Neot Semadar Winery: A Desert Oasis in Israel

Neot Semadar Winery: A Desert Oasis in Israel

The Negev Desert could be considered Israel’s last frontier: thousands of miles of red-brown dirt and stunning mesas, interrupted only by a cluster of date-palms here or an abandoned ruin there. Its exuberant sunsets are matched only by its overpowering noontime heat. In the arid, lonesome strip of land between the desert cities of Beer Sheva and Eilat, the little community of Neot Semadar is thriving – and at its heart, there’s a stellar winery.

Neot Semadar is a kibbutz, an Israeli-style intentional community based around agriculture and socialist ideals. Its first members were once city slickers in Jerusalem; 25 years ago, they chose to leave their urban world behind and create a new life together in the desert. The result is a community where, in the words of founding member Yehudit Barsesat, “we are always being challenged, we are always growing together.” At first, they intended only to be self-sufficient – they made wine and juices for themselves, drank milk from their own goats, and planted vegetables. “We started small,” says Yehudit, “and little by little, we grew.” Today, Neot Semadar Winery produces exceptional wine and liqueurs on a retail scale, as well as juice, goat cheese, soap, olive oil, and jam. In keeping with the eco-conscious lifestyle of the kibbutz, all products are fully organic; Neot Semadar Winery is currently the country’s only producer of organic wine.

“You cannot understand the wine without understanding everything around it,” explains Shmuel Rosa, the resident winemaker of Neot Semadar Winery. Affable and soft-spoken, Shmuel is also one of the kibbutz’s original members. “The desert landscape, the community, the people – all of this goes into the wine.”

Indeed, Neot Semadar’s products seem uniquely inspired by their natural environment. The Negev is not an easy place to grow a vineyard; when the kibbutzniks arrived, the soil was far too sandy and salty to grow anything, and they had to blend it with heaps of compost and dirt from a nearby dried-up riverbed. The dryness of the air and the difficult temperatures – blistering by day, frigid at night – pose additional challenges for a winemaker. However, the climate that some might see as a liability, Shmuel understands as an asset: “The desert sun makes the flavors sweeter, stronger,” he says.

For this reason, all of his wines – from the whisper-light, barely grassy Sauvignon Blanc to the luscious berry-scented Muscat-Shiraz rosé – have a hint of sweetness to them. Naturally, Neot Semadar specializes in dessert wines; in particular, the focus is on Muscat, which grows with astonishing ease in the Negev. Among others, the winery produces a classic Muscat, thick and tinged with notes of tropical fruit, and an unusual semi-dry version called the Sigal, similar in flavor but with a sharp alcoholic bite. (“The sun makes the less sweet wines more alcoholic than usual,” Shmuel points out.)

Of all the Muscats, though, the clear star is the Muscat Shemesh. “Shemesh,” appropriately, means “sun” in Hebrew; the Muscat Shemesh starts from its classic counterpart, which is poured into large glass orbs and left to caramelize in the sunshine for six months. The result is truly remarkable, a customer favorite that has won multiple awards: bronze, syrupy dessert wine, rich with hints of burnt sugar and smoke. Less successful is the quite good Chardonnay, which Shmuel recently stopped producing. It doesn’t play to Neot Semadar’s strengths; he reasoned – the necessary dryness and subtlety of Chardonnay just aren’t natural in the Negev. Instead, he dried the Chardonnay grapes into raisins and used them in the Madeira-style Semadar; the warm, wintry result is now much more popular than the original.

Other desert-inspired innovations include a sweet red wine infused with local herbs and a set of liqueurs from a variety of homegrown fruits, including the rare merula,. The merula, a lychee-like fruit native to the Negev, looks like a potato and tastes like a lychee or pear. Although the whole fruit is thick-skinned, large-pitted and difficult to eat, it produces an exotic, sophisticated drink.

Though the winery itself is utterly professional, with state-of-the-art equipment and a glamorous display shelf, it maintains its homegrown spirit. The production floor is always alive with conversation. Experts joke with guests and newly minted members, and all of them are bursting with love for their community, their surroundings, and their product. Above all, there is a clear sense of fun; here, winemaking is not only a vocation but an adventure. One volunteer, Shai, articulates it this way: “With wine, there is such a big world! You can play with it.” At Neot Semadar, under the vast desert sky, the world seems full of excitement and possibility – reflected in the strong, sweet, unfamiliar flavors of the wines themselves.

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Sarah Marx first fell in love with good, fresh, sustainable food in a small community garden in Washington, DC; she's been a vegetable farmer and avid home cook ever since. A recent graduate of St. John's College, she's currently based in Jerusalem, where she works as a freelance writer and studies classical Jewish texts. In her spare time, she likes to climb mountains and drink dark beer.

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