A New Army
By Michelle Moran from: http://www.vnuemedia.com
Nowhere is the Israeli effort to move beyond their kosher and religious niche more evident than in the wine industry. It's an industry as old as the Byzantine Winepress on the hill overlooking the Tishbi Estate Winery, yet still as young as the $23-million state-of-the-art Barkan winery under construction near Tel el Safi.
Over the past several years, a new army of winemakers bearing degrees in viticulture from institutions like the University of California at Davis with years of winemaking experience in France , New Zealand , South Africa , and Australia has formed here.
While the people of Israel were winemaking pioneers in ancient times, today's wineries are newcomers to the modern wine world. The land area devoted to vineyards in Israel has doubled in the last five to six years, and this increase may be seen across all types of quality varieties. The 2002 harvest that yielded over 45,000 tons of grapes is expected to grow to 60,000 tons this year.
Today, the main grape varieties in the quality market are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. In the 1960's, Cabernet and Sauvignon were introduced by Carmel , a winery established in 1882 by Baron Edmond de Rothschild (co-owner of Chateau Lafitte of Bordeaux), and Merlot and Chardonnay were introduced by Golan Heights Winery in the 1980's. Varieties such as Gewurztraminer, Johannesburg , White Riesling, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Pinot Noir and Sangiovese are also now common. New varieties, such as Nebbiolo, Barbera and Tempranillo, have also been planted and introduced with 2003 vintages. According to Israeli regulations, a varietals wine must contain 85 percent of the named grape variety.
Golan Heights Winery is where the revolution began in 1983. Surrounded by almost-year-round snow-capped Mount Hermon with vineyards at elevations from 1,300 to 3,940 feet, the Golan Heights Winery in Katzrin is less than an hour's drive from Tiberias along a narrow, meandering road littered with black rocks and edged by stony hills. The route takes you back through history - over the Jordan River just north of the Sea of Galilee , and then emerges into the present to a winery where the first internationally successful quality Israeli wines were produced.
The Golan itself is a region where grapes grew and wines were produced in millenniums past. But years of political instability and wars drastically changed this landscape, along with the Islamic occupation that prohibited the production of wine beyond religious needs. But those things changed in 1972 when a famous enologist from the University of California at Davis visited the region and suggested that the soil and climate conditions at this high elevation were ideal for wine grape cultivation. And as they say, the rest is history.
The first Golan Heights vineyards were planted in 1976 at Geshur and Yonatan on the Golan Heights and Ramot Naftali in Upper Galilee . By 1983, Golan growers had produced their very first Sauvignon Blanc. Today, Golan Heights is a partnership of seven agricultural settlements (kibbutzim and moshavims) in cooperation with US wine consultant Zelma Long. The winery was a pioneer in planting Chardonnay and Merlot vines in Israel, as well as Johannesburg Riesling and Gewurztraminer, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Gamey Noir, and Muscat Blanc a Petit Grains.
California-born and UC Davis-trained Victor Schoenfeld is the winery's first permanent winemaker. Previously, this position was rotated among UC Davis alumni every two years. Schoenfeld has been on the leading edge, producing a new breed of fine wines in Israel since 1991.
"We're not a huge winery," Schoenfeld said, pausing from the first tasting of fermenting red varieties. "We have a huge number of tanks and a huge number of barrels for such a small winery. We operate under the philosophy of keeping things separate and that's an expensive way to operate a winery."
At Golan Heights - as with many of the innovative Israeli wineries, keeping different lots of grape varieties separate during production is critical. Despite the region's incredible historical significance, Israel 's elite vineyards and varieties are relatively young. Winemakers and growers are just beginning to understand the possibilities of the soil and the grapes. Recultivation programs abound in Israel , with supplementary plantings of new varieties and modern equipment being imported for nearly two decades.
"We could get by with less than 50 lots, but then we'd have less freedom," Schoenfeld said. "The thing about wines is they reveal a lot about themselves over time. We have a plan before we go to harvest, but those things change as we discover the grape. It's a lot of planning and changing of plans."
New winemakers impress upon growers the importance of nurturing the vines, teaching them how often to irrigate, and the significance of sugar content. The Kiddush wines the region has become known for did not require growers to be so attentive to detail and the production of grapes was a much simpler process.
So while the tradition of winemaking in Israel is long, this new generation of fine winemakers is bringing Israeli wine to a new level. New varieties were recently released - a Pinot Noir in 1999 and Syrah and Sangiovese in 2000.
