Israel's winemaking history can be traced back thousands of years, but only recently have its wines attracted widespread attention. Still unfamiliar not only to most consumers but also to many sommeliers, Israel is becoming an important player in the wine world and deserves this newfound interest and respect.
Wine is an integral part of the Jewish religion. The Hebrew Scriptures celebrate wine, with the Psalmist writing that God brings forth “wine that gladdens the human heart” (104:15). But the Bible is also filled with tales of overconsumption. A drunken Noah falls asleep naked and is seen by his son; upon waking, he curses his grandchild, Canaan, whose descendants would one day be enslaved by the Israelites. Some claim wine was the undoing of Adam and Eve, suggesting that the tree of knowledge was actually a grapevine and the fruit in question a grape. The God of the Hebrew Bible clearly encourages drinking but discourages overdoing it.
Anyone who has been invited to a Friday night Shabbat dinner—or any Jewish holiday for that matter—has experienced firsthand the ongoing role of wine in Jewish tradition. Most ceremonies begin and end with a prayer over a cup of wine, and multiple glasses of wine are consumed during holidays such as Passover and Purim.
Many American Jews associate Sabbath and Passover wine with sweet, syrupy Manischewitz. Backed by Jews from New England, Manischewitz became popular in the 1980s in response to demand for cheap kosher wine: the Concord grape ripened easily, and the wine was easy to make. Yet this sweet concoction has little to do with modern kosher or Israeli wine. Manischewitz is actually an American brand, not an Israeli one, and there’s much more diversity in kosher wines than this well-known example suggests.
Remnants of wine presses found in Israel dating back 8,000 to 10,000 years reflect the long history of winemaking in the region. By the time Rome grew to power in the 8th and 7th centuries BCE, Israel’s wines had become noteworthy and were being exported to Rome. The Islamic invasion of the 7th century, however, halted the growth of the fledgling industry. Because Islamic law forbids drinking, vineyards were closed down and Israel’s indigenous varieties ripped up. There was a brief return to winemaking in the 12th century CE during the Crusades, but it ended with the return to Islamic law and consequential Jewish diaspora.
Modern-day Israeli viniculture has to thank both the Jews who decided to return to their land in the late 19th century and the Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of Lafite Rothschild, who brought French grape cuttings and wine knowledge to Israel. In 1882, he helped establish what would become Carmel Winery, the country’s oldest continuous winery. For the first half of the 20th century, however, there was no market for fine wine from Israel. Instead, winemakers produced inexpensive kosher wines for Jewish communities around the world. These were often sweet wines, produced from high yielding grapes where quantity was celebrated over quality. Fortunately, the seed of knowledge Baron de Rothschild had brought was not lost. In the 1960s, Carmel Winery started concentrating on dry wines from Bordeaux varieties. The winery still has cuttings that Rothschild brought from his family’s estate, smuggled into Israel via India in the wake of the phylloxera epidemic.
From here, Israel’s wine industry took a dramatic turn. Winemakers from Australia, California, and France brought winemaking techniques and ideas to the young wineries, and the industry as a whole began turning to dry wines. Carmel Winery changed the game by focusing on dry Cabernet Sauvignon- and Sauvignon Blanc-based wines. In 1983, Golan Heights Winery was founded and immediately began turning heads, proving that Israel could produce quality wine. The first boutique winery, Margalit, was founded in 1989, with others soon to follow. Still, it wasn’t until the 1990s that viniculture and viticulture techniques really began to progress. Today, there are over 300 boutique wineries, which, along with larger brands, continue pushing the envelope and developing better techniques.
In the mid-2000s, when Robert Parker and Hugh Johnson started giving them high ranks, Israeli wines attracted more widespread attention. The Decanter World Wine Awards named Carmel Winery’s single vineyard 2008 “Kayoumi” Syrah the best Syrah in the world in 2010. In 2012, Golan Heights Winery was named New World Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast. Awards like these have sparked international interest.
Israel has a hot, Mediterranean climate, which might not seem like an ideal environment for grape growing. It is, in fact, among the southernmost wine growing areas of the Northern Hemisphere. But what it loses in latitude it gains in altitude. All of its grape growing regions are at high altitudes, some reaching 4,000 feet above sea level. High altitude helps mitigate the heat and provides a diurnal shift that maintains acidity levels in grapes. Further, the pattern of hot, dry summers followed by short, rainy winters allows winemakers to use drip irrigation without worrying about rainstorms diluting the grapes. Summer’s dry air also prevents mold and mildew.
There are five major grape growing regions in Israel. Galilee, which includes the Golan Heights, and the Judean Foothills are the best known, though recent efforts by smaller wineries are creating a buzz in lesser-known regions as well.
When discussing Israeli wine, it seem prudent to mention the geopolitical controversy surrounding some of its wine regions. The western two-thirds of the Golan Heights has been occupied by Israel since 1967 but is still recognized by many as Syrian territory. In 1981, Israel passed the Golan Heights Law, which effectively annexed the region to Israel but was not supported by the UN. The West Bank portion of the Shomron wine region, where the Palestinian population is concentrated, is controversial as well. Israel considers it among its administrative regions, but within the international community, many see it as Palestinian territory.
Galilee: This consists of Lower Galilee, Upper Galilee, and the Golan Heights. A 1972 study by UC Davis oenologist Cornelius Ough identified the Golan Heights—with its 4,000-foot altitude, northerly location, and volcanic soils—ideally suited to international grape varieties, especially Cabernet Sauvignon.
Shomron: Although only 17% of Israeli wine is produced here, it is considered a very traditional wine region. Altitudes reach 2,850 feet. The subregions are Mount Carmel, Sharon, and the Shomron Hills.
