Many years ago, after the Hebrews left ancient Egypt and were approaching Canaan, Moses 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 poles.
Wine 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 Minister Benjamin 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 France. 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 at Davis.
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 and Gewürztraminer.
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 world.
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.
Source: Israeli Foreign Ministry and Rogov's Ramblings. Reprinted with permission.