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What wine did King David drink?

This article was originally posted in the BBC on October 2, 2014.  BBC

A scientist in Ariel is on a mission to find out what kind of wine was drunk in Biblical times. The project – which is part-funded by the government – also aims to re-launch its production.

Several barrels of wine are already standing next to Elyashiv Drori’s laboratory at Ariel University in the West Bank. His goal is to find a grape variety that was used to make wine thousands of years ago and still survives in Israel.

“It’s not interesting to make chardonnay in Israel because there’s chardonnay that comes from California,” he tells  JTA, a Jewish website headquartered in New York.  “But if you can make wine in Israel that isn’t elsewhere and that connects to the history here, that’s much more interesting,” says Dr Drori, who is also a winemaker and has judged international wine competitions.

In 2011, he despatched a team of students on treks across Israel to find grapes growing in the wild. One problem that they were facing was that the area’s past Muslim rulers banned alcohol for centuries, and many indigenous grape varieties all but fell out of use, JTA says. After three years of searching, though, they found 100 varieties unique to Israel, of which at least 10 are suitable for wine-making.

Elyashiv Drori now wants to compare them to archaeological finds such as the remnants of a kilo of 3,000-old grapes found near Jerusalem’s Old City. He has enlisted the help of Mali Salmon-Divol, a DNA biologist, who has begun sequencing the genomes of the indigenous Israeli grapes. “You want to know what this wine looked like, which wine King David drank, white or red,” she tells JTA. “We can see if it’s red or white, strong or weak.”

As soon as this is done, Elyashiv Drori hopes to interest vineyards in bringing back the antique species. “We want wine that’s good because of its quality and its story,” he says.