With 15 vineyards, 20 grape varieties, and 25 wines, Golan Heights General Manager Shalom Blayer must constantly monitor his four winemakers and his vineyards. During our visit, the harvest, which averages from August to October, had extended into early November, providing a rare opportunity to see the vineyards at work.
"You can produce bad wine from good grapes, but you cannot do the reverse. We are a quality winery," Blayer said. "We are kosher because we must be kosher. But first, we are a quality wine. The most important thing is to produce the best wine we can under our own label."
Golan's globally recognized and award-winning label is Yarden. In 2003, Yarden varieties were recognized at the Vinexpo with three trophies and three gold medals. A review of their overall label proves their award worthiness. The 2000 Yarden Syrah is a newcomer to their wine list and demonstrated the winery's ability to invest and nurture new varieties. With a rich texture and a deep color, the Syrah rounds out Yarden's red offerings. At its Ortal and Odem vineyards, the winery is now working on an organic wine for the Yarden label.
Golan Heights set up their own import company in the U.S. called Yarden, Inc. and since its inception in 2001, the import company has doubled Yarden's presence in the U.S. market. More than 40,000 cases were sold in the U.S. in 2003.
"We believe in the potential of the U.S. market. Americans have an open mind and they are willing to taste everything - Israeli, Australian, Chilean, French . . . it does not matter," Blayer explained. "In America , they are more open. We want American consumers to know we are bringing them something new with a different taste, a different culture."The culture of Israeli wine also extends to its kosher certification. Although it makes no difference in the world-class taste, the certification is another added value for consumers. While food is deemed kosher if it's permitted under Jewish dietary laws, for a wine to be kosher, the winemaking process must be supervised to ensure that non-kosher ingredients are not added. In addition, only religiously observant Jews may come into direct contact with the wine. An important fact for consumers to understand is that no regulations affect the wine's quality, and standard winemaking procedures are followed in the fermentation, maturation, blending, and bottling of the wine.
From Vine to Wine
Israel 's premier wine region, the Galilee area, is characterized by high altitudes and cool breezes from Mount Heron . It extends southwards from the Lebanese border and covers northern Israel . Most of the country's wineries use grapes from the Galilee for their first label or reserve wines. The northernmost vineyards of the Golan Heights at 3,937 feet above sea level and the Upper Galilee vineyards at more than 2,000 feet experience snowfall during the winter months.
Barkan Wine Cellars was reborn in 1991 under the tutelage of two joint general managers, Schmuel Boxer and Yair Lerner, who repositioned the label and made huge financial commitments to it. Now operating in a new $23-million winery at Kibbutz Hulda near Tel el Safi, Barkan is a symbol of the newfound dedication of Israeli winemakers to compete on an international level.
"We want to show the regular market what they don't know about kosher product - that these products are the same and sometimes better," Boxer said. "We have good wines and it is wine from Israel ."
The new winery at Hulda is now in its third stage. A new bottling plant with a modern bottling line produces 10,000 bottles per hour, with warehouses of over 86,000 square feet in operation. Winemaker Avi Feldstein and his team are now testing and tasting in their new central laboratory with ultra-modern equipment and work on a new visitor center and a barrel aging facility is underway. The entire project is expected to be completed in 2005.
In March 2001, Barkan purchased the Carmen-Zion (Segal) wine company, a pioneering wine producer that utilizes traditional French winemaking methods to create Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, French Colombrad, and Emerald Riesling. Segal's 2002 Unfiltered Cabernet Sauvignon is a top-quality wine that even features a label made with grape skins.
Barkan's enology team is headed by UC Davis graduate Ed Salzberg, and Feldstein (who came to Barkan with the acquisition of Segal) is the winemaker for Segal, as well as responsible for the production of red wines at Hulda.
By far the most technologically advanced winery in our tour, Barkan's Hulda production facility is a sight to behold. Nearly fully automated, receiving and production can be operated by six to eight people. At the scale, grapes are not only weighed, but their chemical composition is determined so that when they reach processing, winemakers can tell the workers how to proceed.
"From batch to batch, we can modify the machines to give us the best result from the grape," Feldstein explained.
Barkan and other wineries also harvest grapes in vineyards in the Judean Hills and the Negev . In the Judean Hills, many vineyards are grown on terraces or in narrow valleys. Cool nighttime temperatures on the hills enable wineries like Efrat Winery to take advantage of this interesting microclimate to produce new varieties and high-quality batches.
