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Israel's Wine Awakening: Where Antiquity Merges with the Present

By George Medovoy, Editor of

"And behold this vine...was planted in a good soil by great waters that it may bring forth branches and that it may bear fruit, that it might be a goodly vine."
-- Ezekiel, 17.7

Golan Tishbi of Tishbi Estate Winery speaks passionately about the unfolding drama of Israel's wine awakening.

It was wonderful, he told me at the family winery near the southern foothills of the Carmel Mountains, "to cultivate the land and cultivate our vines."

"And no doubt about it," he added firmly, "we can compete with the rest of the world in producing high-quality wines...."

And why not, I asked myself, in the oldest wine producing region of the world? Here antiquity merges with the present, as in marketing posters that remind consumers: "Blessed will be Noah, the first of the winemakers."

Archaeological Evidence of Early Winemaking

Archaeological evidence of early winemaking dots the countryside – like a 4th-century Byzantine wine inscription behind the Tishbi winery, or the restored Roman cardo (a business street), in seaside Caesarea, where merchants traded wine and oil from the Mediterranean basin – and where today, Caesarea Cellars hosts "Wine Journey," a short course on wine appreciation served with live jazz, continental cuisine, and a Merlot-Cabernet blend from French oak barrels.

The progenitor of modern Israeli winemaking, Baron Edmund de Rothschild, a co-owner of Chateau Lafite, sent south-of-France varietals and French experts to Palestine at the end of the 19th century to help Jewish pioneers gain a livelihood by planting vineyards in Zichron Ya'akov near the Carmel foothills and in Rishon Le Tzion south of Tel Aviv.

The novice winemakers discovered that Ottoman Palestine was an inhospitable backwater plagued by few resources and disease-producing swamps. To their credit, however, they did succeed in establishing new vineyards.

But it wasn't until the 1980s that Israel's modern wine industry came of age – thanks to California technology, Israeli high-tech farming, and adventurous young winemakers.

Adam Montefiore, the international marketing director of the leading Golan Heights Winery, remembers the dramatic changes well: "There was nothing around us," he told me outside Golan's California-style winery, "no good wine, no good food, and suddenly we're in a big boom for food and wine, and there's now newspapers in Hebrew about wine, there's fancy wine lists in restaurants, there's wine shops, there's a new interest in wine."

New Plantings and New Wineries

In recent years, there's been a major burst of investment in large new wineries and an explosion of boutique wineries. New plantings of quality grapes, mainly Cabernet and Merlot in the cool Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights – Israel's best growing areas – pushed the 1999 harvest up 30 percent over 1998.

The country grows a versatile mix of grapes, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc. Its wines have won major international prizes, as have its sparkling wines and dessert wines – all part of a growing reputation for high-quality California-style varietals, but with influences as well from France, South Africa and Australia.

At the same time, the wineries are producing arguably the biggest variety of quality kosher wines in the world Geographically about the size of New Jersey and slightly bigger in population than New Zealand, Israel supports a remarkably diverse set of microclimates and wine regions.

Israel's Wine Regions

The Galilee Region runs north from Nazareth all the way to the Lebanese border, including Lower and Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights. Hilly and mountainous, the Upper Galilee rises to 2,400 feet, while the Golan, a basalt plateau, reaches 3,600 feet. In the summer, the region has marked temperature differences between day and night, and in the winter – snow in the higher elevations!

The Upper Galilee and the central Golan are well suited to Cabernet and Merlot; the northern Golan to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.
The Shomron Region covers the foothills of the Carmel mountains south of Haifa, including the quaint village of Zichron Ya'akov, ("in remembrance of Jacob"), a name coined by Rothschild in honor of his father.

An area of gentle slopes, low hills and wide valleys, the region has a classic Mediterranean climate with warm summers and cool, relatively humid winters. The Tishbi family vineyards are located here, as are some belonging to the Carmel cooperative, Israel's largest winery.

The sea is discernible from the red-tiled rooftops of Zichron Ya'akov, where young emigres from urban Tel Aviv and Haifa have discovered a charming, rustic setting to call home.

The Samson Region, which includes the coastal plain southeast of Tel Aviv and the rolling hills on the way to Jerusalem, exhibits gentle slopes and wide valleys with a coastal-Mediterranean climate of warm, humid summers and mild winters. This is Israel's largest wine region, with many of Carmel's vineyards and those of Barkan, another large winery.

