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Israeli Wine - Polished, Poised and not just for Passover
By Howard G. Goldberg, from

Howard G. Goldberg, who contributes wine columns to The New York Times, is author of All About Wine Cellars, a paperback that is part of The Complete Wine Cellar System kit (Running Press).

Winedom relies on shorthand categories: French wine, Spanish wine, California wine. For Israel 's wineries, such fundamental geographical classifications are blurred by another identification issue.

It was concisely expressed in a question from a seasoned executive in the American-Jewish wine trade: "Will you be writing about Israeli wines or kosher wines?" I replied: "Israeli wines. Whether they are kosher or not is incidental." Most Israeli wines are kosher, but not all.

"Kosher" bespeaks no appellation, no terroir. Wine that is kosher - translated from the Hebrew as "pure" - meets strict rabbinical production criteria that make it suitable for use by religious Jews.

Wines identified as mevushal have been flash pasteurized so that, under Jewish law, non-Jews - say, Hispanic waiters in kosher restaurants - can uncork and serve them to observant Jews. Views differ on whether this instant heating-and-cooling process impairs wine.

Today Israeli premium wines made from vinifera grapes are mainstream; yesterday's confectionery ceremonial sabbath and seder kiddush wines, still voluminously produced, are side stream. The highest compliment urbane merchants can pay Israel 's industry is to showcase its bottles in bins marked "Israeli Wines." Customers, especially Orthodox and Conservative Jews, can check the labels to learn if the goods are kosher and mevushal.

The good news is that there is a rising sea of ever-improving Israeli wine being produced; the bad news is that only a trickle has reached America . But there is further good news: That trickle may soon become a torrent.

Israel 's wine industry, together with the government, is about to promote Israeli wine generically across America . A five-year, multimillion-dollar program will emphasize the quality of table wines at all price levels, and promote the idea that they are Israeli and eastern Mediterranean rather than "the stereotype - Jewish, kosher, sacramental," says Michal Neeman, who directs the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute's food and beverage division.

The total number of Israeli producers is elusive. "There are no absolute figures," Neeman says. "There are 25 wineries harvesting over 50 tons and at least 125 boutiques or home-based wineries. In all probability, there are more than that." An Israeli consensus of sorts has emerged that Israel 's top five producers are the Golan Heights Winery (owner of Yarden - named for the Jordan River - its premier label), Domaine du Castel, Flam, Margalit and Yatir. They are followed (listed alphabetically) by Amphorae, Barkan, Carmel, Chateau Golan, Clos de Gat, Dalton, Ella Valley, Galil Mountain, Recanati, Saslove, Tishbi and Tzora.

This broad assessment was significantly shaped by Daniel Rogov, wine critic of the newspaper Haaretz. The authoritative book Rogov's Guide to Israeli Wines 2006 (Toby Press, New Milford , Conn. , $19.95) provides an overview of the entire industry. Using the 100-point system, it rates 126 wineries and 1,659 kosher and nonkosher wines, through 2004. Rogov also praises Alexander, Bazalet ha Golan, Bustan, Orna Chillag, Gush Etzion, Gustavo & Jo, Karmei Yosef, La Terra Promessa, Sea Horse, Segal, Tabor and Zauberman.

About 25 wineries sell some bottles in America, but evidently most of the freight comes from Barkan (and Segal, which it owns), Binyamina, Carmel, Dalton, Domaine du Castel, Efrat, Galil Mountain, Golan Heights, Recanati and Tishbi. Wholly nonkosher boutiques have problems making placements because they charge high prices and make small amounts of wine.

Judging from the Israeli wines I taste all year, on a bell curve, the industry's winegrowing summary knowledge-and-insight level has surpassed B.A. and M.A. status and has moved into the Ph.D. zone. As a tuned-in Jewish mother (and a wine aficionado) might say, "Only good can come from this."

The kingpin Golan Heights Winery holds a sizeable majority share in Galil Mountain , a rousingly successful joint venture at Kibbutz Yiron in Upper Galilee . From its inception in 2000, the arrangement has been viewed as a fallback position for the Golan winery in case Syria eventually regains the Heights in a peace treaty. Galil hopes to produce a million bottles this year.

