Noah may have started off on the wrong foot when he planted his vineyard in Israel, but at least his descendants are getting it right. Around the world, Israeli wines are winning prizes and accolades, which is intoxicating news indeed for local winemakers.
Top American wine maven Robert Parker says, “The wines are getting better all the time and some of them are superb.” Wine magazines like Wine Spectator write “…Quality is on the upswing” and leading wine critics – and just plain folks looking for something to drink with dinner – are discovering that Israeli wines aren’t just for Friday night Kiddush (blessing) anymore.
So what’s changed since the average bottle of Israeli wine was a sticky, syrupy non-experience? (Which is an apt description of the wine produced by the Carmel Winery when it was founded by Edmond James de Rothschild in 1882.) Plenty. Both in terms of knowhow and the unbridled Israeli passion for winemaking.
Daniel Rogov, resident wine and restaurant critic at the Ha’aretz newspaper says of the industry today: “We have a retinue of winemakers who are internationally trained and internationally experienced, some Israeli-born, some not. We have world class winemakers and that’s very important.
“Second, the wineries have gone really state-of-the-art. The big and medium wineries all have very modern facilities, and all the techniques for making very fine wine. Third, and most important, we are learning more and more and developing our vineyards better in terms of technology,” says Rogov.
Three years ago, he points out, Mark Squires, who writes for Parker, visited Israel and wrote about our wines and gave them a great deal of praise. “Some 13 or 14 wines scored over 90, which [means they are] really outstanding wines,” Rogov says.
From Rothschild to ribbon-winners
Whether it’s on the wind-swept hills of Israel’s Golan Heights or the low-lying lands of the Negev, there’s a branch of a major winery or one of some 200 or more independent, boutique wineries in operation. Carmel Winery’s wine development director Adam Montefiore notes: “Israel has joined the world of quality wine producers, and added to its history in this area, which is as long as anyone’s.”
A quality wine “…has to have good balance between all its elements – the fruits, the tannins, the woods have to be in fine balance,” Rogov explains. “For it to be a good quality wine, it also has to have what I call a good structure; that it’s built so that it will last for more than just a short period of time – it will cellar nicely for a minimum of five years, in some cases 75-80, but not with kosher wines. And third of all, one of the axioms I subscribe to is: Not all wines have to be great, but all wines have to give the drinker pleasure.”
“It’s in the eye of the beholder,” says Montefiore. “What I consider a quality wine differs from what you or your wife thinks. Wine is like music – everyone can choose what they want. Some people like basic music, some people like Bach. Some like rock or hip hop… So basically a wine that’s tasty to someone is a good wine. And it’s the variety of wine that makes it so interesting.”
Citing success at growing grapes at higher altitudes like in the Upper Galilee, Golan Heights and more recently the Judean Hills; Israel’s mostly-cooperative climate; the planting of new, quality grape varieties; and the expertise of young winemakers who’ve studied abroad, Montefiore isn’t surprised by Israel’s achievements. “Add to that the desire of the wineries themselves to make better wines and the current increase in the pursuit of quality and it adds up to a wine revolution,” says Montefiore.
“Revolution” is a word he frequently uses to describe various turning points in Israel’s wine-making history, beginning with Rothschild’s early efforts and culminating with his Carmel and other large wineries that are competing with the production of high-quality wines by the country’s smaller boutique wineries.
It’s a winner’s revolution as well, at least based on Carmel’s September triumph. One of its wines won the Decanter International Trophy, a prize considered the “Oscar” of world wine awards. His company’s Yatir boutique winery was also cited by Parker, “the highest possible third party recommendation,” Montefiore insists. “When someone like Parker tastes Israeli wines and says they are good, then its official.”
Indeed, when Parker first reviewed Israeli wines in 2007, he awarded 14 of them more than 90 out of a maximum 100 points (world-class). Meanwhile, UK wine critic Oz Clarke included two Israeli wineries, Domaine du Castel and Yatir, in his Pocket Wine Book 2010. Clearly, Israeli wine has earned a place at the table alongside other outstanding international wines.
Golan gold – apples to grapes
Wander around Israel and there’s plenty of evidence of ancient wine-making, even remnants of a production site on the Spice Trail near Avdat built some 2,000 years ago. So it’s no surprise that similar evidence also turned up on the Golan Heights, notes Golan Heights Winery marketing director Arnon Harel. But it was apples, not wine, that Golan farmers were interested in when a professor from the University of California at Davis visited the scene in the 1970s.
