Here's the history of how Israel became a world wine powerhouse

Isn’t it ironic that Israel is making New World wine in what is one of the oldest wine-producing places on earth? Noah planted the first recorded vineyard here in 2000 B.C.E. and although grapes have been grown in the area for 8,000 years, the Israeli wine industry is relatively young.

In 1882, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux, planted vineyards in Zionist settlements along the Mediterranean coast in the areas called Samaria and Samson. His goal was to produce sacramental wine for the settlers as well as to provide them with a new agricultural industry and a steady income. In 1890, the baron sent his maitre de chai from Chateau Lafite to Israel as a consultant for his new winery. That first winery, named Carmel, in 1906 joined a cooperative with Rishon Le Zion and Zichron Ya’acov and for a century was the country’s primary wine producer. Its wines were, of course, kosher and most were the sweet, slightly sticky kind that Americans associate with Manischevitz or Mogen David. They were certainly of little or no interest to non-Jewish wine consumers. Carmel Winery continues to produce wine today; most are of the modern dry table style.

If not for the Six Day War in 1967, Israel likely still would be producing lackluster wines. But the Golan Heights, captured from Syria in that war, turned out to be perfect wine terroir. A visiting enologist from University of California at Davis in 1972 pointed that out to his Israeli hosts and in 1976 the first grapes were planted there. In 1983 The Golan Heights winery imported a winemaker from California who brought modern techniques with him that eventually revolutionized the entire Israeli wine industry.

From 1987, Israeli wines have been recognized in international competitions next to the great names from the world’s most noble wine regions. Since the dawn of the 21st century, wine consumers worldwide have begun to recognize the quality revolution taking place in Israel. In 2008, Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 was the first Israeli wine to win a spot on Wine Spectator’s Top 100 Wines of the year list. In 2010, Carmel Shiraz 2006 won an international and regional trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards. Little more than 100 years after the birth of its wine industry, Israel is making world-class, award-winning wines that deserve the attention of wine-lovers everywhere.

Hugh Johnson, the renowned British wine writer, had this to say: “New vineyards with classic varieties and a focus on cool climate and high-altitude regions has transformed Israeli wines, as has modern technology and internationally trained winemakers.” Oz Clarke, another Brit wine writer, said: “Israel is a rising star in the wine world.” I fully endorse both statements.

Israelis have long been admired for their advanced agricultural technology, which they have used to great advantage in the vineyards. There are 13,600 acres of vines divided into four viticultural regions: Galilee in the far north, Samaria-Samson, Judean Hills and Negev. The Golan Heights have a classic Mediterranean climate. On the coastal plain it is more subtropical and in the south it is arid. The soils, too, are different according to region. Fifty years ago, the majority of wine came from industrial wineries in Samson and Shomron. Those large wineries (producing as many as 10 million bottles annually) still account for 82 percent of the total market ,but it’s the boutique wineries (250 of them, producing fewer than 50,000 bottles) that win most of the international awards.

The most desirable wines come from the cool climate of Galilee and the Judean Hills. Currently Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the most planted varieties followed by Carignan, Syrah, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Emerald Riesling and Muscat.

Only 7 percent of Israeli land is owned by individuals (3 percent Jews and 4 percent Arabs). The rest is owned by the Jewish state and the Jewish National Fund. Israeli citizens lease the land in 49 to 98 year installments from Israel Land Authority. This means that grapes are grown on rented land, either leased from the state or, frequently, from a kibbutz, which is a collective community based on agriculture.

Israelis would like to see their wines marketed in the United States as simply Mediterranean wine — the same as Spanish, Italian or French — rather than to be tagged as “kosher.” A decade ago most of the boutique wines were not kosher but that made them more difficult to market overseas so today the majority of exported wines are certified kosher.

What makes a wine kosher? It’s made exactly the same way as any wine but from vine to glass it must be handled only by Sabbath-observant Jews under the supervision of a special rabbi called a mashgiach. The same procedures for harvesting, fermentation, maturation and bottling are used for both. It is not necessary for a head winemaker at a kosher winery to be Jewish. Many are not and rely on their staff to handle materials and equipment.

Eli Ben Zaken of Domaine Castel started out making non-kosher wine but says non-kosher wine barely sold. Customers outside of Israel who had never tasted the wine were unwilling to risk buying an expensive Israeli wine they didn’t know. Selling to the kosher-keeping buyers was critical to his success.

Elizabeth Downer:


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