Israel is a ?new world? wine country, in one of the oldest wine regions on earth. In this Biblical land, there is a combination of the new, old and ancient world of winemaking in a country no bigger than New Jersey.
It took a Rothschild to renew the tradition and create a modern wine industry. Baron Edmond de Rothschild, an owner of Chateau Lafite, founded Carmel Winery in 1882. He sent cuttings and experts from Chateau Lafite itself and Bordeaux.
The next significant stage in the revolution was the founding of the Golan Heights Winery in 1983, with expertise from California. In the last fifteen years, something close to a wine fever has gripped the country. The amount of vineyards planted with noble varieties doubled to 10,000 acres, and numerous boutique wineries opened.
The Israeli wine industry is built on the pillars of three large wineries: Carmel, Barkan & Golan Heights ? which together control nearly 70% of the market. Today there are 30 commercial wineries and more than 150 boutique wineries. Most of the wineries are modern, state-of-the-art and many employ internationally trained winemakers. Exports of Israeli wines are increasing every year. Over 55% goes to the United States, particularly to the East Coast.
Israel is an Eastern Mediterranean country, so it is not a surprise that the climate is mainly Mediterranean. However, in the higher altitude vineyards of the Upper Galilee, the Golan Heights and Judean Hills, the climate is cooler and there is likely to be snow during the winter months. These are the best quality wine growing regions.
The Golan Heights Winery is the main winery in the north of the country. Their chief winemaker is U.C. Davis trained Victor Schoenfeld and their Yarden wines continue to win countless awards. They have also built a winery in the Upper Galilee called Galil Mountain.
Carmel Winery at Zichron Ya?acov is situated on Mount Carmel. The winery has been renovated and the addition of a small facility for making handcrafted wines from small vineyard lots, has resulted in rave reviews, particularly for the Kayoumi single vineyard and Appellation wines. The rejuvenation of Carmel reflects the dramatic upswing in Israeli wine ? a journey from sacramental to single vineyard wines.
In the central coastal plain, south east of Tel Aviv, Barkan, Israel?s second largest winery, have built a new winery next to the largest vineyard in the country. Their Barkan and Segal wines represent good value.
The central Judean Hills, is where Domaine du Castel, Israel?s most famous boutique winery, is situated. They produce wine of immense interest to connoisseurs the world over. Castel wines show elegance and finesse with a pronounced French influence.
In the north east Negev lies Yatir Winery, an example of one of the new boutique wineries founded since 2000. Yatir wines, are produced by Australian trained Eran Goldwasser from 900 meter altitude vineyards, within Yatir Forest, Israel?s largest forest. Their wines show concentration, body and no little quality. Yatir is one of Israel?s ?hottest? new wineries.
Recently Robert Parker?s Wine Advocate, the most influential wine tasting publication in the world, published its first ever generic tasting of Israeli wines. Four wineries, Carmel, Castel, Yarden & Yatir, succeeded in getting two wines or more with a score of 90+ points. The best red, white and dessert wines were Yatir Forest with 93 points, ?C? Blanc du Castel (91) and Yarden HeightsWine (93). According to Robert Parker?s tasting system a wine scoring over 90 is ?an outstanding wine of exceptional complexity and character.? Fourteen Israeli wines scored more than 90 points.
This was followed by a Wine Spectator report on Israel. The leading wine was again Yatir Forest with 92 points, a position shared with Clos de Gat Sycra 2004 and Tulip Syrah Reserve 2005. These two publications represent the ultimate third party recommendations.
It appears that Israeli red wines, in particular Bordeaux style blends based on Cabernet Sauvignon, and Shiraz/Syrahs, are truly world class. The occasional old vine Carignan or Petite Sirah are of great interest. Israel also produces international class white wines, from varieties such as Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc and high quality sparkling and dessert wines.
Some of the finest prestige wines, like Carmel Limited Edition, Castel Grand Vin, Yarden Katzrin and Yatir Forest, represent the best of Israel, but they also happen to be kosher. Mark Squires in the Wine Advocate said that the kosher designation was insignificant in determining a wine?s quality and that no-one should avoid a wine just because it is kosher. In fact not all Israeli wines are kosher. There are also excellent wineries producing non kosher Israeli wines like Clos de Gat, Margalit and Tulip.
For the Jewish market, Israeli wines undoubtedly represent the finest range and best quality kosher wines in the world. For the general wine world, they represent the finest quality wines from the Eastern Mediterranean, an area which was the cradle of the grape and the birth of wine culture. Wine lovers and connoisseurs should not hold back from sampling an Israeli wine. They could be in for a pleasant surprise!
(This article appeared in the New York Times Supplement for Israel?s 60th Anniversary)