Many years ago, after the
Hebrews left ancient Egypt
and were approaching Canaan,
sent twelve spies ahead to explore the Promised
Land. When they returned, two of the spies
were bearing a single cluster of grapes so
large that they had to carry it between two
has been made in Israel
since at least Biblical times but until recently, there was
no reason to be proud of it. The wines shipped to ancient
Egypt were so bad that they had to be seasoned with honey,
pepper and juniper berries to make them palatable, and those
sent to Rome and England
in the Roman period
were so thick and sweet that no modern connoisseur would
possibly have approved of them. So bad were most of these
wines that it was probably a good thing that the Muslim
conquest in 636 imposed at least an official 1,200 year
halt to local wine production.
In 1870, when Jews began
to produce wine again with the aid of Baron
Edmond de Rothschild, most of the wine
that was produced was red, sweet, unsophisticated
and unappealing. In 1875, then British Prime
Disraeli was given a bottle of kosher
red wine from Palestine. After taking a few
sips, he observed that it tasted "not
so much like wine but more like what I expect
to receive from my doctor as a remedy for
a bad winter cough". Well into the 1960s,
Israel justifiably suffered from a reputation
of producing wines too sweet and too coarse
to appeal to connoisseurs.
Sophisticated wine lovers
in and outside of Israel know that Israeli
wineries have now risen out of the morass
of cheap, cloyingly sweet wines that burn
the throat and bring tears to the eyes. As
wine writer Oz Clarke said, "Israel is
now on the world wine map", and many
local dry red and white wines are as good
as some of the fine wines of California, Australia
and others of the so-called "new-world"
wine-producing countries. In fact, some Israeli
wines are so good that they are compared favorably
to the wines of the respected chateaux of
Sometimes fruity, on occasion crisply dry,
and often with excellent balance, body and
bouquet, Israeli wines are now perceived as
an integral and important part of dining out.
Some speculate that the demand for more sophisticated
wines within Israel came about as more and
more Israelis traveled abroad, especially
in Europe, and came to realize that wine had
more than mere ceremonial value. It is probably
equally accurate to say that Israelis began
to demand better wines when they were exposed
to the wines of the Golan Heights Winery,
which opened in 1983. Not bound to either
outdated winemaking traditions or a large,
corporate structure, the young winery imported
good vine stock from California, built a state-of-the-art
winery, and added to this the enthusiasm and
knowledge of young American winemakers who
had been trained at the University of California
Equally important, the Golan winery began
to encourage vineyard owners to improve the
quality of their grapes and, in the American
tradition, paid bonuses for grapes with high
sugar and acid content and rejected those
which they perceived as substandard. The winery
was also the first to realize that wines made
from Grenache, Semillon, Petit Sirah and Carignan
grapes would not put them on the world wine
map and focused on planting and making wines
from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon
Blanc, Chardonnay, Pinot Noir, white Riesling
The Golan wines were a success
from the beginning; their second wine, a Cabernet
Sauvignon from the 1984 vintage, won a gold
medal at the International Wine and Spirit
Competition. In fact, at this writing, the
winery is the only one in the world to have
been awarded the Chairman's Award for Excellence
at Vinexpo on three separate occasions. The
winery, which is owned by the kibbutzim
and other cooperative farms that supply the
grapes, now produces over 4.5 million bottles
every year, and is currently increasing their
output by about 20% annually.
Many other wineries have made major steps
forward in improving the quality of their
wines. There are now six major wineries and
a rapidly growing host of boutique wineries
in the country, many of which are producing
wines that are of high quality, and a few
even producing wines good enough to interest
connoisseurs and wine lovers throughout the
There is no contradiction whatever between
the laws of kashrut
and the ability to produce truly fine wine.
For an Israeli wine to be certified as kosher, several requirements
must be met. In the fields, for example, the grapes of new
vines cannot be used for making wine until the fourth year
after planting. From then on, the fields must be left fallow
every seventh year. It is also required that vegetables or
other fruits not be grown between the vines.
Once the harvest starts, only kosher tools and storage facilities
may be used in the wine-making process, and all of the wine-making
equipment must be cleaned to be certain that no foreign objects
remain in the equipment or vats. Equally important, only
male Jews are allowed to work in the production. Because
most of the senior winemakers in the country are not Orthodox
or Sabbath observant, they cannot personally handle the equipment
or the wine as it is being made. Depending on the level of
orthodoxy of those purchasing the wines, some wines must
also be flash pasteurized, and there is a ritual in which
just over 1% of the wine produced is poured away to symbolize
the tithe once paid to the Temple
The wines from each of the major
wineries in the country are kosher. Those from many of
wineries are not. Those concerned with such issues will
find whatever information they need on the front and rear
labels of the wines on sale throughout the country.
