Today, Hannukah is celebrated by millions who light the menorah, eat some latkes, and enjoy a seasonal tipple of their libation of choice. During the uprising that inspired the holiday, the surroundings were harsher: hostile foreign solders, dangerous bacteria in the water, and not enough oil to light a lamp, let alone fry a latke. However, what did they drink? Research suggests that our holiday protagonists were sipping’ on watered down Marawi wine.
The Maccabees were a band of Hebrew rebels who fought the Seleucid Empire’s occupation and culture in Judea. However, the Books of the Maccabees reveal that there was one Hellenistic custom that the ancient Israelites embraced enthusiastically. In the postscript (15.:40) to Maccabees II, we learn that although the Hebraic guerrillas were adamant about scrubbing foreign influences from the Holy Land, they were okay keeping the Greco-Roman tradition of diluting wine.
Around 124BC, the holy text’s unknown author (theoretically summarizing Jason of Cyrene) wrote, “For just as it is harmful to drink wine alone, or, again, to drink water alone, while wine mixed with water is sweet and delicious and enhances one’s enjoyment, so also the style of the story delights the ears of those who read the work.”
The practice of mixing wine and water originated in ancient Greece. The Greeks believed that only barbarians, like the early Macedonians, would drink wine undiluted. Scholars note that there were some very practical benefits to the exercise: the alcoholic nature of the wine served to purify the unfiltered, oft-dangerous water. The custom was later adapted by the Romans. As these early civilizations conquered the ancient world, they imposed their traditions on their burgeoning empires. Palestine was no stranger to conquest and as affirmed by the above text, the classic wine n’ water was the preferred drink in the third century Metro Jerusalem area.
Still, any self-respecting somm can will you tell you that “wine” is a broad term. Clearly, these ancients were not quaffing First Growth Bordeaux; in fact, scholars find it doubtful that they were even indulging in modern varietals.
There is little easily traceable lineage of winemaking in modern Israel because alcohol production became highly regulated, if not forbidden when Muslim rule began; some smaller wineries managed to thrive, but large scale winemaking did not return to the region until 1882 when Baron Edmond de Rothschild (yes, Château Lafite’s Rothschild) dumped millions of francs and his immense network into building out the industry.
Fortunately, Dr. Shivi Drori, head of the oenology laboratory at Ariel University, has established himself as the leading expert on the region’s early wines. Drori and his team used archaeology and DNA testing to identify about 150 varietals dating to biblical times. Out of this set, the researcher believes that about 20 varietals were used for wine making. Fun Fact: The presence of the seeds in preserved donkey feces is a tipoff because donkeys would have only been fed wine lees, not valuable fresh grapes.
Dabouki, Marawi a.k.a. Hamdani and Jandali were popular varieties tracing to 220AD at the latest according to Drori. Believed to be indigenous, the berries are similar in appearance and viticultural needs to Greek wine grapes like Limnio and Mandilaria.
Cremisian, a small collaboration between Palestinian farmers and Italian monks has been producing wines made from these varietals for about a decade. Recanti, a small, Israeli local winery, worked with Drori to produce their own Marawi released in 2015. Sadly, Recanti can’t release the source of their Palestinian grown grapes as working with Israelis and producing alcohol are both serious infractions in the grower’s community.
Most tasting notes describe the Recanti Marawi with flavors such as grapefruit, guava and tropical notes. But, remember that the Maccabees were drinking this stuff watered down. So, imagine a tiki sangria—with all the ice melted? Still better than Manischevitz, but we’ll pass.
Correction: This article originally referenced the Roman occupation. In fact, the Seleucid Empire first occupied the region.