Jordanian Wines, Ancient And Modern
Not long ago, my husband and I spent eight days in Jordan as part of an historical and archaeological tour. Naturally I was looking forward to drinking Jordanian wines, about which I knew virtually nothing. What I had not anticipated was that I would also see two ancient wineries. Thanks to the knowledge of our guides, Sue Rollin and Jane Streetly, and their willingness to toss in an extra stop – and the tolerance of the other members of the group – I was able to see some archaeological evidence showing how the winemaking process was organised and the context in which the wine was made.
There has been winemaking in Jordan at least since it was part of the nearly-forgotten kingdom of Nabataea, from Bostra in the north (now in Syria) to south of the Dead Sea, with a great concentration around Petra. Nabataea died in AD 106, when it was peacefully annexed by the Roman Empire. During the tour, we focused on the area from the capital Amman down to the area around Petra, a distance of about 250 kilometers. During the week, we visited two ancient wineries and saw a number of mosaics which included vines and grapes as motifs. After my return, I turned to my copy of Pliny the Elder (AD 23-79), famous for having died in the eruption of Vesuvius, who had devoted Book 14 of his Natural History to vines and wines, and found a reference to wine from Petra (vino Petritae).
The first of the two wineries we visited is at the Umm ar-Rasas site, about 70 kilometers from Amman. Known as Kastron Mefaa, it was an important frontier station for the Roman Army. It is primarily known for the mosaics in two of the churches found on the site, including a nave mosaic showing a grape press in the Church of Bishop Sergius. In general, however, the area looks like a sea of rubble. Nevertheless, led by Sue, we came across a winery, which I found quite exciting. There was a rectangular room with the remains of a wine press in the middle of the floor, whilst on two of the sides were half-moon openings through which the grape juice drained into vats, of which there were a number surrounding the room holding the remains of the press.
The second winery was at Beidha al-Amti, a few miles north of Petra, where there are two wine presses to see (although because it was an unscheduled stop, those who leapt out of the bus only had time to see one). This is a very hot area, but the Nabateans were remarkable engineers, and caught and stored water, which enabled them to run a very impressive system of irrigation. This site has parallel water channels and two fields, the first entirely closed by a wall system, of about 13,000 square metres and 10,000 square metres respectively, both of which were irrigated. With the two wine presses nearby, a tentative conclusion by those who excavated the site is that grapes were probably grown in the fields, the size of which would have yielded at least 8,000 modern bottles of wine.
As for the press that we saw, it was in very good shape. On the right is the stamping floor, the juice from which flowed into the second vat, where the wine settled. It then flowed into the vat on the left, where fermentation took placed; steps in the rock were cut down to it.
All over the wider Beidha area, more than fifty wine presses have been found, often cut into rock outcrops. ‘Beidha’ means white, and the suggestion, unproven, has been made that it acquired its name because of the amount of white wine made there, although the different shapes of the treading platforms make it clear that both red and white wines were produced. There is also evidence that the Nabateans stored their wine in cool dark caves before drinking it. Further evidence of the prominent place held by wine in their lives are the numbers of mosaics with pictures of vine leaves and bunches of grapes; we also saw one of the wine-making process. This last-named mosaic, dating from the mid-6th century, is to be found in the Church of the Holy Martyrs Lot and Procopius at Khirbat al Mukhayyat, a village three miles from Mount Nebo (Mount Nebo is actually a range of hills with several peaks, from one of which (Siyyagha) Moses was said to have been shown the Promised Land). Amongst various scenes of everyday life and pictures of a number of animals, it shows on the right side of the second row from the bottom a picture of grapes being picked; on the line above on the right there are two pictures of a man playing a pipe for two men in loin cloths treading the grapes with the wine press between them; and to their left, there are two pictures of a man leading a donkey with a basket of grapes on his back. It is evocative and quite beautiful.