Efrat was established in the old city of Jerusalem in 1870. Now a fifth-generation winery, Efrat is the fourth largest winery in Israel . Chief winemaker Shiki Rauchberger, along with owners Mordechai and Sarah Tepperberg opened the winery's doors to expand its movement toward becoming a New World winery.
The winery moved to its present location 15 minutes outside Jerusalem in 1965, yet still bears the name from the origin of the grapes first picked in Efrat-Bet Lechem ( Bethlehem ). Plans are now in the works to move the winery again - somewhere in the neighboring region of Zorah - so they can enlarge production facilities. Rauchberger, who studied at UC Davis and worked for Carmel for more than eight years, said the change in location is just part of the winery's plan to augment its traditional winemaking product (sweet wines) with new, innovative single vineyard wines.
"We're working in some really interesting areas. There is an area called 'The Orchard' in the hills of Jerusalem that is quite cold. The maturation process is much earlier than the rest of the general region," Rauchberger explained. "We also have a new site for Syrah. We're really trying different variations. This year was also the first harvest of Cabernet Franc."
While Efrat continues its sweet range, the new varieties and changes in cultivation are what really excite Rauchberger.
"We have another new unirrigated vineyard nearby that is on a very steep hill. The maturation here is so different that we had to harvest the site two different times," he explained. "In general, this is a very exciting area."
Recently, three projects have come to fruition. The first is Efrat's 2003 Chardonnay, which they expect to release just prior to Passover. A very small quantity of the vintage is produced from 'The Orchard' vineyard. Another exciting project was the result of a trip Rauchberger took to South Africa to see Chenin Blanc production.
Upon returning, Rauchberger selected a 25-year-old vineyard and a trusted grower for the Chenin Blanc project. The new 2003 Chenin Blanc is expected to be released early this year.
"It's really something different," Rauchberger said. "It's in new oak barrels aging now. We're watching it closely and we're really quite excited."
The third project is production of a reserve Cabernet Sauvignon from the vines grown at the terraced mountain vineyard in 2002. Its release is also expected in 2004. This new reserve collection of single-variety wines will be released under the family name of Tepperberg. Another collection worth noting is Efrat's Israeli series of lively, medium-bodied wines that have already won international recognition. The 2002 Israeli Chardonnay-Sauvignon Blanc is a bright, light wine with more body than an average white table wine. The Chardonnay plays well in the mouth, while the Sauvignon Blanc gives it a longer finish.
"There is a revolution within Efrat with the decision of the owners to make a change. They invested a lot of money in the 2002 harvest, replacing the entire receiving section, including the hopper and the crusher to provide high-tech stainless steel equipment," Rauchberger explained.
The payoff is becoming evident. In 2003, Efrat's Israeli Emerald Riesling was selected to be served as the demi-sec to first-class patrons on El Al Airlines. Exports increased by 300 percent in 2003. They also received awards for their Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnays at the Wine and Spirit Competition in England .
"This is a result of very small steps, but serious steps," Rauchberger concluded. "We're not trying to move too fast."
The Negev , a semi-arid desert, has been planted with new vineyards in the northern hills and in the south. Carmel was the first of the larger wineries to establish vineyards in the Negev ; now, vineyards have also been planted by Barkan at Mitzpe Ramon and Tishbi at Sde Boker.
Tishbi Estate Winery has a romantic story behind it. Jonathan Tishbi grew up harvesting the grapes his great-grandfather planted for Baron Edmond de Rothschild almost 120 years ago and sold his product to Carmel . In 1984, he decided to start his own family winery.
"I decided to open my own winery because I was the biggest supplier to Carmel , so I traveled to Italy and studied the estate wineries there," Jonathan Tishbi explained. "It seemed to me to be simple and I thought I could do it. I wanted to be more independent for myself and my family . . . to build something so our children can work together."
In 1988, the late Sydney Beck began working with Tishbi. The South African winemaker became an advisor-consultant to Tishbi until his death. Beck's influence also moved the winery to produce sparkling wine by the French Methode Champenoise. Today, with his family estate dream achieved, Jonathan Tishbi handles export and oversees the general production.
"I visit the vineyards personally and give instruction on how to build a tree and how to treat it until the harvest," he said. "This year, the balance of the wine was fantastic. We had 20 percent less grapes, so the quality is up."