Lewis Pasco, at Recanati, an enterprise financed by and named for one of Israel's richest families, typifies the new breed of winemaker, many from Australia, California and France. He graduated from the University of California at Davis and went on to make wine for Chimney Rock and Marimar Torres in California .

"I want the signature of the grape," Pasco says. "I want people to taste fruit. This comes from my chef background. If a salmon comes to the table and doesn't taste like salmon something is wrong." His first Israeli Barbera (2003) - inviting, soft, with an appealing cola bouquet and flavor - met that definition. So did his luscious, light 2001 Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon, intended for immediate consumption.

It is exactly 30 years since Israel 's wine industry, capitalizing on the spoils of war, soared from its depths on the Mediterranean plain to new heights: the 40-mile-long, 12-mile-wide Golan Heights , with its gently rolling hills and plateaus, and altitudes ranging from 1,200 to 3,600 feet.

The industry entered its modern era in 1976, when the first vines were planted on the Golan, which Israel seized from Syria in the Six-Day War in 1967. Israel consolidated its grip after a second rollback of Syria in the Yom Kippur War in 1973.

The newly founded Golan Heights Winery's 1983 Yarden Sauvignon Blanc reached the Israeli and American markets, both accustomed to sweet sacramental reds, in 1984. Overnight this crisp, fruity, grassy white's dryness and finesse began redefining all Israeli table and kosher wines.

The winery's introductory world-class portfolio immediately challenged Carmel , then a lazy wine-and-spirits giant that had virtually monopolized kosher-wine sales in Israel and abroad. Its merchandising in the American-Jewish market had long coasted on a mishmash of Zionism, economic and political and social support for Israel , sentimentality, generations of brand familiarity, Passover seder requirements and similarity to sweet Manischewitz. Quality? Forget it. American Jews perceived Carmel wines as primarily for sabbath and holiday, not everyday, use.

In the non-Jewish American and European markets, Yarden began competing against all nonkosher premium wines successfully. Yarden and companion labels, Gamla and Golan, proved that the fruits of modern enology could be not only kosher but also dry, sophisticated and affordable.

By its own description "the Gallo of Israel" (3,750 acres under vines, 18 million bottles per year), the mass-market Carmel Winery in 2000 undertook what Adam Montefiore, its director of wine education and public relations, calls "a 180-degree turnaround" - a profound commitment to premium wine. The revolution was embodied by Peter Stern, a non-Jewish California winemaker crucial to Yarden's ascent, who, after 20 years as a consultant to the Golan Heights Winery, joined Carmel .

Lior Laxer, who was professionally educated in Burgundy, worked at Ch teau le Bon Pasteur in Pomerol and at Harman's Ridge Estate at Margaret River, West Australia, and trained with Michel Rolland, Bordeaux's famed "flying winemaker," joined Carmel in 2003 and became chief winemaker in 2005.

Vineyards were planted in the Golan and Upper Galilee and have been managed by Carmel 's own viticulturists. Three boutique wineries dedicated exclusively to A-list wines were built. Those at Ramat Dalton , in Upper Galilee , and at Yatir, in the northeastern Negev (owned 50 percent by Carmel , 50 percent by growers), are near newly important vineyards. The one at Zichron Ya'acov, on the seacoast, was created inside Carmel 's old facility.

Single-vineyard wines (Ramat Arad, Kayoumi, Sha'al, Zarit) were introduced. " Carmel has returned to making wine in the vineyard," Montefiore says. Though still a supermarket-wine producer, " Carmel , the giant commercial winery, has learned to make wine like a boutique," he continues. The quantities of these single-vineyard wines are no more than 10,000 bottles; a garagiste can make more.

Yatir's wines come from grapes grown in the Yatir Forest , in the southern Judean Hills. "In Israel, high-quality wine grapes only grow in the relatively cooler mountain ranges (more then 2,133 feet above sea level)," says Eran Goldwasser, Yatir's winemaker. "These are the northern Golan Heights , Upper Galilee and the Judean Hills. Comparing the Galilee with the Judean Hills, wines made from grapes grown in the latter area tend to have less of the bright, fresh berry-cordial character, with more black cherry-plum, earth and Mediterranean herbs notes. Yatir wines fall in this last category."

