of aridity and heat.”
One of the academics a previous French delegation met with was Aaron Fait, a researcher and professor of biochemistry with the Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. “The Negev desert can be used as a model system for climate change scenarios and desertification scenarios,” he explained. “We have different experimental plots in different areas which have average temperature differences mimicking the increase of the 2 degrees Celsius that has been predicted in global warming models.
“We can control a large number of variables like nowhere else” and certainly not like conditions “in any traditional vineyard,” Fait continued. Which means that one can “use the Negev agricultural system as a model to test the best strategies to adapt to common climate challenges.”
Furthermore, he said, in the Negev “we have very interdisciplinary collaboration on the same systems.” That is, the vineyard system they’ve developed at the Blaustein Institute is unique in that they “have agronomists, water scientists, biologists and biochemists join forces to study from a holistic perspective the behavior of the plant under certain environmental conditions and challenges.” So, what are some of the big Israeli lessons for wine producers outside of Israel?
According to Goldwasser, “The two immediate topics are irrigation and canopy management.” Irrigation because “they need to supplement what nature provides” and ensure sufficient watering of the vines, and canopy management “because increasing temperatures necessitates adaptation.” The term “canopy management” refers to vineyard management techniques used to support and train the aboveground parts of a vine to better position the exposure of leaves and fruit to the sun and to allow for optimal air circulation to reduce the risk of fungal disease.
The most common management system in modern viticulture is a trellis or framework of wood or metal around which to train a vine’s growth. In its simplest form, a trellis is just a stake driven into the ground beside a vine, to which the vine trunk or shoots are tied. Wires are also used to support the vines and leaves, with posts installed at intervals forming neat and tidy rows.
“You know, a vine is beautiful in the way that it has fruit and the leaves that are protecting the fruit from the sun,” Goldwasser explained. “If you have too much leaf shading, that’s not good because the fruit won’t ripen, so what they do in Europe usually when they don’t have enough sunshine is to position the shoots and the leaves in a very vertical way, so the [grape] bunches, the berries, are fully exposed to the sunshine.”
“The popular canopy concept in much of Israel, and elsewhere, is to use a VSP or Vertical Shoot Position [trellis system],” Fait said. This is where the vine shoots are trained upward in a vertical, narrow curtain with a fruiting zone positioned just below, “often doubled in a Y shape, or single like an upside-down J.” The VSP position is one of “the most popular because you can grow the vines more densely, you can produce more [fruit], and the [grape] clusters are totally exposed to the farmer, but that’s also the problem. The clusters are really … totally exposed to the solar radiation [heat].”
Grapes growing in the arid desert conditions of the Negev. (Credit: Aaron Fait)
The heat and sun exposure of the Negev desert can be punishing, not so dissimilar to the heat waves that have been plaguing many wine producers in Europe. So, in the Negev, explained Fait, “even though the barometric temperature can be like 30 degrees Celsius [86 degrees Fahrenheit], the incident temperature, the surface temperature, can go up to 50 degrees Celsius [122 degrees Fahrenheit]. This is every day for two months—which is just too much.”
Too much sun exposure and too much heat tend to produce fruit that is overripe with “too much sugar content.” This in turn generally produces wines with “too much alcohol, and can lead to the oxidation of aroma, and baked fruit notes, and sunburn and fruit drying on the vine,” Fait said.
“In our conditions [in the Negev desert],” Goldwasser noted, “it’s much wiser to have the leaves spread out to provide good protection [from the sun] but done judiciously so you don’t block the berries completely from the sun; you give them partial exposure to the sun and partial protection.”
“One treatment we applied was to open up the canopy so as to create a sort of natural shade on the clusters, “Fait said, “which was quite effective, although this created a greater need for water as the leaves soak up more of it. This increased the amount of irrigation needed by 40%.”
In Fait’s collaboration with the Teperberg Winery, this open-canopy application “led to real improvement in their gewürztraminer grapes”— improvements that were noted not only through professional and scientific evaluation, but also in the finished wine.
When it comes to the issue of irrigation, parts of Europe still have some regulatory hurdles that allow irrigation only sporadically. In an important essay called “Bordeaux, Burgundy—it’s time to irrigate!,” published on the JancisRobinson.com website on August 2, 2022, Dr. Yishai Netzer, a plant physiologist specializing in irrigation studies at Ariel University’s Eastern R&D Centre, and Eran Pick MW, the winemaker and general manager of the Tzora Vineyards winery in Israel’s Judean Hills region, made a compelling argument for liberalizing the use of judicious irrigation in European viticulture.
“Winegrowers around the world know the changes in the vineyards all too well,” Netzer and Pick argued. “Climate change affects everyone, as witness the Po River drying up; major heat waves in France, Spain and Portugal; huge wildfires in California and Australia; and winters with almost no chill in eastern Mediterranean coastal areas.”
Arguing that water availability to the soil is a key component of a wine’s development, they noted: “As in humans, water is life for plants. Water is also essential for plants to transpire, photosynthesise and to produce secondary metabolites (flavour). Each stage of the growing season could in theory have an optimal water status for the plant and for fruit quality (not necessarily the same water status). Water availability has an effect on quality, quantity and character of the wines made.”
Drawing directly from their experience growing wine in Israel, Netzer and Pick observed that there are already appropriate scientific measures to “evaluate the level of water availability or stress of the
plant” and that, of course, determining how much water is needed “depends on the soil type, climatic conditions and cultivar planted among other parameters.”
They further argued that thoughtful irrigation posed no significant hurdles to the expression of what the French refer to as a wine’s terroir—which loosely translates as “a sense of place.” Indeed, Netzer and Pick go so far as to assert, “Consistency of character can even be improved,” and “irrigation does not change terroir any more than composting, heating the vineyard to avoid frost, or even winter pruning and other standard vineyard operations.”
To Fait, refusal to deal with water shortages and adopt irrigation is a fundamentally unsound approach. “The only way to make viticulture and winemaking sustainable worldwide is by using drip irrigation systems, by stopping to use up freshwater from lakes, by reclaiming water through recycling and by desalination.”
Trellised vineyards in the Negev
One twist on the drip irrigation technology in use at Yatir, noted Goldwasser, is subsurface drip irrigation. “We are uniquely going one step further by putting the drip irrigation lines one foot underground, so we lose less water to evaporation, and it also forces the roots of the vines to dig deeper for the water, which is a good thing for the ecosystem of the vine and the root system, and it gives the vine more resilience; we think it also gives better fruit and better wines.”
“Usually, the farmers that we work with don’t use subsurface drippers, they use surface drippers,” said Fait, the Ben-Gurion biochemist. However, to improve efficiency, they use another Israeli innovation of plastic mulching— strips of plastic sheeting running through the vineyard that essentially hug the vine’s stems and cover the ground. So, “the surface irrigation drippers run just below the mulching, which helps further prevent water evaporation.”
There is plenty more to be learned from Israeli viticulture and winemaking, and not just in the Negev. It remains an open question, however, as to just how much and just how quickly the rest of the wine producing world wishes to learn from Israel and adapt, using new methods and approaches.