Golan Tishbi, who studied in New Zealand at Hawkes Bay University , joined the winery as chief winemaker four years ago. Along with winemaker Assaf Paz, Golan oversees production of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carignan, Muscat , Sauvignon Blanc, Emerald Riesling, Cabernet Franc, and Muscat Dessert, as well as brandy and sparkling wine. Jonathan Tishbi Special Reserve is the premier label. These limited-edition wines have won numerous awards. The Chardonnay produced via traditional French Burgundian methods won gold medals at Vinexpo in 1999 and IWSC and Vinexpo in 2001, as well as Silver medals at IWSC and Vinexpo in 2002.
"We like to work with the wine, not against it," Golan said.
Tishbi's vineyards harvest grapes grown as far south as the Negev and as far north as Kfar Yuval and Kerem Ben Zimra that are 1,640 to 2,296 feet high in the Upper Galilee .
"Our intention is not to increase the size of the winery, but to keep on making good wines, sell them at decent prices, acquire a name for ourselves, and develop a brand," Golan Tishbi said. "The U.S. market is important because really it comes down to the people there. If they like it, they will continue to buy it."
And it looks as though people do like Tishbi wines. Exports to the U.S. increased by 50 percent in 2003 and Tishbi expects a 30-percent growth this year. The winery sold out of its 2002 whites and its basic reds are also gone. Many of the reserve wines are sold one to two years before they are even released.
A tasting of the 2002 Jonathan Tishbi Special Reserve Single Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon provided a good glimpse of why wine lovers are rushing to Tishbi products. With nice legs and an intense cherry-oak finish, this wine from vines at the Gush Etzion vineyard of the Judean Hills was outstanding.
Samaria is Israel 's largest wine-growing region. The area benefits from the proximity of both the Carmel Mountain Range and the Mediterranean Sea . The main concentration of vineyards is in the valleys surrounding the winery towns of Zichron Ya'acov and Binyamina, which were named after James de Rothschild and Edmond de Rothschild, respectively and are home to Binyamina, Tishbi, and Carmel 's Zichron Ya'acov wineries.
Binyamina Wine Cellars is situated at the foot of Mount Carmel . The winery boasts state-of-the-art equipment and has vineyards that extend from northern Galilee south to the Negev . Binyamina produces premium fine wines under its Special Reserve, Binyamina, and Fall labels. It also owns a small boutique winery called The Cave, named for the fact that these 15th-century caves are where Rothschild once stored wine. The first vintage released since the 19th century comes this month when 700 bottles of the Cabernet Sauvignon-Merlot blend will become available.
Binyamina labels are new in the U.S. , as the initial entry of its Fall label and its Special Reserve and Dessert wine collections debuted in 2002. The Binyamina Special Reserve collection features the winery's highest-quality grapes. The wines in this collection, except for the Sauvignon Blanc and Emerald Riesling, are aged in French and American oak barrels, and then in bottles for at least six months. The Binyamina second series label - a value-for-money series - will be introduced to the US in 2004. This series' red wines and Chardonnay wine are aged in oak barrels.
"It's been really well received and we plan on expanding the variety," said Binyamina's Managing Director/CEO Ilan Hasson. "We want to be perceived not only as kosher, but as a new Israeli wine. Our wines should be marketed at retail under a country section."
The winery is one of the innovative players in the Israeli field, producing their first Tempranillo and Viognier varieties in 2002. They've also planted Cabernet Franc, Zinfandel, Pinot Noir, and Gewurztraminer with the first harvest in 2003. The Tempranillo introduced last year was aged in American oak for a few months and has 15 percent Cabernet Sauvignon added to provide body. A great young wine, this newcomer should grow well with age, allowing future vintages to be bottled under the Special Reserve label.
A new variety that has already made the leap to Special Reserve is the Shiraz . The 2002 vintage, just released under the Binyamina label, has a wonderfully intense bouquet and its fruit notes are layered with rich oak, chocolate, and vanilla. Already the 2003 vintage is showing a higher quality and Hasson believes there is definitely a Special Reserve in the harvest.
"We continue to work on being an innovative winery," Hasson explained. "We're working to create varieties that have not grown here before."
The winery's owners - a private group of investors from Hollywood who purchased the winery in 1992 - have made massive capital investments, including new wine cellars with room for 1,000 barrels.