Yatir's vineyards are located in the highest, southernmost tip of the Judean Hills, up to 2,953 feet above sea level, just at their seam with the Negev Desert . "This is a relatively cool, arid place with frail, eroded, stony soils, which gives an extra dimension of intensity to the color, aroma and body of the wines made here," Goldwasser says.

Holy Land wine is an ancient story. Biblical references to grapevines and wine abound. The vine is one of seven species praised in the Old Testament (Deuteronomy: 8:8). In the New Testament, Luke sagely observes ( 5:39 ): "No man having drunk old wine immediately desireth new: for he saith, The old is better." >

Modernism's seed was planted in 1882 when the philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild, an owner of Ch teau Lafite in Bordeaux, began helping diaspora Jews returning to Eretz Israel, the Land of Israel, by underwriting agricultural resettlement with an emphasis on viticulture. Rothschild built wineries in Rishon le Zion, south of Tel Aviv, in 1890, and in Zichron Ya'acov, south of Haifa , in 1892. In 1895, the Carmel Wine Company was created to market both wineries' products; in 1900, it opened a New York office. In 1906, Rothschild helped found the Soci t Coop rative Vigneronne des Grandes Caves , a grape-growers' cooperative, which managed both wineries. And in 1957, James Rothschild, Edmond 's son, gave the cooperative both wineries.

The ground beneath Carmel 's dominance began weakening after Cornelius S. Ough, an influential enology professor at UC-Davis, toured the amply irrigated Golan in 1972 and pronounced it particularly suitable for cultivating classical European grapes. The first Golan vineyard was planted in 1976. The Golan Heights Winery was founded in 1983. A corporation, it is owned by four kibbutzim (collective farms) and four moshavim (cooperative farms).

The next major development, in the 1990s, was the advent of boutique and garagiste wineries; rich in pioneering possibilities, they drew young American-, Australian- and French-trained winemakers. Among Israelis, Barry Saslove, a wine educator turned winemaker, and Yair Margalit, a professor of chemistry, who in 1989 established the first significant boutique, are generally credited with inspiring the small-scale-production movement.

For 30 years, international grapes have become dominant. The harvest, usually from August through October, has begun in July and ended in November. In 1995, 31,668 metric tons of grapes were picked; in 2004, tonnage reached 53,468; last year, it dipped to 45,483.

Overall, Israel has 9,500 acres under vine. The key international reds used for table wines are cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petite sirah, pinot noir, sangiovese, syrah and zinfandel. The whites are chardonnay, chenin blanc, gew rztraminer, riesling (and emerald riesling, a California crossing of riesling and muscadelle), muscat canelli, muscat of Alexandria , s millon and sauvignon blanc. Small quantities of pinot blanc and viognier as well as barbera, gamay noir, malbec, nebbiolo, petit verdot, pinotage and tempranillo have been planted in recent years. Such old-guard grapes as carignan and French colombard, the stuff of inexpensive blends, have been de-emphasized.

Grapes are farmed in five regions, whose appellations appear on labels. The export program will entail a review of the delineations of those regions. Montefiore, the export director at the Golan Heights Winery for nearly eleven years and in Carmel 's employ for the last three, says: " Israel 's wine regions were formed in the 1960s, long before the quality boom. It is high time to update them to take into account new vineyards and everything we have learned since then."

The top-quality and fastest-rising region, Galilee (Galil), in the north, extends southward from the Lebanon border. It has 34 percent of the country's vineyards, and its heart consists of the Golan and Upper Galilee subregions; Lower Galilee is also a subregion.

The Golan's high-altitude microclimates, thriving on well-drained volcanic basalt and tuff soils, cool temperatures (partly nurtured by breezes from snowy Mount Hermon) and wide day-to-night temperature swings, sets a viticultural gold standard. So does Upper Galilee , which has some of Israel 's highest mountains and heavy, gravelly and well-drained soils.

In addition to the Golan Heights Winery, Bazelet ha Golan and Chateau Golan are situated in the Heights. The Upper Galilee has supplied grapes for some of the finest wines from Amphorae, Carmel , Dalton , Flam, Galil Mountain , Margalit, Segal, Recanati and Saslove.

