This article first appeared in the Wine Talk column in the Weekend Supplement of Jerusalem Post.
There is a great deal of domestic and international tourism. Israelis themselves are great, casual tourists. I recommend you join them and become a wine tourist. It is fascinating to see this country of ours in new ways, and it is possible to get to know the country afresh through the prism of its vineyards, wineries and wines. Whether your interest is history, people, religion, gastronomy, agriculture, archaeology, architecture… or even wine, your interest will be satisfied by travelling Israel’s wine route.
The country is covered with vineyards and there are hundreds, literally hundreds, of wineries. These range from large commercial operations producing millions of bottles, to small domestic wineries producing a few thousand bottles for family and friends. There are state of the art wineries, where the technology ranks with anywhere else in the world, and others where a lack of expertise is made up by boundless enthusiasm.
There are Moshav wineries and Kibbutz wineries. There are wineries run by Ultra Orthodox Jews, Christian Monks and Israeli Arabs….. and so on.
So it is a deep pool. Take time to plan a wine tour to make sure you don’t waste any time in a winery you did not really want to visit. Use books like ‘The Wine Route of Israel’ or ‘Israeli Wines’, if they help you. They are both available in Steimatzky, Tsomet Sefarim and the Ben Gurion Airport bookshops. There is also the recently published Wine Map of Israel, (published by Cordinata, Tel Aviv.), which will be useful.
Note that the larger wineries are more likely to have proper visitors’ centers. This will mean there are tours on a regular basis. Smaller wineries however, are more likely to open only when needed. In both instances it is essential to book in advance. Don’t leave it to chance.
I strongly suggest that you avoid trying to fit in too many wineries into a day. If you try and visit four wineries for instance, you may find you have four unsatisfactory visits. Better to do two wineries a day, giving time for a relaxed, unhurried journey.
If you only do two a day, then you want to choose them carefully so that they compliment each other. If you go to Carmel for instance, which is Israel’s largest and oldest existing winery, then balance it by maybe going to a small boutique winery. You don’t want to hear the same story in two wineries, and cynically speaking, a stainless steel tank and wooden barrel look the same wherever they are.
Check out if the wineries are Kosher or not beforehand. The larger wineries are more likely to be kosher. That means that they will be closed on Friday afternoons, Shabbat, Festivals and Memorial days. The smaller wineries may not be kosher. If not, they will be more likely to be open on Saturdays.
Of course it goes without saying that each group should have a designated driver, whose job is to drive. It is recommended this person does not drink at all.
It is strongly recommended that you arrive at winery at the time you have booked. Hard to say this to Jews and Israelis, whose watches that don’t work like they do in the rest of the world, but it will avoid disappointment. This means planning your day with enough time to spare for delays, traffic problems, food and natural breaks.
When you taste wine, and on a wine trip, hopefully you will be able to taste a lot, be sure to spit, not drink. In a winery it is the sensible thing to do and it is also acceptable. Only if people taste sensibly can they enjoy and benefit from a full days tasting. Wineries will have a spittoon or receptacle for this purpose. Don’t be ashamed to use it and if you dribble, just ask for a paper napkin. It is okay. Everyone does it, including those experienced in spitting!
Make the most of the opportunity of tasting, to try and taste something new. You obviously don’t lose the right to buy what you know and like. However if you are offered something to taste, this is the time to be curious.
It goes without saying, drink lots of water throughout the day. This stops you drying out and means you will be able to taste more without feeling the effects.
It is better to buy wine at the winery than anywhere else. There is something special about drinking a wine from a winery you have visited. Also it is likely that the wine is in the best quality possible condition. It will not have deteriorated, or prematurely aged, because of the way it was cared for, either during delivery or whilst languishing on the shop shelf.
Beware not every winery shop will offer the cheapest prices, because wineries don’t like to undercut their customers. However you will find good bin ends there which may not be available elsewhere.
If you buy a wine, then don’t leave it in the car. The heat in Israel can be hot enough to ruin a wine in minutes. However if you have no choice, put it under the seat and out of direct sunlight.
Become an active participant in the blooming world of Israeli wine and as soon as you have completed one wine tour, you can begin to prepare the next one!
MAIN WINE ROUTE
The main wine routes in Israel are listed below. I have only listed the more prominent wineries, but of course there are many, many more.
Galilee – Tabor, Dalton, Adir, Ramat Naftaly, Galil Mountain
Golan Heights – Chateau Golan, Golan Heights Winery, Bazelet Hagolan, Odem Mountain
Mount Carmel – Binyamina, Margalit, Tishbi, Carmel–Zichron Ya’acov, Somek, Amphorae, Tulip
Judean Plain/ Lowlands – Barkan-Segal, Latoun, Karmei Zion – Bravdo, Clos de Gat
Judean Foothills – Mony, Teperberg, Tzora, Flam, Ella Valley
Judean Hills – Castel, Tzuba, Sea Horse, Gush Etzion
Shomron Hills – Psagot, Shilo, Gvaot, Tanya,Tura, Har Bracha
Negev – Yatir, Midbar, Carmey Avdat, Kadesh Barnea
RECOMMENDED FOR A VISIT
I recommend these wineries, either for the quality of the tour they provide, an unusually i innovative shop or the beauty of the place and its surroundings. Sometimes, for all three reasons together.
GOLAN HEIGHTS WINERY, Katzrin, Golan Heights.
This is the Napa Valley in Israel, with great wines and also produce of the Golan including beer, olive oil and honey. Visit here to celebrate the blessing of the Golan Heights.
ADIR WINERY, Ramat Dalton, Upper Galilee
One of the most innovative and stylish visitors’ centers in Israel combining not only a winery but also a dairy.
TABOR WINERY, Kfar Tabor, Lower Galilee
Fun informative visit for the family and excellent value wines. The nearby marzipan factory is a must for bored children and hungry parents.
CARMEL WINERY, Winery St., Zichron Ya’acov
Israel’s historic winery. Visit the underground cellars built by Rothschild. During a tour it is possible to understand the history of Israeli wine & the recent quality revolution, all in one setting.
TISHBI WINERY, Industrial Area, Binyamina
The most tasty visitors’ center. Home cooking, local cheeses, freshly baked bread and locally produced jams, jellies and olive oil. Also top quality chocolates…and wines.
PSAGOT WINERY – Nachalat Binyamin, Psagot, Mizrach Binyamin
Technically advanced winery visitors’ centers, showing the Biblical roots of Israeli wine. Very good audio visual presentations, not to be missed.
GUSH ETZION WINERY, Gush Etzion Junction
A beautiful stone building, which houses a winery and cafe. A excellent place to meet, eat & taste wine.
YATIR WINERY, Tel Arad, Northeastern Negev
A hike or picnic in Yatir Forest, a visit to Tel Arad, and a tasting at one of Israel’s most advanced wineries make this one of the most interesting places to visit.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes on wine
for both international and Israeli publications.