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Wine

Israeli vintners recreate wine Jesus and King David likely drank

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Israeli winemakers are trying to identify the type of wine Jesus drank. (iStock)

What did Jesus drink?

It's something many an oenophile has contemplated for eons. But now Israeli vintners are trying to answer that age-old question using "Jurassic Park"-style DNA technology. With frequent references to wine in the Bible and many sacred texts, there’s no doubt that the beverage played an important role in ancient times.

Israeli winemaker Recanati Winery has just released the first bottles of a new wine called marawi, and it's the first vintage to be commercially produced by an Israeli winery from indigenous grapes. The idea started as a project out of the West Bank’s Ariel University that used DNA testing of ancient seeds to recreate the wines that would have been drunk during the time of King David and Jesus Christ.

Marawi, also known as hamdani, and jandali grapes were traced back to A.D. 220 based on reference in the Babylonian Talmud that mentioned “gordali or hardali wine.”

“All our scriptures are full with wine and with grapes — before the French were even thinking about making wine, we were exporting wine,” said Ariel team’s lead researcher and wine producer Eliyashiv Drori told the New York Times. 

“We have a very ancient identity, and for me, reconstructing this identity is very important. For me, it’s a matter of national pride.”

(Eliyashiv Drori and a graduate student, Yaakov Henig, sampling Israel’s first indigenous wine.)

Unlike the red table wine representing the blood of Christ featured in Da Vinci’s “Last Supper”—and served at many Catholic communions—marawi is an easy drinking white wine that “opens slightly in the glass with gentle aromas of apple and peach.”

Drori’s quest to recreate Jesus’ wine began in 2005. The vintner, who has a Ph.D. in agriculture, started his own boutique vineyard, Gvaot, in 2005 in a West Bank settlement. He says he came upon a “neglected vine with small, very sweet white grapes” and decided to try making wine from them. Drori received $750,000 from the Jewish National Fund to continue researching 120 different grape varietals with DNA profiles that are distinct from all imports. Around 20 of those varietals have been classified as suitable for wine production.

Concurrently, researchers have been using DNA identification and a three-dimensional scanner to identify 70 grape varietals from old burned and dried seeds found in archaeological digs. Drori and his team are matching the ancient seed samples to live grapes growing in the region, with the hope that someday they can reengineer ancient fruit entirely using a “Jurassic Park” style extraction process.

But in the West Bank region, the constant conflict between Israelis and Palestinians has made production of indigenous wines somewhat contentious.

Recanati is not the first vineyard from the region to sell wine made from these ancient grapes. Palestinian winery Cremisan—a partnership with Italian monks—has been producing wine from  hamdani, jandali and other local fruit since 2008, reports the New York Times. And some are angry that the Israelis are trying to take credit for releasing “ancient wines.”

“As usual in Israel, they declare that falafel, tehina, tabouleh, hummus and now jandali grapes are an Israeli product,” Amer Kardosh, Cremisan’s export director, told the Times via email. “I would like to inform you that these types of grapes are totally Palestinian grapes grown on Palestinian vineyards.”

The Palestinian vineyards that sell grapes to Recanati wish to remain anonymous, fearing public backlash over doing business with Israelis and perhaps due to the fact that they are helping to make wine, which is usually forbidden in Islamic law. But Recanati’s vintner says that his product is not meant to divide, but rather celebrate the unique cultural heritage of the diverse region.

Ido Lewinsohn  says the wine is “clean and pure of any political influence,” and that the grapes “ are not Israeli; they are not Palestinian. They belong to the region — this is something beautiful.”

Israel has about 350 wineries today that produce 65 million bottles a year. Recanati created just 2,480 bottles of the 2014 marawi-- due to the difficulty of getting grapes from Palestinian farmers-- and it’s currently only available in 10 Tel Aviv restaurants. The vineyard’s second ancient varietal to be released soon is called dabouki, and Drori says it’s even more likely that this older wine “filled the cup of Jesus” at some point.

But there is hope for wine lovers who want a taste of this new-ancient libation. Recanati has about 4,000 bottles of the 2015 aging and hopes to create a vineyard entirely dedicated to marawi production and expand the brand.