Shomron ( Samaria ), south of Galilee , holds 18 percent of Israel 's vineyards. Shomron and, to the south, Samson, are known for cheaper wines. Shomron's best areas are valleys around Zichron Ya'acov. Occupying the coastal plain below Haifa - the Plain of Sharon - Shomron incorporates the north-south-running Carmel mountain range. Its medium-heavy limestone soils are influenced by the Mediterranean climate: summer heat, winter humidity.

Samson (Shimshon), with 37 percent of the nation's vines, is the most-planted region. It comprises the central coastal plain southeast of Tel Aviv and the Judean lowlands and foothills rising to the Jerusalem Mountains . Dan, a subregion, covers the plain; Adulam, another subregion, takes in the Judean foothills areas. The coastal soils are clay-like terra rosa (red earth formed from disintegrated limestone) and sand; the Judean foothills contain limestone, alluvial clay and loam. A sea climate governs: hot, humid summers; warm, mild winters. Clos de Gat, Ella Valley and Tzora wines come from Adulam.

Next, one encounters the Judean Hills region, possibly the No. 2 quality region. With seven percent of Israel 's vineyards, it runs from the mountains north of Jerusalem southward to the Yatir Forest , south of Hebron ; its subregions include the Hebron Hills. Warm days, cool nights and thin, stony soils yield wines of rising reputation. Domaine du Castel lies in the Jerusalem Mountains .

Below that zone is the arid and semi-arid Negev Desert (4 percent of Israel 's vineyards). It contains the superior Ramat Arad vineyard in the northeast, pioneered by Carmel , and the central Negev hills.

Ben-Ami Bravdo, a retired professor of viticulture and enology at the Hebrew University and chief winemaker at Karmei Yosef, in the Judean Mountains , like Victor Schoenfeld, the Golan Heights Winery's chief winemaker, champions advanced technology in the vineyard and cellar as a route to quality.

" Israel is a world leader in irrigation and fertilization through a drip system and is, in fact, the inventor of these technologies, which provide means for controlling vegetative and reproductive (crop-yield) growth at all stages of growth and development," Bravdo says. He helped solve the problem of irrigating vines in the Negev by selecting suitable rootstock and using agricultural techniques that prevent salt in water found by deep drilling from accumulating at the root zone.

At the Golan Heights Winery, vineyard meteorological stations transmit computerized information to a home base in order to amass a database of weather patterns' effects on vines.

No wonder Zelma Long, the international enologist and a consultant to the winery, calls the Heights an "agricultural paradise."No wonder vineyardists in the Galilee , ancient Judean hills and semi-arid Negev believe they are farming little Edens . It is as if Theodor Herzl's visionary 1902 Zionist novel, Altneuland, has become a winegrowing metaphor. The title translates as " Old-New Land ".

A Coming-Out Party

Israelis drink more wine, and more serious wine, than ever before. Consumption is nearly two gallons per person per year, up from nearly one gallon 15 years ago. Israel 's cornucopia of wines, needing further outlets, will soon start reaching all Americans, not just Jews.

Israel 's government and wineries are gearing up to introduce a five-year, multimillion-dollar program promoting Israeli wines across America . Its emphasis will be on all wines, kosher and not.

The Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute's food and beverage division will manage this mainstreaming program for participating wineries; the institute, a nonprofit organization, works with the government and private sector.

Its program also embraces the Israel Wine Institute, which is involved in winemaking research and development and is part of the Ministry of Industry, Trade and Labor, and the Agriculture Ministry's Wine and Grapes Board, which monitors new grape varieties and new vineyards.

Yoav Shoham, an Israeli professor of computer science at Stanford University , has formed a company, Tall Tree that seeks to be a "matchmaker" facilitating the importation and distribution of wines from Israeli wineries lacking "adequate representation" in America . His company, in Palo Alto , California , is to collaborate with the export institute; engage consumers, distributors and retailers; and work with a Web site that sells wine online. "There is no in-principle reason," Shoham says, why the volume of Israeli wine exports cannot approach New Zealand 's $113. 24 million to America in 2005.

That is a large order, because the overall value of Israeli wine exports in 2005 was $13.8 million ($8.01 million in 2001).

In 2005, more than 50 percent of exported Israeli wine went to North America ; more than 30 percent to Western Europe ; the rest to 30-plus countries on five continents. The main importers, in descending order, are the United States , France , the United Kingdom , Germany and Canada .

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