Most people will credit the Golan Heights and Upper Galilee as being the finest wine growing regions in Israel. The higher altitude, cooler climate has made the northern area a magnet for wineries wishing to plant quality wine vineyards.
Only twenty years ago, there was a feeling that only on the volcanic plateau of the Golan Heights, was it possible to make award winning Israeli wine. The high altitude, cool climate, volcanic tuff and basalt stone made it a unique terroir. The unparalleled success of the Golan Heights Winery reinforced this image. Their Yarden wines were a wonderful advertisement for the Golan Heights being Eretz Ha’Yayin/ The Land of Wine.
Then, roughly ten to fifteen years ago, the Upper Galilee became the ‘new’ trend in wine regions. The mountainous terrain, plunging valleys, running streams and woody forests certainly made it a beautiful wine growing area. With the high altitudes and a mixture of soils from terra rossa, gravel to volcanic, came the realization that the Galilee was also a great region for the wines of new Israel. Dalton, Galil Mountain, Tabor and Carmel opened wineries there. Furthermore many other wineries, though situated far from the Galilee, made sure to use the precious Galilee fruit for their best wines. Examples included Margalit, Recanati and Segal.
The Israeli winery industry was built on coastal vineyards with most vineyards being in the Mount Carmel or Shefela regions. In the last twenty years though, as the move to quality took root, the northern region of the Golan and Galilee combined, has now become the largest wine region in Israel in terms of number of vineyards.
However the idea that only the Golan and Galilee are capable of producing Israel’s finest wines is not necessarily correct. Israel wine watchers noticed another region gaining its fair share of major awards and recognition. Wineries from the Judean Hills started being noticed. The continued success and high profile of their wines has pushed this most historic of regions to the fore.
It is a fact that in the late Daniel Rogov’s last Israel Wine Guide, no less than half of the wineries listed in the ‘Top 12 Israeli Wineries’ were from the Judean Hills. The six wineries listed, in Rogov’s order, were: Yatir, Castel, Clos de Gat, Flam, Sea Horse and Tzora. (Of course it should be pointed out that Yatir Winery is in the Negev, but their vineyards are in the southern tip of the Judean Hills. Conversely Flam Winery is in the Judean Hills, but much of their best fruit comes from the Galilee.) Nonetheless, it is a surprise to many to see the strong representation of Judean Hills wineries on the list of the best wineries in Israel.
The place of the Judean Hills in the quality arena is re-emphasized even more so, when examining the tasting results of Israeli wines in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. This is the world’s most influential wine journal. In this prestigious publication, only twenty eight Israeli wines have managed to achieve scores of 91 or more points. Yet, an astonishing eighteen of these, are not from the Galilee or Golan Heights, but from the Judean Hills! Those eighteen Judean Hills wines are made up of six Yatir wines, five Castel, four Clos de Gat, two Tzora and one Flam.
Furthermore, the two most successful Israeli wines in the Wine Advocate over the last six years have been Castel Grand Vin and Yatir Forest. Both are from the Judean Hills. The highest scoring Israeli wine, Clos de Gat Muscat, produced by Clos de Gat, is also from the Judean Hills. So at the time wine experts were talking up the Golan and Galilee, the Judean Hills was gaining recognition at the highest possible level. It could be that the Judean Hills is a higher quality wine region today than was previously thought, thereby renewing an ancient tradition going back thousands of years.
In around 1700 BCE, the Biblical patriarch Jacob blessed his son Judah, that his land would produce quality wine. Jacob’s blessing came true and Judea became the center of wine activity in Biblical times. The slopes of the Judean Hills were covered in vines. This was the Bordeaux of the ancient Israel.
Judea was the name of the southern part of the land inhabited by the Israelite tribe of Judah. It was followed by the Kingdom of Judah and then later, the Roman Province of Judaea. In those days the Jerusalem hills had terraced vineyards, to allow the vineyards to grow on the steep slopes. There would most likely have been a stone watchtower alongside, as described in Isaiah’s Song of a Vineyard (Isaiah 5:1). The wines were made in wine presses, which were limestone basins, situated nearby to the vineyards and the finished wines were stored in large, two handled amphorae in cool caves.