In the Judean Hills Region, which stretches southward from Jerusalem to the Hebron Hills, the mountainous terrain limits growing to terraces, narrow valleys and steep slopes. Winters are mild to cool, summer is dry and warm, and there are marked day and night temperature differences.

The Negev Desert Region, though limited in its potential, has seen some success with Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon in the northern Negev hills at Ramat Arad, with drip irrigation. The Negev has very hot summers with contrasting day and night temperatures. Flash flooding can occur in winter.

Golan Heights Winery

I began my visit at the Golan Heights Winery, high above the Sea of Galilee in the little town of Katzrin, the winery's home base. (Israel captured the Golan Heights from Syria in the Six Day War). A partnership of eight kibbutz and moshav cooperative farms, the winery has 11 vineyards on the Golan Heights and four in the Upper Galilee, from near the Sea of Galilee to the foot of snow-capped Mt. Hermon, Israel's popular ski resort.

The Golan itself has a mix of "mini-climates" conducive to growing different varieties of grapes. For example, at Kibbutz Ein Zivan, located 2,700 feet up on the eastern slope of an extinct volcano, there's snow in winter and an annual precipitation of 36 inches. In other parts of the Golan, the broad expanse of vineyards is touched by foggy mornings and cool, afternoon breezes, with as much as 40 inches of annual rainfall.

Ironically, things have always been quiet on the Golan, even though some of the vineyards are planted right up against the armistice lines. And in spite of the political uncertainties, the winery continues to grow, recently investing $2.5 million in infrastructure improvements.

It is also building a second facility in the Upper Galilee on the border with Lebanon. Noted Golan CEO Shalom Blayer: "We have been pioneers on the Golan and created a new quality wine growing region here. Now we want to do the same in the Galilee."

The winery has strong links to California. Two of its earliest advisers were Prof. Cornelius Ough of the UC Davis Viticulture and Enology Dept. and Peter Stern, the Saratoga-based international wine consultant.

"Our expertise came from California," said winemaker Victor Schoenfeld, a Davis grad who worked at Mondavi. "The winery physically looks more like a California winery than a European one, our technological level more closely resembles California wineries...."

The winery sets the standard against which all other Israeli wines are measured. It is the only winery in the world to win the Grand Prix d'Honneur at Vinexpo for three years running and last year joined 200 other top world wineries at the New York Wine Experience – the first time ever for an Israeli winery.

Leading the Way

Golan revolutionized Israeli winemaking by planting international varietals, exercising total control from grape to bottle, and introducing new-world winemaking techniques with state-of-the-art equipment. Its technological level, unknown in the eastern Mediterranean, uses meteorological stations in each vineyard to generate computerized climatic reports of incredible sophistication.

Golan's three labels are Yarden, Hebrew for the Jordan River; Gamla, the name of a Golan town of archaeological and historic interest that put up lengthy resistance against Roman attacks 2,000 years ago; and Golan.

I was impressed by the Yarden Katzrin, Golan's Reserve label representing the best in Israel, a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc, which was made only three times in the 90s and sells for $60 a bottle.

Two of my other favorites were the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon (best years 93 and 96), and the Chardonnay. The first has intense cassis, blackberry and plum notes, is full-bodied, dark red and concentrated, and layered with rich oak and vanilla notes with a finish that is long, tasty and complex. The Chardonnay displays ripe pineapple and pear fruit with hints of butter; it is full-bodied with a long oak and fruit finish, fermented in French oak with seven months of surlie aging, and comes from the highest and coolest vineyards on the northern Golan.

From the Golan Heights, I overnighted on the roof of Mt. Canaan in the Upper Galilee artist village of Safed, where the Jewish mystical tradition known as kabbalah resonates with wine wisdom. "The sages speak about wine that settles one's consciousness," said David Freedman, a Safed religious artist and Denver native, "and that's seen as a positive kind of thing."

Dalton Winery Near Safed

Reflective images of wine pervade the Upper Galilee, as I learned at Dalton Winery, 20 minutes north of Safed in the lovely green mountains of Kerem Ben Zimra, whose name in Hebrew means ‘Song of the Vineyard.'

But beyond this obvious wine symbolism, Kerem Ben Zimra is also causing a stir in Israeli winemaking due to its excellent growing location: the area sits on a 2,400-foot-high basalt plateau, with warm days, cool summer nights, and occasional winter snow.

Established in 1995, Dalton is a carbon copy of modern Israel – "one big melting pot," as marketing director Richard Haruni described it – a partnership between farmer Armand Maman, whose family settled here from Morocco in the early 1950s and planted apple orchards, and British businessman Mat Haruni. The winemakers are Russian immigrant Arkady Papikian, a jovial fellow speaking Russian-accented Hebrew; a French assistant; and a flying Australian consultant, John Worontschak.

