“A Katyusha rocket will take out forty vines.” That is just one of the hazards Avi Feldstein, winemaker for Israel’s Segal wines, has to deal with — along with the deer, wild boar and grouse that devour his grapes.
We are standing in the Dovev vineyard, in the Upper Galilee, within sight of a former Hezbollah outpost. To the north, the Lebanese border. Until 2006 Feldstein had to be accompanied by Israeli soldiers whenever he went to tend to his mountaintop vineyard. Ten years ago, he carved out twenty-four hectares of shallow terra rossa soil — the rockiest vineyard in the north of the country — and planted it with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Sangiovese, Ruby Cabernet, Chardonnay and Muscat of Alexandria.
“I believe that Merlot in Israel, in such a Spartan place, can give great results,” he says. “When I come close to this vineyard my heart is singing. It has really grown from nothing.”
Feldstein also champions a grape called Argaman that he says could be a signature variety, if grown properly. Argaman (the Hebrew word for “purple”) is a cross between the Portuguese Souzao and Carignan, a vigorous, high-yielding grape that can produce fifty tonnes per acre. If rigorously cropped, Feldstein claims, it could produce a quality wine. Daniel Rogov, Israel’s leading wine critic, doesn’t share that opinion. In reviewing experimental wines produced by the Israeli Wine Institute, Rogov wrote the following about a non-vintage Argaman: “A wine that fails in every way. So watery that even the deep colour that typifies this wine is lacking and with flavours that are flat and border on sour, this is a wine that fails in every way. Score 60 (out of 100).” Obviously it was over-cropped.
Daniel Rogov, who’s not unlike the food critic in the movie Ratatouille, publishes an annual Guide to Israeli Wines. The 2008 edition contains reviews of 1,600 wines from some 150 wineries. It’s already a little dated, though, because Israel now boasts over 200 wineries in a country with a population that numbers half of Ontario’s.
Rogov has witnessed the blossoming of the wine industry. He recalls receiving a bottle of Golan Heights Winery Sauvignon Blanc 1984. “I tasted it and all the red lights started flashing in the brain. I thought, no, this new winery is playing tricks. Nobody can make wine like this in Israel. It was excellent. I know what they did! They imported some wine from France and rebottled it. I took my car and drove up to the Golan and without any announcement I just showed up. They took me through the vineyards; they showed me the equipment. I met the winemaker. I did a barrel tasting and suddenly the penny dropped: you can make good wine in Israel.”
The opening of the Golan Heights Winery made Israeli consumers aware that their terroir could produce a good bottle. In the early 1980s, Israelis started to travel aboard in large numbers and began to realize that wine — hitherto not part of the regular Israeli lifestyle — was more than a beverage for sacramental use. Wine was, in fact, part of a cultured way of life.
They returned home from their travels in Europe and North America demanding better wines. This consumer groundswell coincided with a more discerning attitude towards dining. Four young chefs opened French and Chinese restaurants at that time. The old socialist ethic was dying. According to Daniel Rogov, “You didn’t have to feel guilty if you spent more than 20 Shekels ($5) on a good meal.”
Israel is at latitude 32, further south than Morocco, so growers look for the coolest sites to plant grapes. The first thing winemakers talk about when you ask them about their vineyards is elevation. It’s the height of the vineyard, they say, that gives the wine quality and is the key to flavour. The Jerusalem Hills can rise up to 800 metres, the Galil and the Golan Heights to 1,200 metres. Barkan, a winery with the largest vineyard holdings in Israel, markets a series of three Cabernet Sauvignons under the Altitude label; they’re grown at different elevations: 412 metres, 624 metres and 720 metres.
Dr Ya’ir Margalit opened one of Israel’s first boutique wineries in 1991, releasing eighty cases of the 1989 vintage based on Bordeaux varieties. The winery sources its fruit from two vineyards — one in the Upper Galilee (seven acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) and the other in Binyamina (2.5 acres of Cabernet Franc and a little Durif). Unlike most growers, Margalit does not irrigate his vines and he’s a believer in non-intervention. “It’s not ethical to bleed off or freeze or do anything,” he will tell you. “Just take the grapes and make the wine.” To my palate, Margalit is making the best wines in Israel today — especially Enigma (a Bordeaux blend) that you could mistake for Mouton-Rothschild in a blind tasting.
And it just so happens that the most marketing-savvy producer in Israel is Ottawa-born: Barry Saslove. A former computer engineer, he considers himself first and foremost a wine educator. More than 3,000 people have participated in his wine courses over the years. In 1993, Saslove started to make wine himself and a year later began manufacturing wine for commercial distribution. In 1998, the Saslove Winery was established in Kibbutz Eyal. His Canadian roots find expression in a kind of cultural imperative. “I buy American oak barrels in Australia,” he told me, “because I can get maple-syrup flavours out of them.”
Another aspect of winegrowing in Israel is also contentious: do you go kosher or non-kosher? Both types of wines are made from the noble European varieties and, although 90 per cent of wines sold in Israel are kosher, most small high-quality producers are making non-kosher wines. Making kosher wines only becomes a necessity when they reach a certain production level and have to find export markets for their wines or get them into the supermarket chains where most wines are purchased. As Daniel Rogov puts it, “There is no contradiction whatsoever between the laws of kashrut (kosher) and the production of fine wine.”
There is, however, a difference between kosher and mevushal (“boiled” or “cooked”). To be kosher the wines can only be handled by observant Jews. Certain highly orthodox Jews will only buy wines that have been pasteurized by heating. This tradition, writes Rogov, “dates to ancient times when wine was used by pagans for idolatrous worship: the Israelites used to boil their wines, thus changing their chemical composition so that it was considered unfit for pagan worship. Wines that are mevushal have the advantage that they can be opened and poured by non-Jews or Jews who are not Sabbath-observant.”
Even with all these constraints, this small country has more history ahead of it. And it all leads back to the youth of their winemakers. They all seem to be in their mid-twenties! And nearly all have studied their craft abroad — in France, Italy, Australia or California. These up-and-comers are making up the rules as they go along rather like the Aussies and the Californians did in the 1960s. There is a confidence that their wines will be recognized soon enough on the world stage.