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WINING BIG

Have Israeli wines reached world-class status? Oenophiles say “ken.”
By Katie Loeb

T

hink kosher wines are just for Pesach? Think again. There is no shortage of world-class wines produced in Israel and available for enjoying in the United States. Some are kosher, some are not.

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Regardless of their designation, there is no doubt that the best that Israel’s vintners have to offer can compete with wines from the finest growing regions of the world. Yes, wine has been made in the Holy Land since the days of David. But the growth of the modern Israeli wine industry has been intertwined with local and international historical events.

The long and illustrious history of viticulture in
Israel dates back to Biblical times. Israel’s Mediterranean climate and prime location on the wine trading routes between Egypt and Mesopotamia brought both insight and knowledge to the area. During the height of the Roman Empire, the most desired wines from Israel were even vintage-dated, and had the winemaker’s name inscribed on the amphorae before being exported to Rome. Later, during 12 centuries of Islamic rule, the vines were uprooted, and many indigenous varietals were lost. The roots of the modern Israeli wine industry can be traced directly to the late 19th century, when Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of Château Lafite-Rothschild, sent the first commercial vines of French grape varietals from Bordeaux to the region, along with some of his own wine specialists to help advise the young pioneering Jewish settlers in Palestine on viticulture and production. He also helped to found Carmel Winery, with vineyards and wine production facilities built first in Rishon LeZion, south of Tel Aviv, and later in Zikhron Ya’akov on Mount Carmel south of Haifa. In 1895, the Carmel Wine Company was created to market both wineries’ products. In 1906, Rothschild helped found the Société Coopérative Vigneronne des Grandes Caves, a grape-growers’ cooperative, which managed both wineries. In 1957, James Rothschild, Edmond’s son, gave the cooperative both wineries, essentially giving the workers control of the land and vineyards. Still in operation today, Carmel remains the largest producer of Israeli wine, accounting for about 60 percent of total production. Interestingly, Carmel has also been at the forefront of many technical and historical advances in both winemaking and Israeli history. The main office in Rishon LeZion, built in 1890, is the oldest industrial building in Israel that is still in use, and the first establishment to install a telephone and electricity. Israel’s first prime min-

The vineyard, cellar and bottles of Clos de Gat, a winery in the Judean Hills.

ister, David Ben-Gurion and his successor, Levi Eshkol, both worked at Carmel’s vineyards and wineries as young men. During the early 20th century, Carmel’s wine business blossomed and offices were opened in New York, London, Berlin, Warsaw, Damascus and Alexandria. Sales and exports increased, particularly during the First World War, when Allied troops passed through Palestine. Several large-scale, family-owned wineries such as Tishbi,

There are some real gems available that would normally escape notice of the everyday wine connoisseur. They are well worth seeking out.
Eliaz, Binyamina, Segal, Karmei, Tsvi and Barkan—some of which were backed by the Baron—also began to emerge at this time. After the war however, many of the main export markets were lost: in Russia due to the October Revolution; in America due to Prohibition; and in Egypt and the Middle East due to growing Arab nationalism. The business began to grow again during the Second World War as new waves of immigrants with a taste for higher-quality wines began to slowly

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change drinking habits. The second wave of winery development came along in the early 1980s, when a research study led by the famed oenology department at University of California at Davis sought to find the best locations for vineyards. A subsequent influx of winemaking talent from Australia, France and California followed, bringing with them better equipment, genuine academic knowledge, better methodology and French oak barrels. Winemaking became a studied art, and many smaller home wine hobbyists became professional winemakers under the influence of these experts. In the 1990s there was an explosion of smaller boutique wineries throughout Israel, where making quality wines became the objective, rather than making huge quantities of sacramental wine for export, as had been the case previously. Soon, wineries such as Domaine du Castel and Golan Heights Winery were bringing home medals from international wine competitions. The culmination of this recognition came in 2008, when the venerable critic Robert Parker of the Wine Spectator, gave marks of 90 points or above (translating to “world-class wines of exceptional character”) to 14 of 90 Israeli wines he tasted that year. Israeli wines had finally gained the respect they so richly deserved, and were competing side by side with the wines from the best growing regions around the world.

