Ask some wine drinkers what ‘Israeli wines’ conjure up and many would describe a sweet, sticky concoction served at your average bar mitzvah. Indeed, for the first century-and-a-half of the Holy Land’s rejuvenated wine industry, sweet wines were the hallmark.
But all that has changed. A nation renowned for its innovation and technology, Israel is now the producer of world-class wines that have earned accolades from connoisseurs worldwide.
Today, there are over 300 top shelf wineries in Israel ranging from small family-run boutiques to large winemakers. Israel’s new class of wineries are located throughout the country, from the snow tipped Golan Heights in the north to the sandy regions of the Negev Desert in the south. There are Kibbutz wineries, urban wineries, wineries run by Ultra-Orthodox Jews, Arabs, Christian Monks, nuns… you name it – all for a variety of palates and tastes.
In the 1990’s, wine production, which had been typically 70 % white and 30% red, changed to 60% red and 40% white, to reflect new tastes. International winemakers and consultants arrived to improve the overall quality – suggesting which types of grapes to grow, where to plant the vines and how to craft world-class wines.
It all starts and ends, of course, with the local terroir. From the volcanic soil and black basalt stone of the Golan Heights to the crisp air and plunging slopes of the Upper Galilee to the rugged, misty Judean hills to the dogged vineyards of the Negev Desert, Israeli wines vary in character as much as the country varies in climate.
With the help of some inventive technology, Israeli winemakers has proven supremely skilled at producing several classic varieties: Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, and plenty of blends therein.
Wine lovers the world over are paying attention. Out of 36 million bottles produced annually in Israel, approximately $30 million worth is exported, mainly to the US, UK, Canada, France, Poland, Germany and Holland.
This explosion of increasingly sophisticated wineries has made its mark on international competitions as well. Just this month, the Recanati Cabernet Sauvignon Galilee 2012 topped 18,000 other wines from around the world to make the prestigious Wine Spectator ‘Best Wine of 2014’ list – and this despite the fact that the Recanati, which retails at $17 per bottle, competed with wines valued at well over $100.
Here’s a snapshot of just a few of the unique winemakers and their wineries behind Israel’s wine revolution:
Considered a world expert in oenology and viticulture, Professor Ben-Ami Bravdo of Hebrew University has taken his experience from the lecture hall to the vineyard. In 2001, together with biochemistry Professor Oded Shoseyov, he founded the Karmei Yosef Winery located at the foothills of Jerusalem. Featuring his signature series “Bravdo wines” (whose Shiraz won Gold Medal in the 2012 World Wine Championship in Chicago), this enterprise is unique in its use of ancient grape growing techniques and sites combined with cutting-edge Israeli science. “The Karmei Yosef vineyard is like my own personal research lab,” says Bravdo.
Yair Margalit is also a chemist turned winemaker. His Margalit Winery is credited by many with helping ferment the boutique wine craze in Israel. Specializing in red Bordeaux blends, Margalit is one of four Israeli wineries to score above 90 in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate (along with Clos de Gat, Yatir and… Domaine Du Castel)
Domaine Du Castel itself was founded in 1983 by Egyptian-born, British-educated Eli Ben-Zaken, who had a dream of making wine in the ancient Land of Israel. His goal was simple– to make wines among the world’s best.
A few other notable Israeli wines to snatch off the shelves:
Flam – Nestled in the lower Judean Hills, the Flam Winery is located between the Kisalon river and the Kdoshim forest. The winery operates in the classic European Family Estate model.
Chateau Golan– Château Golan combines European traditions with modern know-how and technology to produce some of Israel’s most acclaimed vintages.
Bat Shlomo Vineyards Founded by hi-tech entrepreneur Eli Wurtman, whose pioneering spirit led him to replant the vineyards of Bat Shlomo, originally farmed in the 1800’s with the generous help of the great benefactor Baron Edmond de Rothschild. The wine is named after Baroness Betty Salomon de Rothschild, the Baron’s mother, a famous beauty and one of the foremost patrons of the arts in 19th century Paris.
Sea Horse Winery– Located on a farm just southwest of Jerusalem, Sea Horse has been growing organic Syrah and Zinfandel grapes since 2000. The Syrah and Zinfandel wines are named after famous figures such as Gaudi, Camus, Fellini and Lennon.
Though these and many other Israeli wines may be new to the list of the world’s most drinkable libations, winemaking is certainly nothing new to the area. Indeed, there are many references to wine and winemaking throughout the Bible, and the ancient land of Canaan – as the Holy Land was known – is in fact one of the earliest to cultivate wine, over 2,000 years before the vine reached Europe.
Recent archeological discoveries in northern Israel indicate that wine has been produced in the region for at least 4,000 years. Chemical analysis of the ancient clay jars discovered there reveals traces of honey, terebinth resin, cedar oil, juniper and possibly mint, myrtle and cinnamon, all added to the early winemakers’ mix.
Though the ancient technique of crushing grapes by foot has gone out of vogue, Israel’s modern vintners are making sure that the tradition of excellent Mediterranean wine production gets better every year.
Get a taste of many of these Israeli vintages and more at the upcoming Kosher Food & Wine Experience Feb. 9th at the Metropolitan Pavilion in New York City.