Although not seen as a big player today, the Middle East was and still is one of the largest wine producing regions in the world. The city of Shiraz in Iran, for example, was once a flourishing wine making region, producing Shirazi as opposed to Shiraz wine. Historical events and religion, however, resulted in the decline of the wine industry in the region.
When it comes to making wines, the Middle East faces a huge number of challenges compared to other wine producing regions. Perhaps the most relevant factor is a mixture of societal indifference towards wine in the least extreme cases, and outright prohibition for religious reasons in others. Many of the Middle East’s most promising areas simply cannot produce wine as it is banned.
Climate Change and Winemaking in the Desert Region
When talking about wine production in the Middle East, one has to take into account the effect of climate change on producers worldwide.
Grapevines are extremely sensitive to their climates. Yearly variations in yields can go up to 32.5%, a huge loss for any crop. Quality wine production is not just about heat, or precipitation, but about a balance between the right soil and climate. This is why proper production and wine storage facilities are important to any winemaking operation.
Climate changes are expected to result in a huge decline in wine production in key regions such as Bordeaux, Tuscany and the Napa Valley by 2050. This projection is quite extraordinary and alarming when you consider the geographical variations between said regions.
An upside to this is that regions once unsuitable for wine production may find themselves able to produce wines in the future. Sweden and Canada, for example, have seen their wine production go up in the past few years.
In the Middle East, the changing climate is creating yet greater extremes, with parts of the Mediterranean drying up and other regions such as Turkey and Syria experiencing heavier snowfall than ever before.
These two factors are not helpful in wine production in any way. While snowfall in the wine-producing regions will obviously stymie wine production, drier weather is bad for production in two instances. One, it could lead to poor crop yields and two, lack of water could affect the quality of grapes, and ultimately, wines.
Hotter climates don’t necessarily prevent wine production but it often leads to over-sweet wines with high alcohol content.
For bulk producers (of which there are few in the Middle East), this change in grapes and wine taste is a growing problem, especially for wineries looking to produce high quality wines. This change affects all wine producing regions but is more pronounced in the Middle East, which already toes a fine line climatically.
Israeli wine is perhaps the most celebrated in the region, yet climate change is pushing production further and further into (limited) mountainous regions, thereby reducing yields.
Even latitude lines are shifting, which also has a huge effect on farming and agriculture. Wine, in general, is produced along a thin strip of latitudinal regions worldwide, and climate change is widening that gap. While this may lead to an increase in areas (including the Middle East) that can be conducive to wine production, it could also put restrictions on other thriving areas.
What Else Affects Middle?Eastern Wine Production?
Religion is arguably the biggest challenge in the Middle East's wine industry, both in production and consumption. Alcohol consumption is banned in most predominantly Muslim countries, particularly so in the Middle East, where every country has a mostly Muslim population.
Even in relatively secular Turkey, the sale of alcohol is limited, and high taxes make it expensive. Given the relative youth (in modern terms) of the market in that country, production quality is also low, with high alcohol and over?oaked wines coming onto the market, making little dent on the international scene. Even so, Turkey is the most moderate example.
The sale and production of wine is strictly prohibited in Shia Iran, to the point that even the word 'wine' has been banned by authorities.
From a topographical point of view, this is a big blow to the region. Parts of the nation sit on the same latitude as much of Portugal, Spain and Italy, but political and religious factors preclude wine production in any form.
More than this, there's also the fact that grape production in the Middle East is largely focused on the raisin market, either for domestic or international markets. Turkey, for example, has over 1250 grape varieties, yet very little of it is used for wine production.
Apart from the religious restrictions, there is also a cultural indifference to wine, with many Turks preferring beer over it.
So What Does the Future Hold for Middle?Eastern Wine?
The entrenched cultural factors and increasing climate change do not bode well for Middle Eastern wine production. In addition to prohibitive cultural factors, the unstable political landscape in the region affects a lot of sectors, including farming.
Climate change, if anything, is aiding relatively temperate countries in producing decent, if not high-quality wines.
There is hope, in that some places in the Middle East will strive to produce better quality wines for local distribution, and ultimately, for export.