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Take a Walk With BGU Through a Negev Vineyard

Take a Walk With BGU Through a Negev Vineyard

July 26, 2019

Desert & Water Research

By Susan Phillips, an AABGU 2019 Murray Fromson Journalism Fellow

WHYY (Philadelphia region public radio) – Far from the sandy beaches of the Mediterranean and the nightlife of Tel Aviv, Israel’s Negev desert stretches for about 4,700 square miles south toward the Red Sea, comprising more than half of Israel’s land. The dry, crusty soil is dotted with an occasional oasis, or wadi, where the rare rainfall pools enough to support a patch of green in the otherwise stark, brown landscape.

For readers of the Old Testament, it’s where Moses sent his spies to scout out the Promised Land. And it was part of the ancient “Spice Route,” where 2,000 years ago the Nabateans brought frankincense and myrrh from the East to Mediterranean ports.

Along the way, the Nabateans and the Byzantines established vineyards. Today, Israeli farmers have taken advantage of advanced water infrastructure to develop new wineries in this dry environment.

BGU Prof. Aaron Fait at his experimental vineyard in the Negev

Prof. Aaron Fait of BGU’s Jacob Blaustein Institutes for Desert Research shared his knowledge of desert viticulture and led a visitor around an experimental vineyard where he does his research. The sun was blistering; there was no shade anywhere, and the hot wind blew relentlessly.

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“You can see how majestic this landscape with vineyards [is] in the middle of the desert,” he said as he proudly showed off the vineyard.

Fait said viticulture — or growing grapes for wine — began in this region thousands of years ago even though the area gets almost no rain, just about four inches a year.

“What do you think is a challenge to growing grapes in a desert environment?” he asked. “Water? The Nabateans didn’t have water, and still, they were making a lot of wine here.”

The Nabateans were a nomadic people that lived in this area about 2,500 years ago. They built stonewalls or terraces to capture what little rain fell during rare downpours. That way, the water was absorbed by the ground instead of bouncing off of the tough, salty soil.

Today, farmers have access to advanced irrigation systems. To improve efficiency, plastic sheets hug the plant’s stems and cover the ground to prevent evaporation.

“Now, another challenge of a desert environment is sunlight,” said Fait. “Sunlight is a bad beast indeed.”

Fait is originally from Italy, where, he said, wine is often grown with the vines stretched out in a T-formation. But using that method would create problems in the desert.

“This exposes the berries to too much radiation, to sun radiation in the morning. In the evening [the grapes] are always battered by the sun.”

That makes for pretty bad wine, he said.

“The fruit becomes brown,” said Fait. “Sunburns start to develop in both red and white varieties, and you lose acidity. So you get these red wines that sit on your tongue like a stone. It’s not fun to drink them.”

So instead, he encourages farmers to grow the vines in a way that the leaves create a canopy of sorts and help shade the grapes.

The desert has its advantages. The lack of rain means farmers don’t have to battle fungi, pests and weeds with toxic herbicides and pesticides. The high temperatures are good for the fruit.

“The Nabateans knew that,” said Fait. “They were exporting wine throughout the Mediterranean from this very region.”

His research has value beyond the Negev, Fait said.

The vineyards of the Mediterranean basin, including those in the south of France, Italy and Slovenia, are already dealing with the impacts of climate change, which could include droughts as well as heavy rains, he said.

“The grapevine is not adapted for these sudden changes in climate, and this is what climate change is. The [weather] becomes more and more unpredictable. Sometimes, you have water; sometimes, you don’t have water. So the desert can become a model to study how climate change can affect the wine industry worldwide.”

Read more on the WHYY website>>