Whilst walking, looking and clambering, we – or at least I – also found time during meals to try a number of Jordanian wines. I would be surprised if many can be found outside of Jordan itself – indeed, the Oxford Companion to Wine covers Jordan in only one sentence: ‘Middle Eastern country which produces a small amount of wine each year from an increasing total vineyard area of about 4,000 ha/10,000 acres, which is mainly dedicated to table grapes.’ The ancient grape varieties have apparently been lost, so all of the vines planted after the end of World War II, the beginning of modern wine-making in Jordan, are the usual international varieties. I was only able to find four brands of wine, all of which belonged, two each, to two companies. These were the brands Mount Nebo and Jordan River, belonging to the Haddad Estates and Vineyards of the Eagle Distilleries Company, and the brands Saint George and Machaerus, belonging to Zumot Winery and Vineyard. Not infrequently, the wine which I tried to order from wine lists was not available in the restaurants, so there was a touch of pot luck in my tasting.
Saint George wines dominate: if you go on the internet and type in ‘Jordanian wines’, theirs seem to be the only wines to have attracted attention from outside commentators. Locally their wines are considered to be the best in Jordan, and the fact that they have long been organic makes them attractive to many. On the whole, I rather preferred the white to the red wines, which could be thick and a bit muddy. My first venture was the Saint George Gewurztraminer 2016, which was more of a minerally than a fruity wine, although as the wine in my glass warmed up, some Gewurz characteristics emerged. I also tried their 2016 Muscat. Now, this is a grape that I really like as a dry wine, but it did not have a lot of fruit, either on the nose or the palate, but was dominated by minerals. I quite like minerals, but I would have liked a bit more flavour. A 2016 Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc blend made by their other and cheaper label, Machaerus, I quite enjoyed. It was light and fresh with grapefruit on both the nose and the palate, and was altogether a nice glass of wine.
I found the Saint George red wines a mixed bunch. The first one I tried was their 2010 Cabernet Sauvignon, which has an alcohol level of 14%. It had rather a nice nose. On the palate, however, it was a killer, with lots of acid and tannins and not very much fruit left. This was followed the next day with their 2011 Pinot Noir. It, too, was a big wine, with lots of acid and some gripping tannins, but it had the advantage of actually tasting of the grape. At the same time, it was thick and chewy. It also was so dark that you could not, as might be expected, see the bottom of the glass through the wine. If before trying it I had had to guess the type of grape used by sight alone, Pinot Noir would not have occurred to me. I finally tried two of their ‘Winemaker’s Selection’. The first was the 2011 Shiraz, which was 15.5% with a very strong structure. It had a clean, fruity nose, and, not surprisingly, stood up well to spicy food. The final Saint George red was another ‘Winemaker’s Selection’, the 2011 Merlot, and this one I quite liked; it had a clean, fruity nose, a good surge of acid with a bit less tannin, good fruit on the palate and a decent length. I thought that it was a good wine, one which I enjoyed drinking.
As for the other producers, I drank one Mount Nebo, my notes on which I have unfortunately lost, and one Jordan River, their 2015 Shiraz. It had a deep nose of dark fruit, more tannins than acid and thus was not entirely well-balanced, but it had good fruit. It needed a very long time to open up at all – dinner was nearly finished before we thought that it was ready to drink. It was a Tuesday rather than a Saturday night wine.
As a small and predominantly Muslim country, Jordanian wine producers probably do not have much of a local customer base. This is unfortunate, when one considers that for centuries it was a vibrant wine-making and wine-drinking area. Probably their only hope is to develop a bit of an export trade, but this tends to depend, in the early stages, on an expatriate community with the money to spend on wine and a willingness to spend it. The Jordanian diaspora, such as it is, is probably not large enough in non-Muslim countries to provide such a base. This is a pity, because the potential is there.
(For a bit of detail on the ancient wineries, see Patricia Maynor Bikai, ‘Beidha al-Amti’ in ACOR Newsletter, Vol. 15.2, Winter 2003 and Saeb Rawashdeh, ‘Archaeologist highlights Nabataean heritage in agriculture, wine making’, The Jordan Times, 7 March 2016. I am grateful to Sue Rollins for her comments on an early draft and to Sally Popplestone for photo no. 2.)