"Our aim at Dalton," said Richard Haruni, "is to make the best wine we can with the best fruit available in Israel. We're working hard. Each year we learn more and more, and we're making better wines."

The winery uses French and American oak and is experimenting with Hungarian oak. "We're not using the Hungarian oak for our main wines," Haruni said. "We used it for a small amount last year, and we'll see how it turns out. We're not old enough to be stuck in our ways."

Dalton is producing lovely Chardonnay with a full-bodied fruitiness that is fruitier than its European cousin and develops nicely after barreling; an excellent Merlot; and a promising Cabernet Sauvignon. Its Sauvignon Blanc is also somewhat fruitier than others due to Israel's warmer climate.

I found its oak-aged 97 Sauvignon Blanc Fume very fruity with hints of apple and cantaloupe. Its 97 Merlot, aged 24 months in French and American barrels, had a robust taste of black currants and strawberries.

Like other Israeli wineries, Dalton devotes time to wine education and is planning a tourist center and a holiday village. "If people are going to spend $20 on a bottle of wine," noted Haruni, "they should know what they're getting for $20. They should not buy it because someone said it's famous or someone said it's this or that. They should understand it themselves."

In a country as small as Israel, winemakers form a tight-knit fraternity, so it wasn't surprising that ‘Shiki' Rauchberger, one of the winemakers at Carmel, met me in the middle of a tasting at Dalton.

Rauchberger had arrived at the appointed time to pick me up for a visit to Carmel's new Upper Galilee vineyards, but before I could say hello, Papikian was giving Rauchberger a big bear hug. The two had worked together at Carmel.

Rauchberger and I eventually joined Gil Nir of Carmel's agricultural department for the half-hour drive to the Kadesh Valley, where Carmel is growing Cabernet Sauvignon.

Carmel's Vineyards in the Kadesh Valley

We traveled along bumpy roads through twisting canyons and deciduous orchards north of the Sea of Galilee that bear a strange resemblance to Northern California. Except for a stray cow, we seemed to be the only living beings in an area where Deborah gathered her army to destroy the Canaanites.

At the vineyards, a cool breeze wafted across rows of Cabernet Sauvignon planted in a two-tiered Australian trellis system right up to the Lebanese border.

"Good winemaking begins in the vineyards," noted Rauchberger, who worked the 1993 Baron Herzog harvest in San Martin, Calif., while a student at UC Davis. "Our target is really to get a very high-quality product."

In a further pursuit of quality, Carmel is also establishing a boutique winery for Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon at the opposite end of the country at Ramat Arad in the south.

Carmel inherited the original Rothschild wineries at Zichron Ya'akov and Rishon Le Zion, and since 1997, has spent $6 million to improve the quality of its fruit. It also does its share of popularizing wine culture by operating "Best Cellars," where I joined Israelis in one of the original Zichron Ya'akov wine cellars for a night of spirited Hebrew songs, dinner, and Carmel wine.

I enjoyed Carmel's Private Collection Emerald Riesling Tabor 1998, made from California root stock with an aromatic nose of fruity Muscat and tart orchard fruit flavors. The grapes for this wine were grown on the slopes of Mt. Tabor, a round protrusion in the green Jezreel Valley regarded as the traditional site of the Transfiguration.

Carmel and Golan together control over 90 percent of Israeli exports, and along with Barkan, dominate the domestic market. Barkan's winemaker, Ed Salzburg, is also UC Davis-trained. Its Cabernet has won gold medals at Vinexpo.

A Visit to the Tishbi Winery

I was soon back along the coast, as the red-and-blue Israel Railways train passed me on its northerly run to the port of Haifa. My objective: head south to the Tishbi Estate Winery near the Carmel mountains.

Father and son Jonathan and Golan Tishbi greeted me outside their ranch-style tasting room. Shades of California, I whispered, everything had the look of a Napa Valley winery!

But that's as far as it went, for on a hillside about 200 yards away was the garden tomb of Baron de Rothschild. In an ironic twist, I learned, one of the early vineyard growers Rothschild had helped was Simcha Tishbi, Golan's great-grandfather.

Jonathan Tishbi had been a grower for the Carmel cooperative, but in 1985 he struck out on his own with advice from Sydney Back of Backsberg Winery in South Africa. The winemaker is Louis Pasco, another UC Davis grad who is also a qualified chef!

