Israel's Wine Awakening
Where Antiquity Merges with The Present
by George Medovoy
George Medovoy is a travel-and-wine columnist. His articles have been featured in the American Wine Society Journal as well as newspapers in the United States.
“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
The novice winemakers discovered that under Ottoman rule, Eretz Israel was an inhospitable backwater plagued by few resources and disease-producing swamps. To their credit, however, they did succeed in establishing new vineyards.
However, 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.
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 – has increased recent harvests.
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, with influences 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 (see Israel's Wine Regions).
The progenitor of modern Israeli winemaking was Baron Edmund de Rothschild, a co-owner of Chateau Lafite. At the end of the 19th century, he sent varietals from southern France and French experts to Eretz Israel, to help Jewish pioneers gain a livelihood. Vineyards were planted in Zichron Ya'akov near the Carmel foothills and in Rishon Le Tzion, south of Tel Aviv.
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. A partnership of Kibbutzim and Moshav cooperative farms, the winery has 15 vineyards on the Golan Heights and one in the Upper Galilee, stretching from near the Sea of Galilee to the foot of snow-capped Mt. Hermon, Israel's popular ski resort. Editor's Note: Golan Heights Winery has also partnered with Kibbutz Yi'ron and established a new winery in the Upper Galilee, the new winery's first wine was released last year.
The Golan Heights 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....”
This northern 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. Golan revolutionized Israeli winemaking by planting international varietals, exercising total control from grape to bottle, and introducing new-world wine-making 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.
Carmel inherited the original Rothschild wineries at Zichron Ya'akov and Rishon Le Zion. Since 1997, the winery 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. 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 and Golan together control over 90 percent of Israeli exports, and along with Barkan, dominate the domestic market.
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! 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, 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.
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.”
Golan Tishbi 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.”
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 they're 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, recently purchased by Barkan.
My visit to the wineries of Israel would not have been complete without recognizing the explosion in boutique wineries. 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.
“I try to make very dark, very heavy wine,” said, winemaker Yair Margalit, “which means it has a high body, a very concentrated flavor, almost always very fruity...like plums, black currants and a 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 is the former owner of a 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.”
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. However, 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