Drip Irrigation has had an enormous impact on the globalization of fine wine.
Many wine books reference Old World wine and New World wine in the context of the traditional wine production in France, Europe and the Mediterranean basin as compared to the more recent and rapid expansion of production throughout the world. It would be very wrong to oversimplify the conversation to a debate between the value of tradition versus the influence of technology, but the tradition versus technology argument continues to be made none the less.
It is also more than a bit incongruous to talk about Israel in New World Wine terms since kosher wine from Israel long precedes what is generally referred to as Old World wine history. Much of the wine today in Israel is indeed produced from the “Old World” cultivars or grape varieties. Furthermore, millennia earlier Micah’s biblical vision of peace and harmony among men is recorded as “and every man will sit under his vine and under his fig tree and none shall make him afraid.” The first written mention of wine, in history, appears in the Book of Genesis: after the flood, Noah’s Ark came to rest “upon the mountains of Ararat” (Berashis 8:14). The narrative continues: “Noah began to be a man of the soil, and he planted a vineyard.” (Berashis 9:20). Ancient wine presses and storage vessels are common in Israel. Archeology has shown that wine was made and stored in ancient Gibeon between 600 C.E and 700 C.E. Grapes and grape clusters are found on coins jars and sculpture from ancient times. The Talmud is replete with wine reference of wine for consumption and libation (pouring) as well as the source of many laws and discussions regarding its storage, transportation, buying, selling and consuming. Yet, despite the historic evidence, Israeli wine is considered to fall into the category of New rather than Old World Wine.
For many years the assumption was that the very best wines were Old World wine – most particularly Old World wines that came from France – and that New World wines were by definition inferior. While there is much more to this story, if this assumption was ever true it certainly is no longer accurate.
A number of defining moments have debunked this perception, none more dramatically than the 1976 Paris blind tasting documented in a book called: “The Judgment of Paris”, California vs France and The Historic 1976 Paris Tasting that Revolutionized Wine” by George M Taber. An entertaining 2008 movie titled “Bottle Shock” presented a dramatization of one of the California wines and vineyards involved in that historic event where the best of the California wines were selected over the best of French wines by French wine tasters.
A defining moment in the recognition of fine kosher wine occurred in 2007 when the first generic tasting of fine wines from Israel by Wine Advocate was a resounding success and 11 of the 14 wines distinguished as world class were kosher wines.
Much of the recognition for quality wine production earned by California wines, beginning in 1976 and by Israeli wines in 2007 is attributable to controlled irrigation in otherwise desert environments, using drip irrigation. The first experimental system of this type was established in Israel in 1959 when Simcha Blass partnered with Kibbutz Hatzerim to create an irrigation company called Netafim (literally drips in Hebrew). Together they developed and patented the first practical surface drip irrigation emitter and built a plastic extrusion factory to manufacture the needed parts and fittings. This method was so effective they have become a global leader and are now one of the largest provider of smart irrigation systems in the world. By the late 1960’s this technology had spread to Australia, North America, South America and now to over 110 countries.
This innovation has not only been credited to a great extent in helping to fulfill Ben Gurion’s dream to “make the desert bloom” in Israel but allow the growing of produce to feed a hungry world in places that could otherwise never sustain successful agriculture. Using drip irrigation, a technique called “deficit irrigation” has become widely practiced as a water conservation strategy and it has become virtually a standardized practice in the world’s best vineyards as a means of producing the very best quality wine grapes. An additional advantage is that is far easier to maintain a consistent crop from year to year or vintage to vintage.
In contrast, some of the worst vintages of France and elsewhere are years in which there is simply too much rainfall and or rainfall at the wrong time of the grape growing season. Grapes that get too much water ripen too quickly to extract the minerals from the soil needed to contribute he proper varietal character of the wine produced from them. They get engorged from the excess moisture with the effect of diluting the juice and other undesirable consequences.
Vineyards have been planted in New World locales like Australia, Chile, California, and certainly in much of Israel that would never have seen them without drip irrigation. It is no small coincidence that these are also areas that produce some of the very best wines and indeed best kosher wines in the world. So the next time you share a bottle of fine kosher wine from the “New World” perhaps you could remember to toast Simcha Blass and his contribution.