Among Tishbi's best wines are whites that come off the southern Carmel Mountains, including its Sauvignon Blanc, softer and less aromatic than other international styles, and a wonderfully oaky Chardonnay.

The Jonathan Tishbi Chardonnay, 30 percent matured in U.S. oak, is slightly buttery, with hints of pineapple and peach flavors. It won a gold medal at Vinexpo. The 98 Sauvignon Blanc is full of tropical fruit flavors with a youthful aroma of guava.

In the cozy visitor center, where customers made healthy purchases of wine, Golan Tishbi noted refreshingly that visitors should "enjoy wine freely."

"When they ask me what kind of wine it is," he said, "they rarely get an answer. They've got to taste it and see if they like it first. This is for me a natural way of educating people – to enjoy wine freely, no labels, no awards, although I have awards to show.

"I don't recommend award-winning wines. I would appreciate it if people would buy the wine not because of its label. You know how much salt you like in your salad, you know how much olive oil, you know how much black pepper you need, and this is the way to drink wine: you adjust it to yourself and your companionship."

In a daring move that will interest winemakers in hot regions everywhere, Tishbi is also growing Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay grapes with good results at Kibbutz Sde Boker deep in the Negev Desert. The winery also hopes to experiment there using brackish water on two salt-tolerant stocks, Salt Creek and Ruggeri.

A number of other medium-sized wineries are making an effort to improve quality, including Binyamina, which originated as a Rothschild perfume factory; Efrat, Israel's oldest winery established in 1870; and Segal, a family winery and distillery.

Margalit and Domaine du Castel Wineries

My visit to the wineries of Israel would not have been complete without recognizing the explosion in boutique wineries – at least 20 to date. Everyone seems to be getting into the act, a sign of Israel's growing wine awareness. Two boutiques worthy of mention are Margalit and Domaine du Castel.

Margalit is headquartered in a very small building overgrown with orange and purple bougainvillea in the middle of a grapefruit grove in Hadera, a coastal town north of Tel Aviv.

Yair Margalit, a chemist by profession, produces 20,000 bottles a year with his son Assaf. Their main varieties are Upper Galilee Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

"I try to make very dark, very heavy wine," Margalit said, "which means it has a high body, a very concentrated flavor, almost always very fruity... like plums, black currants and long after-taste."

Margalit studied chemistry at UC Davis, but got hooked on winemaking after attending wine department lectures there. He has also authored books on small wineries and wine chemistry published by the Wine Appreciation Guild of San Francisco.

"The climate of Israel is very suitable to growing good red grapes," he said, "because we have a lot of sun, we don't have clouds in the summer, and in certain places we have very cool winters and moderate summers – really great for growing red grapes. So I think Israel makes very good wine, and there is no reason why Israel should not be in the world markets."

From Margalit, I turned eastward for Domaine du Castel Winery, which is gaining strong notice for its reds. Tucked away in the Judean Hills 10 miles west of Jerusalem at an altitude of 2,400 feet, Castel is a family winery run by self-taught Eli G. Ben-Zaken, who owns Mama Mia, Jerusalem's popular Italian eatery; his son Ariel, who studied winemaking in Burgundy; and son-in-law Arnon Geva.
Ben Zaken is enamored of what he calls French-style wines, so it makes sense that the name of his winery should bear a French imprint. He described his wines as "very French and very classic."

"These are fine wines, delicate and silky," he said, "deep with layers of fruit, with a good aftertaste, which make them an excellent complement to good cuisine. Wine must not compete with food, it must complement it – enhance its taste."

Until now, Castel has purchased grapes from local growers, but its 33 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot should be ready for harvest this year. Its Castel Grand Vin 97 is an elegant, subtle and delicate blend of Cabernet and Merlot with soft tannins and very well-integrated oak.

Other boutique wineries of interest are Meron in the Upper Galilee and two others – one at Kibbutz Tzora, and another at the Latrun Monastery in the Valley of Ayalon in central Israel, where 3,500 years ago, tradition has it, Joshua made the sun stand still.

There is no doubt that part of the appeal of Israel's wine story is its exotic, rich history. But the real story today, in its vineyards and its wineries, is the quest for quality, which makes Israel arguably the most progressive wine country in the whole of the eastern Mediterranean.

As Adam Montefiore noted: "We like to stress Israel's story, which makes the wine even more intriguing. But the first objective is for quality. Anyone who tastes our wine will say, ‘Wow, I didn't know you could make wine like that in Israel.'"

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