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Negev desert study may have earliest evidence of white grapes

Researchers studying the remains of grapes from Late Antiquity settlements in Israel's Negev desert have offered a fresh window into the history of grapevine cultivation and wine, and their findings may also benefit work on climate resilience today.

Today’s high-tech vintners of Israel’s Negev desert grow modern grape varieties like Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, but a new study shows the region’s desolate sand was once home to very different cultivars – relics notable for past and future alike.

Published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the study compared the genetic information of a handful of grape pips from an excavated Byzantine monastery with hundreds of modern cultivars, and wild and table grapes from Israel and beyond.

‘The Negev Highlands has an interesting story that has not been told,’ said Guy Bar-Oz, a University of Haifa archaeologist, who has been excavating Byzantine settlements in the Negev Desert for the past six years.

‘We were aware of the massive communal wine presses but we didn’t know actually what [the settlers] were growing,’ Bar-Oz added.

According to the new genetic data, one of the Negev pips dated to the eighth century and likely originated from a grape that was white.

If archaeological remains can confirm the discovery, it could be the earliest white grape documented anywhere in the world – although the study notes that previous work has suggested the white colour of some varieties have multiple origins.

It’s possible this one grape could also answer a nagging historical mystery surrounding the identity of the famous Byzantine-era vinum Gazetum, or Gaza wine.

‘There is historical reference that speaks about this sweet white wine, the Gaza wine,’ Bar-Oz said.

The delicacy was produced in the Negev and shipped through the port of Gaza, from where it reached across the Mediterranean and onto the tables of monarchs in Germany, France and Britain. A lack of evidence of white varieties from the period has been puzzling, however.

Researchers in the latest study also shed more light on Byzantine trade. As grapevines made some of the largest profits of any crop in Byzantine times, the quality varieties from the Negev were disseminated along trade routes.

Bar-Oz and his team, for example, discovered that another ancient grape was an ancestor of a modern-day red variety called Asswad Karech in nearby Lebanon.

On the island of Crete, more than 1,000 kilometres away, an offspring of Asswad Karech was used to produce yet another historical wine: Malvasia – famous during medieval times and still made on the island today.

‘It’s a 1,500-year-old east Mediterranean phenomenon that tells a very important human history,’ Bar-Oz said. ‘It shows the connectivity between the Negev and European society.’

Discoveries in the Negev aren’t only valuable to understanding our past; researchers said their work may also be relevant for climate challenges today.

While desert communities knew how to engineer remarkable irrigation systems, it was just as vital for them to select the right grapevine cultivars, in what is an unusually extreme climate for Vitis vinifera.

‘The Negev is an area that receives around 100 millimetres of rain in a good year, with very strong fluctuations between seasons,’ Bar-Oz said. ‘Still, viticulture very much flourished in this area over centuries.’

Analysing these desert grapes’ molecular and genetic signatures could reveal why they were so resilient in such an arid environment.

Modern-day close relatives of ‘archaeological grapes’ could provide a platform for future study on grapevine resilience to such conditions, the study said.

‘We need to put much more effort into learning about the diversity of the ancient [vineyards], looking specifically for those that might be more resistant in arid environments,’ Bar-Oz said.

See the full study in PNAS.


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