Samson: This area is slightly more hot and humid. Its three subregions are Central Coastal Plains, Judean Lowlands, and Judean Foothills. The coastal area supplies a great deal of bulk wine, while the inland regions, with limestone and terra rossa soils, produce higher quality wine.
Judean Hills: Along with Galilee, the Judean Hills is considered one of Israel’s top winemaking regions. It runs from the foothills west of Jerusalem down to the border of the Negev Desert and is further divided into three subregions: Jerusalem, South Jerusalem Hills/Gush Etzion, and Yatir Forest. Altitudes here reach 1,600 to 3,300 feet above sea level.
Negev: The high altitude of the Negev makes up for the desert climate, and diurnal shift is dramatic and vital. Its subzones are the Northern Hills and Central Negev. Midbar Winery, whose grapes are planted in a crater 2,600 feet above sea level, is the star of the region.
Before the Islamic conquest, Israel had its own indigenous grapes, but that history was lost when the vines were pulled. Today’s wine scene is dominated by international varieties, mostly of the Bordeaux and Rhône camps.
The majority of the acreage is planted to red grapes, with Cabernet Sauvignon the king. The top Cabernet Sauvignon is grown at altitudes of at least 2,000 feet, and Galilee is known for producing some of the best. Merlot, introduced in the 1980s, ripens easily in Israel’s climate and is often blended with Cabernet Sauvignon. Many winemakers, though, prefer Petit Verdot over Merlot for blending. Thanks to Israel’s heat and lack of rain, Petit Verdot has no ripening issues in Israel—a better fate than it finds in Bordeaux.
One of Israel’s first successful red grapes was Carignan, though its popularity diminished alongside the more recent success of Bordeaux varieties. Nevertheless, some old Carignan vines remain, and a few boutique wineries showcase the outstanding distinction of old vine Carignan.
Shiraz entered the scene in the 1990s—though, based on theories that it originated in Syria or Iran, some consider Syrah a native grape. Many consider it the best grape for Israel and the country’s grape of the future. Syrah thrives in the Judean Foothills and Galilee but seems to grow well everywhere. Quality is improving as the vines age, so it will be interesting to taste these wines throughout the next 10 to 20 years.
Petite Sirah has a small following in those seeking a blockbuster wine that is not Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot. It has found some fame among the boutique wineries seeking to showcase the potential in their 40-year-old vines.
Though little acreage is devoted to white grapes, Israel does produce white wines of distinction. The most important grapes are Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. As with Syrah, some say that Chardonnay originated in Israel and is therefore an indigenous grape variety. Because Chardonnay easily reveals its terroir, winemakers are still experimenting with growing it in different regions. The current trend is to produce low-to-no-oak versions of Chardonnay, maintaining its inherent freshness. Sauvignon Blanc has improved over the years, with cold fermentation in stainless steel and higher altitude plantings producing a crisp style of Sauvignon Blanc.
Kosher restrictions do not start until grapes are crushed; in the vineyard, there are no limitations on who may or may not tend to the vines. Once the grapes are crushed, though, every aspect of winemaking must be carried out by Sabbath-observant Jews until the wine is pasteurized or bottled, whichever comes first.
Following these restrictions need not have any ill effect on quality. In fact, Golan Heights Winery, one of the leading producers in Israel, makes only kosher wine. Yet the restrictions have led a number of smaller wineries to abandon kosher practices. Some of them consider it impossible to make wine if the winemaker cannot have any contact with his wines. Many sell only in the domestic market, where the demand for kosher is not as high as it is abroad. However, almost all of the large commercial wineries are kosher, as they cater to Jewish communities worldwide that are specifically seeking kosher wines.
Israel’s wines are firmly New World wines, heavily influenced by winemaking styles from California and Australia and competing with these wines for attention. Due to Israel’s warm Mediterranean climate, the grapes have no trouble ripening; if anything, they sometimes ripen too quickly. Many of the vines are still young, so growers have to watch carefully to prevent yields from being too high. As the vines age, yields will decrease, and the wines will become more nuanced.
Currently, there are no laws regarding wine manipulation. To compensate for the ripeness of the grapes, acidification is common. Winemakers use oak liberally with red wines but infrequently with whites. It seems that a number of wineries are still figuring out their style, and this can lead to occasional inconsistencies. The industry’s youth is sometimes apparent in its wines, but they continue improving each year.
The influx of seasoned winemakers coming to Israel from the United States, France, and Australia has been helpful to the industry. Michel Rolland consults for Amphorae, and the chief winemaker of Golan Heights Winery, Victor Schoenfeld, is a California native. The wines from Golan Heights and its other labels reflect this influence; they are ripe and rich, with high alcohol and a generous amount of new French oak. But contrasting these powerhouse wines are the wines of Clos de Gat, based in the Judean Hills. Their “Har’el” Cabernet Sauvignon is a moderate alcohol wine with real finesse and elegance. These differences reflect the true diversity of Israel’s winemaking.
Although Israel’s winemaking tradition is ancient, the current industry is still young. Israel has been widely recognized as capable of producing world-class wines, and growth is happening fast—one of the biggest problems is that supply cannot meet demand!
Since most of the Israeli wines imported to North America are kosher wines, they are primarily from large- and medium-sized wineries; wines from small wineries are harder to find. But as the industry garners attention, demand is sure to expand beyond specific interest in kosher wine. Tasting the full breadth of Israel’s wines will unveil to the rest of the world the exciting diversity of the region, as well as its worthiness of inclusion in the lexicon of New World wines.