The Golan Heights Winery: Now in
its 16th year of production, this excellent winery releases
wines in three major series: "Yarden", "Gamla"
and "Golan". The wines in the Yarden series are
considered the most prestigious. Regardless of the series,
this winery produces some excellent reds and whites. During
vintage years (considered exceptional), the winery has released
wines in the "Katzrin" series (red Bordeaux style
blends in 1990, 1993 and 1996 and Chardonnays in 1995, 1996
and 1997). The most serious and more full-bodied of the reds
are the Cabernet Sauvignon and the Merlot. The reds known
as "Har Hermon Adom" and "Golan Village"
are fruitier and meant to be consumed younger. The most notable
whites are the Chardonnay and the Sauvignon Blanc, both of
which are crisply dry and make for excellent drinking, and
the Emerald Riesling which is semi-dry. Also worthy of note
are two sparkling wines, "Blanc de Blanc" and "Brut",
both of which are made according to the traditional method
of making Champagne, and two dessert wines, "Late Harvest
Sauvignon Blanc" and "Muscat", neither of
which need make an apology for their smooth, rich sweetness.
The Carmel-Mizrachi Winery: By far the largest wine
producer in the country, currently producing in excess of
13 million bottles annually, and now in their 115th year,
Carmel produces three series that will be of interest to
sophisticated drinkers. The most prestigious and often best
wines of Carmel are those in the "Private Collection"
series. Included among these are some high quality Cabernet
Sauvignons, Merlot, Sauvignon Blancs, Chardonnay and Emerald
Rieslings. The less expensive "Selected" series
offers wines of the same varietals as well as a red Petit
Sirah and whites such as Chenin Blanc and French Colombard.
In the "Vineyard" series one finds, among others,
Dry Muscat, an especially pleasing crisply dry but remarkably
fruity white. The winery also produces a Sparkling Chardonnay,
a white Muscat based sweet dessert wine and "Hiluleem"
- young, fun and fruity red and white wines that are always
among the first wines to appear after the grape harvest.
Segal Wineries: For six generations, this winery was in
control of the Segal family. Recently sold, but with several
members of the family still involved in the grape growing
and wine-making procedures, the winery is currently expanding
by planting major vineyards in some of the best areas of
the Upper Galilee. The winery now produces wines in three
major series: "Ben-Ami", "The Wine of Segal"
and a "Mediterranean Series". With the exception
of a Cabernet Sauvignon and a dry Riesling, most of the wines
of this winery have blends, some of which attain surprising
levels of sophistication, but with the new vineyards nearly
ready to produce and a new winery in the planning stages,
there is reason to expect an increasing number of high quality
varietal wines from Segal.
Barkan Wineries: This winery, now the second largest
in the country, is increasing its sophistication every year
and now produces interesting wines in both the "Barkan"
and "Reserved" series. Their semi dry Emerald Riesling
is often the best wine of this varietal produced in the country
and their Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Merlot and Cabernet
Sauvignon are worth sampling.
Baron Wineries (also known as Tishby Winery): This
relatively small but growing and respected winery gives us
wines in three series. The top series is "Tishby Reserved",
followed by "The Cellar of Tishby" and "Baron".
Until recently, the winery has been strongest in white wines
such as Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Emerald Riesling,
but lately has been producing Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots
of increasing quality and interest. The winery also makes
"Brut", a sparkling wine of great charm.
Binyamina Wineries: This winery has undergone a major
transformation in recent years. When known as "Eliaz",
it produced wines that had little interest to knowledgeable
drinkers but now, with changes in both name and image, they
have acquired a new winemaker and modern equipment and have
begun to buy higher quality grapes. The first wines from
the new winery came from the 1994 harvest, and though these
were not overly sophisticated, they made a quantum leap in
quality above wines of earlier years. Since then, the wines
have taken a step forward in quality every year and now compete
nicely with other local wines.
Ephrat Winery: For many years, this winery specialized
in wines primarily targeted at the orthodox population market.
With new equipment now installed and a new winemaker assigned
especially to produce a series of dry, high quality varietal
wines, the winery is working towards breaking into the expanding
Dalton Wineries: Truly "the new kid on the block".
Now located in a new winery, with grapes coming from several
of the very best vineyards in the country, the wines of this
4-year-old family-owned winery are improving from year to
year. Producing varietal wines from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot,
Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc (including a Sauvignon Fumé),
these are wines definitely worth sampling.