There are five major grape-growing regions in Israel, some of which have been planted only recently. From north to south, the regions are: Galilee (Galil) extends south from the Lebanese border and takes up the northernmost part of Israel. Most wineries are sourcing the grapes for their Reserve level or First Label wines from the Galilee. A combination of high altitudes, cool breezes and volcanic soil as well as microclimates much like the smaller viticultural areas of Napa Valley have made this the premier wine-growing region in Israel. Some of the top wineries in this region include Parker favorite Margalit Winery, Galil Mountain Winery and Saslove Winery. Samaria (Shomron) is the largest wine region and benefits from the altitude of the Carmel Mountains and its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea. Warm summers and cool, humid winters combined with the limey soil make this region very conducive to viticulture. The main concentration of vineyards is in the valleys surrounding the winery towns of Zichron Yaakov, which houses one of Carmel’s wineries and Tishbi winery, and Binyamina, home of Binyamina winery. Samson (Shimshon) includes the rolling hills of the Judean Lowlands and the central coastal plain (Dan). Unlike the Galilee, Shomron and Judean Hills regions that have borne their names since biblical times, the Samson region is named after the well-known Biblical hero, Samson. The soils of this region are lime, stone, clay and loam, with a coastal Mediterranean climate not unlike Southern France or Italy, with warm, humid summers and mild winters. Some of the top wineries in this region include Tzora, Barkan and Gamla. Judean Hills (Harey Yehuda) is a newer and relatively underdeveloped wine region with cool nighttime temperatures on the hills. Many of the vineyards are grown on terraces or in narrow valleys. The soils are thin, limey and stony. The climate varies from arid to Mediterranean. Some of the best vintners here are Flam Winery, Clos de Gat and Karmei Yosef. Negev (Hanegev) was a popular area for growing vines in ancient times. This semi-arid area has been planted with new vineyards in the northern Negev hills. It is a particularly dry area, and is forced to rely heavily on newer computerized watering methods for irrigating
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One local connection for fine Israeli and Kosher wines is Castor Ave.’s Jerusalem Gift Shop.

Before and after at Yarden Winery, one of the most popular offerings at Jersualem Gift Shop.

the land. At 600 meters above sea level, there is a marked swing between day and night temperatures crucial to developing ripeness in the grapes. Soils are sandy to loamy, and the climate is arid with hot, dry summers. Some of the best wines from this region are produced by wineries like Ramim, La Tierra Promessa and Ben Shushan.

Since the industry was founded by the Baron de Rothschild, it is no surprise that French wine varietals are predominant. Cabernet sauvignon, merlot, cabernet franc, sauvignon blanc and chardonnay are most widely planted, but more recently some quantities of riesling, pinot blanc, malbec and tempranillo have been planted by more adventurous boutique winemakers. Syrah has also shown a great deal of promise, and is garnering attention from several top winemakers. Though most of the wines acquiring the top scores at wine competitions tend to be of the bigger red styles, award-winning dessert wines, whites and sparkling wines have also been produced consistently.

Unfortunately, the whims of the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board and small production amounts make finding Israeli wines a bit of a chore in the Commonwealth. Some of the producers that are listed as available Special Liquor Order items via the PLCB include Barkan, Binyamina, Galil Mountain, Gamla, Golan Heights Winery, Recanati, Tabor, Tishbi and Yarden. These items may also be found in larger liquor stores in New Jersey or Delaware. Locally, Israeli wines are well represented at Jerusalem Gift Shop on Castor Avenue in the Northeast. Blue Star Wines in Bala Cynwyd has the largest selection of Israeli wines in the area, and as a seller of “sacramental wines” operates outside of the constraints of the PLCB. If you are able to befriend the wine manager at your local PLCB Wine & Spirits outlet, you should be able to order anything your heart desires that is available in the state. A quick check for availability at the main PLCB site, lcbapps.lcb.state.pa.us/webapp/Product_Management/psi_ProductDef ault_inter.asp?plcbNav=|32369|, should reveal the code number for the item you seek and will make ordering that much simpler. If you live in an area where wines can be shipped directly to you, Israeli Wine Direct (israeliwinedirect.com/israeliwine/index.jsp) is a wonderful resource for boutique Israeli wines. It is well worth the time and bit of effort to try these lovely wines. There are some real gems available that would normally escape notice of the everyday wine connoisseur. They are well worth seeking out. The idea of tasting wines from the Holy Land at their origin ought to be reason enough to support the wine business in Israel. But knowing that there’s real oenological know-how and science backing up those wines, and that you’re helping support the burgeoning wine industry in Israel should be a better reason to go out of one’s way to seek out and purchase these wines. L’Chaim! ❏
Katie Loeb is Inside’s beverage mahoff.

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