?By: Natasha Hughes
This article first appeared in Decanter
In the Bible, Israel is referred to as a land of milk and honey. To the once-nomadic desert tribesmen who settled there a few thousand years ago, it must have seemed a veritable agricultural paradise; a land where all kinds of grain, fruit and vegetables grew abundantly, one where livestock fattened and grew plentiful.
This was also a land where vines thrived, and there are many references in the Old Testament and Talmud to drinking and drunkeness. Indeed, Jewish tradition encourages its people to take part in ritual drinking during certain festivals. Four cups of wine are drunk during the course of the seder or Passover dinner and, during the festival of Purim, Jews are enjoined to drink to the point where they cannot tell Haman (the bad guy) from Mordechai (the hero).
But, in the intervening centuries of the Diaspora, Israel?s winemaking tradition was all but forgotten. As Jewish settlers began to trickle back into the country during the 19th and 20th centuries, an enthusiasm for viticulture was reawakened, although the end product would probably not be to the taste of the modern connoisseur. Sticky, sweet sacramental wines produced from overcropped, high-yielding vines were the order of the day and few producers looked to a market outside Israel. What there was of it consisted of a handful of religious Jews, scattered to the four corners of the globe, who insisted on drinking kosher wines.
?Vine growers didn?t make wine in Israel, a situation that lasted for 120 years,? explains Domaine de Castel?s Eli Ben Zaken. ?As a result, there was always a conflict of interest between growers with their high yields and winemakers with their low prices. The wines were selling because they were kosher rather than thanks to any merit of the wines themselves.?
Things began to change in the 80s, in part at least a consequence of Israelis? developing interest in gastronomy. As more young Israelis travelled abroad, the influence of foreign cuisines and winemaking began to be felt in their native country. And, not only did Israelis start importing quality wines, a small handful began to dream about making their own.
As you drive northwards from Tel Aviv up towards the Golan Heights, the hotly disputed wall built to contain the West Bank Palestinians runs parallel to the main north?south highway for a few kilometres as it cuts its way across the countryside like an angry scar. Groups of soldiers punctuate the crossroads. Dressed in fatigues, a wary hand resting on the butts of their rifles, most of them are little more than teenagers. As you reach the turn off to Jenin, the isolated groups become clumps, a copse of soldiery. It?s an image of Israel that we all recognise from the newspapers and TV broadcasts.
Yet Israel has another reality, one that co-exists alongside the tension and conflict of a nation enmeshed in a state of permanent strife, a reality that involves everyday people going about their everyday lives in an ordinary sort of way. The Bazelet Hagolan winery is located on a peaceful hilltop ? a trace of morning mist still wreathes the vineyard in a blanket of quiet calm ? and Asaf Kedem sounds like other winemakers the world over as he describes his vineyards with pride. ?The grapes from the Golan Heights already show great quality,? he says. ?Each vineyard produces wines with different aromas, but in general you?ll find a trace of eucalyptus. On the whole, the wines made here are full-bodied, but the temperature differentials create wines with good acidity and balance.?
It was here, in the high hills of northern Israel, that the drive to create quality Israeli wines was born. The first vineyards were planted in the late 70s, and many wineries still source their premium grapes in the region, putting the Golan, and the rest of the Upper Galilee terroirs, at the heart of the drive for quality.
?I think the Upper Galilee is one of the best growing regions in the world,? says Barry Saslove, a former wine lecturer who now runs his own winery, sourcing most of his grapes in the Galilee. ?The basalt soil is really rich, with lots of terrarossa, and beneath there?s limestone, which draws the roots downwards.?
Not only does the Upper Galilee benefit from its volcanic soils, the climate (strongly influenced by the high altitude) is also conducive to the cultivation of top-notch grapes, with cold winters and warm summers, and dramatic temperature differences between night and day. At the moment, the area is best known for its Cabernet and Chardonnay, but there?s growing interest in the Syrah cultivated in the area.