“He was brought in to look into apple growing, and he said that we had ideal conditions in the area to raise wine grapes,” says Harel. “It was an experiment and we didn’t know if it would succeed.” So it was that seven Golan Heights communities and one in the Upper Galilee formed the Golan Heights Winery, launching an experiment that transformed the production of Israeli winemaking.
With the help of American-imported technology regarding which barrels and containers to buy and other insider information, Harel and his associates “…were surprised because suddenly we were producing high-quality wine in Israel, where before that, we produced mostly sweet wine.” When the first bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon was opened in 1983, Israel had a prize-winning wine of its own.
“They brought in international experience, which allowed them to tap into new things,” one observer of the Israeli wine scene notes about the winery, located in Katzrin, the largest Israeli town in the Golan Heights. “That started the whole wave in Israel of everybody trying to make better wines, followed by the boutique wines revolution… They were the catalysts. They planted in high altitude areas and decided: ‘We want to make the best wine possible.'”
The Golan Heights Winery now produces four million bottles a year for export and a million that are sold in Israel. Some 60,000 people visit the site annually, as part of the increasing wine tourism in Israel, which naturally ends with tastings.
“We had dreams but we didn’t know if they would work out,” says Harel of the winery’s early days. The key to their success: “You have to love it, and feel connected to the earth you plant in, and be a happy person, because wine is a happy product.”
A boost from boutiques
Similar words are heard from 200 or more Israeli boutique winemakers, who got a jump on the continuing quest for quality some 20 years ago, during another major change in the industry, and continue to produce outstanding wine.
At about the same time as a food revolution began in Israel in the 1980s, with the opening of higher-class restaurants, young wine-lovers started to make their own wine, resulting in the opening of a number of boutique wineries.
“There was almost a whiff of peace in the air with Oslo… Israelis felt unthreatened for the first time in a long time and started traveling more abroad, seeing the wine and food there and saying: ‘I’d like some of that.’ There was a better economy then, as well. So all these things together meant that there was a kind of wine revolution in Israel, manifested by these boutique wineries springing up all over,” says Montefiore.
Today, there are between 200 to 400 Israeli wineries, depending on how you classify them. Some are one-person outfits just getting by, while others have succeeded to the point where they were bought by larger wineries.
A lucky few wineries have achieved international success by dint of the hard work and vision of winemakers who never dreamed they’d go into the business of producing high-quality wine.
From video-making to vineyards
One of the most fascinating elements of Israel’s boutique winery revolution is the proliferation of boutique wineries opened by people who get the wine bug and leave their previous careers behind.
Zeev Dunia was previously head of the video and television production department at Jerusalem’s Hadassah College of Technology when he was bitten by the winemaking bug while making a film about the process in 1994-95.
“I was a filmmaker for 25 years. At first I wasn’t particularly interested in the subject [of wine],” Dunia says as he pauses to check the grapes. “But as the film was done, which took about a year because it followed the process of wine-making from the vineyard to the glass, I started to develop unconsciously some sort of interest that grew.
“This happens to quite a lot of people – they discover wine and without really having any training, it becomes more and more something you get involved with, and that’s really the magic of wine. If we had to describe what’s so special about it, it’s that it’s never the same. Every bottle of wine is slightly different… the more you get into it, the more it surprises you,” he says.
Dunia now owns and runs SeaHorse Winery in Bar Giora in the Judean Hills. This small but outstanding operation produces about 1,500 cases of wine annually.
“There’s a lot of passion involved, whether you are a grower in the vineyards or a winemaker,” says Dunia, who uses the French method of dense planting and low yield and takes pride in “the unique varieties of wine” he produces, particularly his Zinfandel and his latest addition Chenin Blanc.
A few years ago, the visiting wine critic of La Figaro and a Gallery Lafayette representative at an exhibit in Tel Aviv told him that his wine was “the best wine we have ever tasted in Israel.”
Wearing a wide-brimmed hat to protect himself from the sun, he spends time in his vineyards every day, sometimes to shoo away the deer that have a fondness for his grapes. He says that winemaking grants him a deeper connection to the land on which his grapes grow.
“One thing that has happened over these past 10 years is that I really understand the importance of working the land and what it does to us. Before that, I felt I was a citizen of the world, could live anywhere and do my thing. Now, once you have planted something in the soil, you cannot leave… And I think we should be more attentive to the importance of agriculture, not in the sense of business… It’s our future.”
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[Article via Israel MFA]