Click Any Section to Learn More:
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.
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 Sabbath-observant 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 in Jerusalem.
The wines from each of the major wineries in the country are kosher. Those from many of the boutique 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.
Israel has 60 commercial wineries, and over 300 boutique wineries specializing in small batches. Global Climate Change due to carbon emissions and other factors will begin to greatly affect Israel's wine industry in the years to come. As global temperatures rise, leading to more spoilage and earlier harvests, Israelis will have to adapt. Israeli scientists are using nets of different densities and color combinations to protect the grape clusters from the sun, and local wildlife.
Israel's wine industry was highlighted on the front cover of the September 2016 edition of Wine Spectator Magazine. This special edition featured interviews with Israeli vintners, lists of top Israeli wines and the best Israeli restaurants to try local flavors, and a brief history of winemaking in Israel. For the story the author reviewed many Israeli wines, including products from the Agur Winery, the Carmel Winery, the Galma Winery, the Margalit Winery, the Gvaot Winery, and the Yatir Forest Winery.
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 wine market.
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 of Katzrin 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.
Three boutique 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.
Sources: Israeli Foreign Ministry and Rogov's Ramblings. Reprinted with permission.
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.