Drinking wine — one of life’s great simple pleasures. With each sip from a stemmed glass, the libation holds a layered history and mystery that led to the taste of this moment. Complexity of climate, unpredictable weather, timing in ripening of grapes, and the process of aging in wooden barrels, are all cumulatively encompassed in the magic of any good bottle of wine.
The devotion and dedication of the vintner is another — perhaps even the essential ingredient — in any successful vintage.
The picturesque beauty of rows upon perfect rows of green vertical vines elicits an appreciation for the ordered art of viticulture. Yet by its very essence, the art of winemaking is a paradoxical, transformative process whose outcome is awaited with bated breath. There is no guarantee of how or when the wine will reach its moment.
Compound that with what might seem like an impossible challenge: growing grapes in a desert, a place with no water in the soil.
Nana Estate, a vineyard in Mitzpe Ramon in the middle of the vast expanse of the Negev Desert, is doing just that. It has found a way to harness solar power in conjunction with the dry desert to produce exquisite wines.
Nana, in partnership with Ben Gurion University, an academic crown jewel of southern Israel, has revived viticulture in the Negev. Professor Aaron Fait at the labs of the Jacob Blaustein Institute for Desert Research has developed a hydraulic system to protect grape clusters from premature oxidation and solar radiation, specifically controlling how and when to move the liquid to the vines, giving the vintner full control.
This synergistic match between vintner and scientist was made by one of Prof. Fait’s doctoral students, who set up a small experiment that leveraged the vineyard’s proximity to the university, and made the introduction. The rest is history.
Today, by using this laboratory technique developed at Ben Gurion, this boutique winery, Nana, produces barrels and barrels of the loveliest, most superb wines. The demand for this niche, unique dessert wine, which some vintners consider the best in the region, is only growing.
The setting is a beautiful, thriving vineyard. Greeted by a circle of scented lavender, a small grove of apricots, and just beyond that a cross between a pergola and a gazebo, a freestanding chuppah structure. It is held by rustic planks of wood planted in terracotta pots of overflowing geraniums in pinks and reds, canopied by billowing white fabric. By day, it’s a place to bask in the sunlight, by night (I can only imagine) under an open starlit sky.
While BGU’s innovative technology in harnessing the sun to protect grape clusters is cutting edge, winemaking in the desert is not. Once upon a time, it seems that the Negev might have been wine country. Ancient vines that have survived since Roman times have been found in the area. This discovery, from thousands of years ago, only amplified the desire of Eran Raz, owner of Nana Estate, and Prof. Fait to refine winemaking in the desert.
The dedication required to have revived winemaking in Israel’s Negev is nothing short of amazing. With the sun beating down, surrounded by endless bleached sand dunes as far as the eye can see, with zero infrastructure in place — not even roads— the origin story was not so simple.
Eran was influenced by his grandmother, who regaled him with stories of Russia and cultivated in him a strong sense of connection and obligation to care for and build the agriculture of the land, to make farming his way of life. This crystallized his decision to move to the Negev and master the craft of winemaking.
The local Bedouins were furious. Cultivating the land would limit the smuggling trade between Israel and Egypt. Again and again, by burning planted vines or threatening and screaming “Get out!” they tried to sabotage Nana Estate in its infancy. Even before Eran and Prof. Fait figured out how to protect the grape clusters, Eran decided he had to protect his swath of land, and made the difficult decision to temporarily leave home while his devoted partner Shachar held down the fort for their six children. Eran started sleeping on the dark unlit land, in this remote place, in his jeep, at night. It was important to him to show the Bedouins that he was there to stay.
And so it was.
Nana’s trellised vineyards truly were and are tended to in the spirit of a labor of love, perhaps beyond the usual dedication demanded these days of an agronomist or vintner, and that spirit permeates Nana Estate. It provides a relaxing time, laced with libations and laughter.
A light floral rosé. A rounded chardonnay, touched by hints of tropical notes. A fruity cabernet sauvignon. A chocolate-y syrah. A nuanced perfume intermingled with the scent of artisanal cheeses and tangy labneh goat yogurt.
With each sip, a story is told that is more than the sum of its parts: of quality of soil and air, of ripening grapes, of a lay of a land, and of times gone by. Nana Estate wine tells that story, with an added variable: love.
Love of the land of Israel. Love of family, including a grandmother. Love of winemaking. And love of science.
All captured in one sip of wine at Nana Estate.
Copyright Intermountain Jewish News