"We also invested a lot of money in special equipment," Hasson explained. "We have fermentation tanks from Italy that give the best skin contact between the grapes and the liquid itself. Every section of the production has the best equipment available on the market."
Carmel 's main winery is located in central Israel in a region known as Samson for the well-known biblical hero. The central plain and the rolling hills of the Judean Lowlands make up this region rich in history-laden names from biblical times. Many of the vineyards here belong to Carmel and Barkan. Carmel 's main winery is in Rishon Le Zion where its present winery building, built in 1890, is the oldest industrial building still in use. The town is one of the largest in Israel and has literally grown around the winery. The country's first use of the telephone and electricity took place at this historic site.
Like a sleepy giant, the centuries-old winery has been a dominant but stagnant force in the Israeli wine industry. Carmel remains Israel 's largest and most historic winery, but through the years, it had gained the moniker of "The Gallo of Israel." Credit might go to the David-sized Golan Heights Winery for startling this Goliath into modernizing its winemaking process, creating new exclusive labels, and positioning itself to be a leader in the new, high-quality, exotic Israeli wine movement.
In a change of direction by new CEO David Ziv, Carmel is introducing small winery procedures with the assistance of wine consultant Peter Stern from California . Two new boutique wineries, one at Ramat Arad and the other within the Zichron Ya'acov facility, will enable Carmel to produce handcrafted wines representative of individual vineyards. The new boutique wine productions will be released in 2004 with a 2001 vintage from the Yatir (Ramat Arad) winery.
One of Carmel 's first New World experiments resulted in estate and single vineyard wines. The designated vineyards were chosen from prime wine-growing areas in the Upper Galilee , Lower Galilee , and Ramat Arad. Proclaiming it a Carmel revolution, the winery produced vintages named for their vineyards of (Tavor-2002) Chardonnay, (Zarit-2001 and Ramat Arad-2000) Cabernet Sauvignon, and (Ramat Arad-2002) Syrah grapes.
The well-designed labels feature the vineyard first and the Carmel Winery logo as a secondary notation. The 2001 Zarit Cabernet proved to be a grand departure for Carmel with its great earth essence and a wide fruit bouquet. These preliminary changes - precursors of those to come - bode well for the winery. And although the winemaking process can't be rushed along, the anticipation of the new 12-member winemaking team and boutique selections is phenomenal.
Adam Montefiore, a former Golan Heights executive, came to Carmel as export director last year. He is cognizant of the changes and directives Ziv is enacting.
"Wine is our core business. We are first and foremost a winery. But our strength is also our weakness. We are thought of as a lumbering company," Montefiore explained.
So instead of changing Carmel 's regular label reputation, winery executives have brought in an innovative new team of young winemakers to create exclusive boutique labels.
"The fact is that this is a region where wine began. We've always had great vineyards, but never identified them," Montefiore explained. "Now we are reducing yields, giving our growers incentives to grow better grapes."
Carmel is also working with a selection of private boutique wineries to help market worldwide the innovative, high-quality products coming from Israel .
"Everyone has succeeded on their own, but no one has done anything for Israeli wines," Montefiore explained. "We are Israel 's largest exporter, selling to 45 countries. Carmel will benefit in image and the boutique wineries will benefit from our logistics."
Carmel closed agreements in November with Castel, Amphorae, Bazelet Ha'Golan, Chillag, Saslove, and Tzora wineries. The select group represents different regions and differing wine styles. Carmel plans to promote the wines of Israel around the world with tastings and events - such as the Vinexpo in Chicago in June 2003.
"We want to create our own change within Carmel , but we also want to advance the brand Israel ," Montefiore explained. "I have no doubt that Israel is making the best kosher wine with more variety than anywhere else in the world. But we are also a regional wine-growing area, an exotic area, and Carmel wants to put this area on the map. We all have an image problem - people believe Israeli wines are only for the Jewish market, but we are so much more than that."
Montefiore is right. Israeli products succeed well beyond the Jewish market. At the end of my trip, I passed through a traditional grocery store before heading to the airport and filled my suitcases with Israeli Couscous, Bamba (which never made it to the plane), pickles in vinegar, fresh olives, olive oil, and a few bottles of wine.
After a week at home, my Israeli pantry was empty due to my neighbors and friends partaking in various gourmet experiments. Now, I'm left to scour my local gourmet markets, making requests for Israeli products, so I guess that makes me just one more example of a consumer who, once they've tried high-quality Israeli products, will return to sample more.
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