A joint dig by the University of Haifa and the Israel Antiquities Authority recently unearthed grape seeds from the Byzantine era. (Photo: Prof. Guy Bar-Oz)
A joint dig by the University of Haifa and the Israel Antiquities Authority recently unearthed grape seeds from the Byzantine era. (Photo: Prof. Guy Bar-Oz)

It is common knowledge that wine improves with age. But have you ever tasted a 1,500-year-old vintage?

A joint dig by the University of Haifa and the Israel Antiquities Authority recently unearthed grape seeds from the Byzantine era. The charred seeds are believed to have been used to produce “the Wine of the Negev” — one of the finest and most renowned wines in the whole of the Byzantine Empire.

“The vines growing in the Negev today are European varieties, whereas the Negev vine was lost to the world. Our next job is to recreate the ancient wine, and perhaps in that way we will be able to reproduce its taste and understand what made the Negev wine so fine,” said Prof. Guy Bar-Oz of the University of Haifa, director of the excavation at the Halutza National Park excavation site in the Negev.

The archaeologists know of “the Wine of the Negev” or “Gaza Wine” — named for the port it was sent from to all corners of the empire — from historical sources from the Byzantine period. This wine was considered to be of very high quality and was very expensive.  In earlier excavations in the Negev, archaeologists found the terraces where the vines were cultivated, the wineries where wine was produced, and the jugs in which the wine was stored and exported, but the grape seeds themselves were not found.

Until now, of course.

According to the archaeologists, this is the first time “Negev” grape seeds have been found, something that will provide first-of-its-kind direct evidence of the wine cultivated in the western Negev in ancient times.

The scientists hope the seeds will help them reveal the secret of the Negev vines in order to recreate the ancient wine, and by so doing, to finally understand why it was famous throughout the Byzantine Empire — in Egypt, Greece, Italy, and Spain.

“European varieties require copious amounts of water. Today it is less of a problem thanks to technology, but it is unlikely that that was the case 1,500 years ago. It is more interesting to think of local grape varieties that were better suited to the Negev. Maybe the secret to the Negev wine’s international prestige lay in the method by which the vines were cultivated in the Negev’s arid conditions,” the archaeologists wrote.

The study is directed by Prof. Bar-Oz and Dr. Lior Weisbrod of the Zinman Institute at the University of Haifa, in collaboration with Dr. Tali Erickson-Gini from the Israeli Antiquities Authority.

This is the first time 'Negev' grape seeds have been found. (Prof. Guy Bar-Oz)
This is the first time ‘Negev’ grape seeds have been found. (Prof. Guy Bar-Oz)

The next stage of the study is to join forces with biologists to sequence the DNA of the seeds and in this way to discover their origin.