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Sunday, May 24, 2015

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Wine can help bridge cultures

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All those celebrating Purim are familiar with the story of the Persians (modern day Iran) who tried to destroy the Jewish people. Providing a twist on the traditional tale, Rachel Stern Siegman investigates how wine once united ancient Iran and Israel, and gives suggestions as to how your wine choice can reflect these ancient vino-loving cultures. 

Rachel Stern Siegman, Special to The CJN

It has long been said that the earliest origins of wine date back to the Middle East. As the legend goes, a Persian princess who was part of the king’s harem was depressed after losing favour with the king. As her depression culminated she desired to take her own life, and went out to the garden in search of the means. Blue cracked berries caught her eye and she quickly snatched up a fistful of what she believed to be poisonous fruit. As luck would have it, these blue cracked berries were really fermented grapes, and rather than take her life, they lifted the princess’ depression. Once in better spirits she gained favour with the king, and the widespread fermentation of wine began.

Persia began to expand its winemaking abilities, cultivating the popular Syrah, otherwise known as Shiraz, grapes that were likely named after the Persian city of Shiraz. Over the border, ancient Canaan, or modern day Israel, too began to reap the benefits of its superior wine- making abilities.

Many believe that Chardonnay originated in Israel before making its way to Europe. In the midst of his departure back to Europe, a crusader noticed an interesting vine, and jumped off his horse to snatch it. Upon return home, the grapes were termed “Sha’ar Adoni”, Gate of God, after the land in which the vine was first spotted. Due to common vernacular, Sha’ar Adoni became “Chardonnay.”

Winemaking flourished in the Second Temple period and the historian Josephus Flavius wrote of the Galilee, in the north, as producing “fruits in a wondrous manner.” He described the vine and the fig as “the kings of all the fruit trees” and to this day, archeological ruins of wine presses are found scattered across northern Israel, the country’s winemaking capital.

Up a camel-shaped cliff nestled in the hills of the Golan Heights lie ruins of the city of Gamla. This ancient town was a Jewish cosmopolitan hub, particularly famous for its lush vineyards. The wine and olive oil presses of this once thriving city can still be explored today.

During the rule of the Ottoman Empire, all winemaking in the reigning areas was strictly abolished and vineyards were utterly destroyed. Therefore, despite the fact that many wine varieties may have originated in Middle Eastern states, such as Iran and Israel, every contemporary Israeli winery had to begin the entire process of winemaking, including cultivating the land, anew.

With the resurrection of Israel’s flourishing wine industry, this Purim it is possible to return to wine’s ancient Middle Eastern roots. The Megillah describes Achashverosh’s boisterous, lavish feasts in great detail, and our sages teach us that the Persian king drank out of vessels brought from Israel. Celebrate this year like the kings of yore by choosing wines from the ancient wine region, Israel.

Persians and Canaanites were known to have favoured sweet wines.  One such wine, Yarden Muscat, whose grapes are grown in the southern heights of the Golan region, is considered to be one of the most popular and beloved sweet wines in the marketplace. Those who are looking for a rich, sweet red wine should fill their glass with the Yarden T2, a fortified port wine style whose festive taste can transport drinkers back to the original feasts the Megillah describes.

To truly experience a wine which fully tells the story of its place of origin, one should turn to the superior quality single vineyard wines produced in Israel. Single vineyard wines would have been most commonplace in ancient Israel as the winepress was generally located near or within the individual vineyards, avoiding the unnecessary transportation of ripe fruit. Note a single vineyard wine by the presence of the vineyard’s name on its label.

The Yarden Chardonnay Odem is an example of an excellent Israeli single vintage white wine that has received international acclaim. This wine won the Vinitaly Grand Gold Medal for its superior quality and is a true testament to just how far Israel has come since the Persians planned to obliterate us. Additional premium Israeli single vineyard wines include Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon Yonatan, Yarden Merlot Kela, and Yarden Syrah Avital.

New to the beloved Gilgal series is the Gilgal Rosé Syrah, an impeccable accompaniment to any festive Purim feast. The Gilgal Rosé Syrah is a delicious fruity, young wine, launched now for the first time, perfect for the celebration of Purim. It has an aromatic mix of strawberry, cherry and watermelon and its light pink sparkle only adds to the festivity.

This Purim look to the bubbly side of life to commemorate the miracles of the time and the historical ties that once were. As the seats at the feast fill up, celebrate the Jewish-Persian relationship in the most authentic manner, simply with a l’chaim.

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