Rebirth of the Israeli Wine Industry
Although wine has been produced in Israel for over 4000 years, it is only in the last decade that the country’s wines have started to receive international recognition. The image of Israeli wine has long been one of syrupy-sweet kosher wines used primarily for Jewish ritual. But the new generation of winemaker is concerned with producing quality, regardless of whether or not the wines are designated as kosher. In fact, there seems to be little consensus among producers as to what constitutes a true kosher wine (but that is an entirely different article all on its own).
The history of Israeli wine dates back to biblical times. But winemaking essentially ceased for 1200 years as Muslim leaders banned alcohol following the rise of Islam in the 7th century. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that wine production resumed through the efforts of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, who established what would become the Carmel Winery. Despite this, there was little evolution or recognition for Israeli wines over the subsequent century beyond use for religious purposes.
It wasn’t until the 1970s that the seeds for a true rebirth of the Israeli wine industry were planted with the recognition of the Golan Heights and Upper Galilee as quality grape growing regions. Today, the state of the country’s wine revolution is reminiscent of Chile or the Okanagan in the early 1990s. There are some quality wines being produced, but the industry is clearly in its infancy with respect to fully understanding the particulars of the terroir and microclimates and, as a result, what grapes grow best in what areas. And most winemakers are still finding their way with respect to the styles of wine they produce, think they should produce, want to produce, and should produce.
This was clearly evident at our inaugural tasting of boutique wines at the beautiful and cosy Pausa Inn located in the hills of the scenic Upper Galilee. The Pausa Inn is operated by Einat and Avigdor Rothem, leaders in the evolution of the Israeli food industry and the “eat local” movement. The Rothems established a Slow Food chapter, the largest in Israel, in the Upper Galilee. Their support extends to local wine producers. On the occasion of our visit, a tour comprised of international wine and food journalists, the Rothems invited four local winemakers to show their wines alongside the outstanding feast they prepared with locally raised products.
First up was Gil Hershkowiz of the Stern Winery, who presented their Rotem 2008. The wine is primarily a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon with small amounts of Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Petit Verdot. It was a little one dimensional with dried out fruit, and somewhat rough on the finish.
Next up was the Galileo Cabernet Sauvignon 2007. The wine was green, green and more green, which was not surprising given that the winemaker informed us that they purchased their grapes from growers over whom they have little control, thus the quality of the grapes being used is not the best. A striking contrast followed with a Bordeaux blend from the Pelter Winery. Tal Pelters I 2008 showed bright ripe fruit flavours, a nice approachability and good structure. The wine bordered on being overdone, but Pelter did study winemaking in Australia.
Finally, Oren Kedem presented his father’s Assaf Shiraz 2007, which possessed aromas and flavours of black cherries, plums and a touch of spice. The alcohol was a little aggressive, but the wine was quite drinkable nonetheless. Even better was the Assaf Cabernet Sauvignon 2007 with its black cherry and black currant character, soft tannins, and firm underlying structure.
I was a little surprised that the bottles from these boutique wineries were not better. That is until we were told that boutique wineries were often started by people as hobbies, regardless of their level (if any) of grape growing or wine producing experience. Israeli wine critic Daniel Rogov wrote in the Jewish Virtual Library that while four of five of the true boutique wineries are producing wines of great charm, sophistication and interest, others are producing wines that range in quality from the out-and-out banal to the sometimes good, depending not so much on the quality of the harvest but on the talents of those who have chosen to call themselves winemakers. This explained a lot, and made more sense over the course of the next several days. Rogov should have added that price is not necessarily directly correlated with quality.
Our exploration of the wines of the Upper Galilee continued with a visit to the Kadesh Valleys Ramot Naftaly Winery, which has been producing wine since 2003. The vineyards are at an elevation of 400 metres with terra rosa soils and considerable variation between day and night temperatures — all good conditions for growing quality grapes. The Barbera 2007 showed nice varietal character and pleasant acidity, and the Petit Verdot 2008 was bright and vibrant with ripe, juicy fruit, and gripping tannins. The wines composed of Bordeaux varietals, though, were quite green, herbaceous and lacked complexity. Overall, there was a considerable amount of volatile acidity in the wines, which would indicate some issues in the fermentation or storage of the wines.
Another Barbera that was quite impressive was the Shvo Vineyards Rosé 2009, which was clean and fresh with ripe cherry and raspberry flavours, a hint of spice, nice balance and a soft, lingering finish. This, along with several other wonderful wines, were introduced to us by Erez Komarovsky, Israel’s most influential chef. He obviously also knows his wine.
