The Wine of the Exodus

Every year, the Passover story is retold in households around the world. We tell the story of the exodus from Egypt accompanied by four cups of wine and end by toasting, “Next Year in Jerusalem!”  Providing a twist on the traditional story, this reporter investigates how wine united ancient Egypt and Israel and gives suggestions as to how your wine choice can reflect these ancient “vino-loving” cultures.

Wine in ancient Egypt
Wine is first mentioned in the Bible when Noah plants a vineyard following the great flood, with less than positive results. In ancient Egypt, wine was seen as divine and the beverage of the elite. Some of the earliest historical sources attesting to the presence of the vine in ancient Israel come from ancient Egyptian inscriptions, thus linking these two cultures even before a Hebrew presence was described in Egypt. The ancient Egyptians imported wine and olive oil from Israel and told of ancient Israel having “wine more plentiful than water.” This trade between the two nations was necessary, as wine production in ancient Egypt is only recorded to have begun in later times.

Scholars claim the Apirou people were the “Hebrews” and that these people were the specialized wine makers of ancient Egypt. Mural paintings around the tomb of Amenhotep II, who lived in the 14th century BCE, portray these “Hebrews” pressing grapes by foot, and a scene entitled “Wine from the vineyard of the Roads of Horus” illustrates men decanting wine at an intersection located relatively close to Southern Israel.

By the 19th dynasty of Pharaohs (11th century BCE), wine had become far more commonplace among the nobility, and there are records of ships bringing in wine for the Egyptians in large quantities. It was during this dynasty that Ramses II ruled; he is most widely cited as the pharaoh during the Jewish exodus from Egypt.

The Exodus
Following the 10 plagues and a hasty retreat, the Jews left Egypt and eventually arrived in Israel. Wine making continued on a comparatively small scale in Egypt, but it was in Israel that it really thrived. Entering the Holy Land, the Israelites found it to be blessed with the seven species, including the vine, and they were instructed by God to cultivate the vineyards. The vine was a symbol of peace, tranquility and safety, and the prophets Isaiah, Amos and Ezekiel all gave instructions as to the propagation and growth of vineyards.

So great was the vine’s importance that place names throughout ancient Israel make reference to viticulture, including Mount Carmel (Hill of the Vineyard of God) and Nahal Sorek (River of the Vine Tendril), for example.

Winemaking flourished in the Second Temple period, and the historian Josephus Flavius (37-95 CE) wrote of the northern Galilee as producing “fruits in a wondrous manner.” He described the vine and the fig as “the king
s of all the fruit trees,” and to this day archeological ruins of wine presses are found scattered across northern Israel, Israel’s winemaking capital.

Shipments of wine to Egypt from ancient Israel are recorded in Greek manuscripts as occurring biannually until the Arab conquest in the seventh century CE. The conquest brought Islamic rule to the region, forbidding the consumption of wine. The vineyards were uprooted.

Drinking like the ancients
With the resurrection of Israel’s flourishing wine industry, this Passover it is possible to return to wine’s ancient Middle Eastern roots and serve four wines reminiscent of these bygone days. Not only providing an interesting talking point on Seder night, these wines are delicious served throughout the festival.

Sweet wine was one of the three types of wines in ancient Egypt. A varietal of the sweet Muscat grape, the Muscat of Alexandria, is so called because of its association with ancient Egypt. The Muscat of Alexandria grape is still grown in Israel, and the Yarden Muscat, a delicious dessert wine, is made entirely from this varietal.

Moving to ancient Israel, the grape species currently cultivated in Israel are considered to be of the same species originally grown in the land.  To truly experience a wine that tells the story of its place of origin, turn to the superior quality single vineyard wines produced in Israel. Single vineyard wines would have been most commonplace in ancient Israel, as the wine press was generally located near, or within, the individual vineyards, avoiding the unnecessary transportation of ripe fruit.

There are some excellent Israeli single vintage wines that have received international acclaim. Two such award-winning wines are the Carmel Kayoumi Shiraz (2006), which won a Decanter award in London, and the Yarden Chardonnay Odem (2009), which won the Vinitaly Grand Gold Medal for its superior quality. Both vineyards are located in northern Israel on the foothills of Mount Meron and Mount Hermon, respectively.

This Passover, to return to the wine of the ancient Middle East, the fourth cup of wine can contain some spicy additions.  The Talmud lists more than 60 types of wine produced in ancient Israel, including spiced, cooked and diluted wines. Ancient Egyptian wine was discovered to have also been sweetened by adding fruits and honeys. Spicing a young, fruity, red wine such as the Mount Hermon Red, and heating with a little sugar and lemon, will produce an unusual end to the most traditional of Jewish festivities.

Anna Harwood writes for IMP Group.

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