Fast forward over 2,000 years and today vineyards are again being planted on every spare bit of agricultural land on the way to Jerusalem. Wine is once again prominent on the slopes of Judea.
The region may be divided into three distinct areas, which may be described as the Judean Plain, the Judean Hills and the Judean Mountains. The central coastal, Judean Plain, south east of Tel Aviv, is a large part of which is known as the Samson Wine Region. Rothschild planted vineyards around Rishon Le Zion, Rehovot and Gedera in the 19th century. It was not until the 1950’s, after the founding of the state, that vineyards were planted in places from Gezer Saidun to Givat Yeshayahu and points in between. Wineries in this area include the historic Rishon Le Zion Wine Cellars, Barkan Winery at Hulda, Bravdo at Karmei Yosef and the Latroun Monastery.
The second area is the Judean Hills, which equates to the corridor to Jerusalem, which is the fastest growing region in terms of newly planted vineyards and new wineries. The frenetic planting of vineyards here really only started in the 1990’s and from this beginning, has even gathered pace in the 2000’s. The rolling hills have limestone soils and clay loams. Elevations are higher, from 50 to 200 meters above sea level. Wineries in this area include Clos de Gat, Ella Valley, Flam, Mony, Teperberg and Tzora.
Then, there is the Judean Mountains west of Jerusalem, which also run from north of Jerusalem, southwards, down to Yatir Forest. Here the altitudes are higher, from 500 to 1,000 meters above sea level. The soils are thin, limestone and stony. The higher mountains receive snow in the winter. Psagot, Domaine du Castel, Gush Etzion, Hevron Heights, Sea Horse and Tzuba are wineries situated in the Judean Mountains.
The appellation known as the ‘Judean Hills Wine Region’ in reality covers the Judean Foothills, Hills and Mountains. The first winery to successfully draw attention to this appellation was Domaine du Castel, which in the mid 1990’s started to get rave reviews for their wine. They wrote ‘Haut Judée’ clearly on their front labels, which means ‘Judean Hills’ in French. The Master of Wine & Head of Sotheby’s Wine Department, Serena Sutcliffe, said that the Castel Grand Vin was the finest Israeli wine she had ever tasted. Then the Grand Vin and ‘C’ Blanc du Castel became the first Israeli wineries ever to be made Decanter Wine of The Month. By the 2000’s Castel was regarded by many as Israel’s finest winery and received the maximum four stars in Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Guide.
Then in the mid 2000’s, Yatir Winery became the first Israeli winery to receive a score of 93 points in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, and their prestige Yatir Forest blend went on to receive 90 or more points in seven consecutive years. At this time Clos de Gat came to notice, when their Chardonnay won the Regional Trophy in the Decanter World Wine Awards. They followed this by being awarded a number of high scores in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, including a 94, the highest score for an Israeli winery.
All the talk had previously been about the Golan Heights and then the Upper Galilee. Suddenly the Judean Hills received notice from the world’s most important wine critics.
The Judean Hills is proving to be an excellent region for Chardonnay. Castel, Clos de Gat, Tzora, Ella Valley & Mony each produce high quality wines from this variety. This may even be the wine region producing the best Chardonnays in the country. It is also particularly good region for Syrah/ Shiraz and Petite Sirah. Clos de Gat and Mony have top class Shiraz / Syrahs and Ella Valley and Sea Horse have very good Petite Sirahs. Carmel’s Old Vine Petite Sirah also comes from the Judean Hills.
The Prophet Amos (9:13) had his own description of the Judean Hills: “The mountains shall drip wine and all the hills shall flow with it.” If you look at an old vine vineyard laid out on terraces, you can actually imagine the scene. Today with the growth of new vineyards, Amos’ vision is again coming true.
The Yoav Yehuda Wine Route was the first organized wine route in Israel. This covers numerous wineries whether large or small and a patchwork of vineyards in the Jerusalem corridor. It is an area bursting with wineries and vineyards and it is a popular hunting ground for visitors because it is the nearest wine route to both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Without any doubt, the Judean Hills has earned its place in any discussion about Israel’s best quality wine region, and has clearly joined the Upper Galilee and Golan Heights as being source of some of Israel’s finest wines.
I’d like to know were I can buy a nice Israel wine here in Florida.