We continued on to the winery responsible for initiating modern wine production in Israel. In 1972, oenologist Cornelius Ough from University of California at Davis visited Israel and identified the Golan Heights as ideal for producing quality grapes due to its volcanic soil, altitude and water sources. The Golan Heights Winery was established in 1983 by a cooperative of eight Israeli communities. It has received international recognition for its wines, produced with significant global cooperation including from current American-born winemaker Victor Schoenfeld.
As with most large wineries, the wines ranged from very good to somewhat generic. Standouts included the Gamla Brut, a methode traditionelle sparkling composed of Pinot and Chardonnay that was bright, fresh and delicate with notes of citrus, apple, tropical fruit and strawberries. Both the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 and 2007 were also well made, with the 2006 showing lots of rich dark fruit and a hint of eucalyptus, while the 2007 had more juicy tannins and a touch of spice. The Merlot and Chardonnay lacked the same elegance and appeared subject to much heavier handed oak treatments, reminiscent of 1990s California and Australia.
From the Golan Heights we travelled to the Judean Hills, the mountain range where Jerusalem is located. While the wineries in the Upper Galilee may be better known and receive more accolades, the wineries of the Judean Hills appear to be leading the way with respect to vineyard management and quality.
Our visit to the Tzora Winery was a clear representation of the issues facing the country’s wine industry as a whole. Unlike most Israeli wineries, Tzora owns the majority of their vineyards, thus exercising greater control over the quality of their grapes. And the quality of the grapes was clearly evident in their Neve Ilan Chardonnay 2009 ($23), Shoresh (90 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, 10 per cent Syrah) 2008, and Misty Hills (70 per cent Cabernet Sauvignon, 30 per cent Syrah) 2007. The issue was the heavy-handed oak treatments that masked both the fruit and any sense of terroir the wines may have had.
Tzora’s marketing manager and winemaker claim to be creating wines with a sense of place that reflect the quality and diversity of their vineyards. Instead, they are producing over-manipulated wines that are doing a disservice to the quality of the fruit that is being achieved in the vineyard. After some pressing, the marketing manager finally did admit that they want their wines to appeal to the mass consumer, an objective that is clearly contrary to their “wines with a sense of place “message. The only wine that surprisingly did not follow this pattern was the Shoresh Or 2008 late harvest Gewürztraminer, which showed citrus peel, spice and honey with great balance of sweetness and acidity.
The last two wineries of the trip showed the greatest promise. Agur Winery’s owner, Shuki Yashuv, is a character, but a great ambassador for the Israeli wine industry. He understands that wineries of the Judean Hills need to work together as a region to improve, particularly if they want to be respected internationally.
A former filmmaker, Zeev Dunia, owner of the SeaHorse Winery, fell in love with winemaking while making a film on the subject. He has followed the exact path that all winemakers/winery owners should follow in a country whose wine industry is so young. Dunia’s philosophy is to take what Mother Nature has given him and reflect that in the bottle. He has travelled to numerous wine producing regions around the world, spoken and studied with winemakers and vineyard managers, and learned what he need to learn in order to apply his knowledge to his own terroir. The result is Israel’s best wine.
Dunia’s James Chenin Blanc 2009 with its aromatics and fresh minerality; the elegant, silky and spicy Romain GSM 2008; the dense, concentrated berry-flavoured, firmly structured Antoine Syrah 2007; the superbly spicy, bright Lennon Zinfandel 2008; and the ripe, firm, lush, and spicy Munch Petite Syrah 2009 barrel sample all showed great balance, elegance and a clear understanding of allowing the quality of the fruit to express itself. Others may have talked the talk with respect to producing wines reflecting their terroir, but Dunia is walking the walk, and every wine producer in Israel should be following his example.
The Israeli wine industry is clearly in its infancy. It faces many issues to growth, including low domestic wine consumption; an underdeveloped domestic wine culture; threat of cultural, political and religious conflict; border disputes; an imbalance in the price-quality ratio; and an international perception of producing sweet kosher wines. The passion exists, but producers need to follow the model of winemakers such as Zeev Dunia, who are planting grapes appropriate for their vineyard sites and making wines of character that reflect their terroir. Wine production in Israel may have started thousands of years ago, but it is the progress its industry makes over the next decade that will determine the country’s image and level of success in the global wine market.