Israel is a ‘new world’ wine country, in one of the oldest wine regions on earth. In this Biblical land, one can find a curious combination of the new, old and ancient world of winemaking in a country no bigger than New Jersey or Wales. Ancient Israel, with roots going back deep into Biblical times, must have been one of the earliest wine producing countries – at least 2,000 years before the Greeks & Romans took the vine to Europe. It took a Rothschild to renew the tradition and create a modern wine industry.
Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of Château Lafite, founded Carmel Winery in 1882 and built two large wineries with deep underground cellars, at Rishon Le Zion and Zichron Ya’acov. Until today, they remain the two largest wineries in Israel. The cuttings were from Château Lafite and the first winemakers of Carmel were from Bordeaux. The initial advice and expertise was French, even the winemaker of Lafite, Charles Mortier, was one of the early consultants.
However in those days the interest in Israeli wine was not great and inexpensive bulk wine or sweet wine was what the market desired. The quality revolution only really arrived in 1980’s, when expertise was brought from California. It was the Golan Heights Winery, which introduced ‘new world’ viticulture and winemaking techniques, and their Yarden wines began be noticed.
In the 1990’s a new awareness of quality food and wine began to spread in Israel. A growing number of small wineries were formed. Most famous of these was Domaine du Castel, which was ‘found’ by Serena Sutcliffe MW, and then by Decanter magazine. The owner, Eli Ben Zaken, taught himself how to make wine from Emile Peynaud’s book on winemaking. Another was Margalit Winery, founded by Dr. Yair Margalit, a chemistry professor. Since the beginning of the 2000’s, wineries of the caliber of Yatir Winery and Clos de Gat were formed. Yatir was a pioneer of a total new region, and Clos de Gat, was Israel’s first true estate winery. Each received international recognition to draw attention to Israeli wines.
Since then, something close to a wine fever has gripped the country. The area of vineyards has increased to 5,500 hectares and there are now 60 commercial wineries and more than 300 wineries in all. The larger wineries are: Carmel, Barkan-Segal, Golan Heights, Teperberg, Tabor, Binyamina, Tishbi, Recanati, Dalton and Galil Mountain. The best of the smaller wineries are Castel, Clos de Gat, Flam, Margalit, Tzora and Yatir. However all this is relative, because Israel is still a tiny wine country, producing even less than Cyprus. The difference though, is the focus is on development and ongoing improvements in quality.
The main quality red wines are made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz. There are also some interesting varietal Cabernet Francs. Characterful Old Vine Carignans and Petite Sirahs give a hint of what Israel may become known for in the future. Also Grenache is being revived and the new Marselan looks very promising. Amongst the whites, apart from Chardonnays and Sauvignon Blancs, there are also Gewurztraminers, Rieslings and Viogniers. These days white wines made from indigenous Holy Land varieties are also creating interest. Look for Dabouki, Marawi, Hamdani and Jandali.
Israel is famed for its agriculture. Drip feed irrigation, which is used worldwide, was an Israeli invention that revolutionized the global agricultural industry. Israel’s viticulturists are technologically advanced and up to date. As an Eastern Mediterranean country, it is not a surprise that the climate is mainly Mediterranean. The country is divided into five registered wine regions: Galilee in the north, Shomron, Samson, Judean Hills and the Negev Desert, in the south. Like many thin countries, there are a surprising number of microclimates in so small an area. The most successful sub-regions for producing high quality wines are those with cooler climate and higher altitude, like the Golan Heights, Upper Galilee and Judean Hills.
Most of Israel’s wineries are modern, technologically advanced and all the major wineries employ internationally trained winemakers, with experience in major wine producing countries.
Lately, sommeliers, retailers and wine critics all over the world, are beginning to show new interest in Israeli wine. They are impressed by the youth, knowledge and dynamism of Israel’s viticulturists and winemakers. Critics are also reporting favourably. When Robert Parker published his 7th Wine Buyer’s Guide, no less than nine pages were devoted to Israel. Recently the Wine Spectator made Israel the cover story for the first time ever!
The Eastern Mediterranean was the cradle of wine culture. Israel, like other countries in the region, reeks of wine through its history, archaeology, culture and religious ritual. It has had 5,000 years of practice, and finally the wines are of good quality, showing regional character and improving. Israel today is arguably producing the best quality wines to be found in the Eastern Medterranean.