Much to the dismay of the wine industry,
between the founding
of the State in 1948 and until just five years ago, annual
Israeli wine consumption
remained at about 3.9 liters per capita. Compared to the
60 liter plus consumption of the French, Italians and Spanish,
this was rather low. Nor did it compare well with the 11
liter figure of the United States.
Happily, things are changing, and as Israelis become more
aware of the culture of wine, figures have risen to between
6-6.5 liters. While this remains low, it seems that more
and more Israelis share a growing appreciation of high quality
wine. Like the rest of the world, Israelis are moving from
semi-dry to dry wines, from whites to reds, from light to
heavy and, most important, are moving towards higher quality
wines. Twenty-five years ago, more than 80% of the wines
produced in the country were sweet. Today, with more than
7,500 acres devoted to wine-producing grapes with about 50,000
tons of grapes annually, nearly 80% of the wines produced
are now dry whites and reds.
Equally important, Israelis are also drinking
an increasing number of wines from abroad and wines from
France, Italy, Australia, California and Washington State,
Chile and Argentina are as readily available as are Israeli
wines. Some see the increase in popularity of imported
wines as having a negative impact on local wineries. Wiser
consumers realize that these imported wines simply pose a
challenge to the Israeli wine industry to continue to improve
the quality of their own wines. Best of all, within Israel
wine is not associated with alcoholism, and the vast majority
of those who enjoy wine drink in moderation, almost invariably
with meals and in the company of friends.
A large number of Israeli
wineries are open to the public and increasingly popular
wine-routes are developing throughout the country. Among
the country's larger wineries, those of Carmel-Mizrachi,
the Golan Heights
and Binyamina are especially well equipped to greet visitors.
So popular is the activity that more than 100,000 tourists
now visit the Carmel winery in Rishon
Lezion every year. Carmel, which invested $1.2 million
to reconstruct their old cellars, build old-style tasting
rooms, train guides and remodel the buildings originally
built by Baron
Edmond de Rothschild 115 years ago, has ensured that
tours of their wineries will be at least as pleasing as those
that one might take in France or California.
Tours start off in a well designed reception
hall, continue to the cellars where visitors can see brandies
and wines aging in oak casks, and then go on to a tasting.
Multimedia audio-visual displays trace the history of the
winery and the wine-making process, guides are equipped to
answer all questions and each group of visitors is treated
to a guided wine-tasting session. Time is also allowed for
those who wish to purchase wines. Tours at the Carmel wineries
in both Rishon Lezion and Zichron
Ya'akov charge a symbolic fee and are conducted during
the daytime hours, and in the evenings groups or individuals
may also visit the winery's popular wine and singing club.
For further information and reservations, phone (03) 966-8379.
The Golan Heights Winery, near the town
on the Golan Heights,
also has excellent facilities for visitors. Tours of the
winery start at the comfortable visitors' reception center
with a welcoming talk and an audio-visual display. The tours
continue with a stroll through the ultra-modern facilities
following the entire wine-making process, and end with a
tasting and the opportunity to make purchases. During the
spring, summer and early autumn, tours are conducted on a
regular basis from 8 a.m. - 6 p.m., and during the winter
months, until 4 p.m. A nominal charge is made for the tours
and the winery suggests phoning in advance of one's visit
to (06) 696-8420.
Located in the charmingly rural area of
Binyamina, the visitors' center of Binyamina Wineries is
also worth a visit. In a fully remodeled country-style building,
the program here includes a stroll around the winery, a brief
talk by a guide, an audio-visual explanation of the wine-making
process, and a wine and cheese tasting. Of special interest
is an exhibit relating to the 6,000 year old relationship
between wine and Judaism.
A symbolic charge is made for the tour, which is available
from 8 a.m. - 5 p.m. During the evenings, wine courses are
offered by the winery's winemaker, and the center is available
for private events and tastings. For reservations or further
information, phone the winery at (06) 638-8643.
wineries, Tzor'a, Soreq and Saslove, also offer opportunities
for visitors. These wineries have small delicatessens attached,
and in addition to guided tours of their mini-wineries, also
have picnic facilities. All offer tastings and some offer
wine courses. For information, phone Tzor'a at (02) 990-8261,
Soreq at (08) 934-0542 and Saslove at (09) 749-2697.
Daniel Rogov is the restaurant and wine critic for the daily newspaper Ha'aretz. He is also the senior writer for Wine and Gourmet Magazine and contributes culinary and wine articles to newspapers in Europe and the United States.