The other region to win early recognition for the potential quality of its wines is the Judean Hills. Ben Zaken, who planted his first vineyards in 1988, was one of the area?s pioneers. The vineyard he owns in the Kesalon Valley is located not far from the city of Jerusalem, and its stone terraces trace the outline of earlier terraces that may well date back many centuries to the Roman era or beyond. Le Vallon is surrounded by green oaks and is wreathed in the aromas of the garrigue of southern France ? and it?s not just the local flora that evokes comparison.
?We?ve got a combination of clay, terrarossa and limestone soils here,? explains Ben Zaken. ?They?re very similar to those found around Montpellier in the Languedoc.?
Thanks to the proximity of the sea, there are certain similarities in climate between the two areas as well, although that of the Judean Hills is tempered by altitude, with long, hot summer days and chilly, damp nights.
Although the Galilee and Judean Hills are where the action?s at ? for the moment at least ? another area showing promise is the Negev or, to be more specific, the high-altitude areas on the northern fringes of this southern desert. There the warm summers with cool nights and well-drained calcareous clay soils combine to produce wines with their own distinctive style.
?The Cabernet we?ve got here isn?t typical Bordeaux Cabernet,? explains Yatir?s winemaker Eran Goldwasser. ?It?s more earthy, with red fruit and cherries ? and, thanks to the cool nights, it isn?t at all jammy.?
Israel has two further grape-growing regions, Shomron and Shimson, but, by and large, the heavyish soils and warm climate don?t tend to result in the production of fine wines. Quality-focused winemakers in these areas tend to own vineyards or buy in grapes grown in other regions.
Although most top-end winemaking, up until now, has been focused on the production of Bordeaux-style reds and Burgundian whites, many among the younger generation of winemakers are looking for other grapes, ones that may well be better adapted to the range of terroirs.
Clos de Gat, which is based in the Ayalon Valley in the foothills of Judea, is fast gaining a reputation for its Cabernet-based blends and its Chardonnay, but winemaker Eyal Rotem is already experimenting with other grapes. ?We?ve started making a Syrah,? he says. ?I think the variety suits the climate the soil here. We?re also growing some Viognier to blend in with the Syrah ? I?m looking towards France in terms of the style of wine I want to make from it.?
Asaf Paz, based at Carmel?s Zichron winery, is enthusiastic about the potential of a whole range of white varietals. ?I?d like to see varieties like Riesling and Gewurztraminer planted in the north, but also grapes like Viognier, Marsanne and Roussanne. Even Sauvignon Blanc can do well up north, as long as it?s handled correctly.?
Elsewhere, winemakers are experimenting with Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Mourv?dre, Tempranillo, Malbec and Petite Sirah. Even the much-maligned Carignan is coming under new scrutiny. ?We have a lot of old vines once used to make simple table wines,? says Paz, ?but if they?re managed right they should make great wines.?
Even the definition of what makes a great wine is being redefined as the new wave of Israeli winemakers look further afield than France for their inspiration. ?The wonderful thing about making wine here is that we don?t have to follow anyone?s rules,? explains Saslove. ?I hope that means that our wines develop their own style. Why should we be bound by the conventions of either the Old or the New Worlds??
?We?re fusion winemakers,? echoes Goldwasser. ?We get the best of both worlds. We?re not limited by appellation laws, we can choose which varieties we want to plant and where we plant them and use modern technology. But a lot of emphasis goes on specific vineyard plots and we?re also very cautious in our use of oak. I think what the professionals are looking for is New World fruit with Old World elegance ? although that?s not necessarily what the public wants.?
And it is the younger winemakers, people like Goldwasser, Paz and Rotem, most of whom have trained overseas, who are driving the wholesale reassessment of terroir, viticulture and winemaking that is revolutionising the Israeli wine industry. Together with a handful of earlier pioneers, they are looking to create an entirely new future for the country?s wines. One can only hope that, in the long term, their optimism and dynamic attitude will be rewarded by a growing interest in the wines they produce, and a shift in emphasis towards the ?other? Israel.