In our little corner of the Eastern Mediterranean, from mid-July to the end of October, our precious grapes are carefully harvested, taken to the winery to be made into award winning wines that represent Israel all over the world. It is a paradox that the humble grape, such a simple fruit, may be transformed into wine, which is a product with immense added value. For this reason, many in ancient times believed that wine touched the divine.
Wine has been made for thousands of years in the Eastern Mediterannean. In ancient times this region was the equivalent of today’s France and Italy, both in terms of quantity and quality. Indeed, the Eastern Mediterranean was where wine culture was born, and it was shaped in turn by the Canaanites, Phoenicians, Israelites, Ancient Greeks, Romans, Byzantines, and then nurtured by Judaism and Christianity.
Today the countries of the Eastern Mediterranean are covered with wild vines, domestic vines and cultivated vineyards. Not all vineyards have the grandeur of those earmarked for wine, which are from the very beginning planted with wine grapes and cultivated with the love and care of manicured gardens, with the sole objective of making fine wines. Many produce table grapes, suitable for eating, yet there are many different uses of grapes apart from making wine or eating, and there are some useful by products of the vine.
During the winter, the vine is so bare, it appears almost to be dead. It is hard to imagine how it will look by late summer, with new growth, vigorous green, leafy foliage, and abundant, fast ripening bunches of grapes. Pruning is the main winter activity, but it is hard, lonely work and often done when it is very cold. Yet it is vital for preparing the vine for a successful growing season. Pruning though, provides a ‘by product’, which is in demand by those in the know. I am referring to vine cuttings, which are gathered up, bound up in like sized bundles and then dried. They will later be sought after by barbeque aficionados for use in grilling and smoking beef, lamb or fish. The vine wood burns very hot and imparts a smoky flavor. The national sport of Israelis is the barbeque and they have it down to a fine art. The use of vine cuttings will only enhance the experience.
The vine leaf is an attractive part of the vine. It is relatively large, heart or hand shaped with a toothy edging. It has the benefit of being decorative and it may be grown merely to provide shade under a pergola. However, for precious wine grapes, the vine leaves have a crucial role. They shade the grapes from the hot Eastern Mediterranean sun. On the other hand, sometimes leaves are even removed, in order to allow the clusters more exposure. All this comes under the subject of canopy management, which is an important part of growing quality wine, especially in a hot climate.
The vine leaf is another ‘by product’ from the vine. In the spring and early summer, the leaves may be carefully picked and put aside to make stuffed or rolled vine leaf dishes. Many of the domestic vineyards or wild vines in the Eastern Mediterranean were over the years looked after by the woman in the family. Domestic winemaking was their responsibility. Therefore, it was easy for them to make use of the vine leaves to make dishes that became associated with the region. Most famous are the Greek dolmas or dolmades, which are stuffed or filled grape leaves. The filling may be rice, meat, fresh herbs and spices, made in full flavored bite sizes. They are delicious and nutritious, and though most associated with Greece, they are also familiar in Cypriot, Lebanese, Turkish, Palestinian, Israeli & Druze cooking.
The vine leaf forms a similar role to other wrap vegetables like cabbage, lettuce and spinach. The vine leaf needs to be picked when they are large enough, but still tender. Older leaves will be tougher, chewier and leathery. The vine leaf acts as a receptacle and it absorbs the flavor and juices of the filling when stuffed. It may be used in salads, or be part of the filling itself. It tastes tangy, even citrusy with pleasant texture. Its use is mainly seasonal, but they can be pickled in order to preserve them longer.
The Israeli Chef is presently conquering the world with a new, creative version of Mediterranean food. Israeli cuisine is a fusion between the Eastern Mediterranean, the Middle East and North Africa and represents all the customs and flavors of the wider region combined together. The use of the vine leaf is everywhere in this region and stuffed vine leaves is a dish that really symbolizes the Eastern Med.
The Golan Heights Winery has organized a vine leaf festival encouraging famous chefs to invent dishes using the vine leaf in any way they wish. The results were creative, tempting and tasty! They even also approached Israel’s most famous bartender mixologist to invent a vine leaf cocktail! The recipes celebrate the versatility of the vine leaf, the creativity of Israeli chefs and the cuisine of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Later, when we arrive at the harvest in the late summer and early autumn, the grapes do not have to be made into wine. They may be made into alcohol free grape juice. In Israel, grape juice is bracketed together as part of the wine trade and in religious ritual, it is also permitted to use grape juice, which in Judaism has a status no different to wine. The grape juice I am referring to is not the bright purple concoction sold to children in tetra packs and sucked through a straw. It is a natural product made 100% from grapes and sold in a glass bottle. Israeli grape juices were once made from food table grapes, but these days, such is the excess of wine grapes, they are usually made from Carignan (for red grape juice), and both Colombard and Muscat of Alexandria (for white).
Israel produces something like 10-12 million bottles of grape juice annually. This is not a small quantity, when set against the 40-45 million bottles of wine produced a year. The main producer is Carmel and their Carmel Tirosh is still considered the Rolls Royce of grape juices. When I came to Israel, they had 80% of the grape juice market. However, they lost exclusivity of the word Tirosh, did not invest in the brand for many years and other wineries learnt to make grape juice in a more inexpensive way, in some cases cutting corners that Carmel were not prepared to do. Today Carmel’s main competitors in production of grape juice, are Barkan-Segal, Teperberg, Arza, Zion and Jerusalem wineries. I still believe Carmel is number one, but the gap has closed. Zion Winery makes a unique product called ‘Beit Saba’, which is a natural grape juice 24 hours from the vineyard to the bottle. It is recommended if you can find it just after harvest.
Another use of grapes has an even longer history than grape juice. In 1898, Carmel had an excess of grapes and decided to use them to make brandy (distilled wine.) Carmel Extra Fine Brandy was born. I believe this was Carmel’s oldest brand after Palwin and the label barely changed until the product was discontinued. Stock 84 and Brandy 777 became the largest selling brands after the founding of the state and Israel produced millions of bottles of brandy during its peak of popularity. The image of Israeli brandy was at its greatest in the 1990’s, when Tishbi Brandy, Carmel 100, and Carmel 777 won some major awards. Initially Dabouki and then later Colombard were the main grapes used to make the base wine for distillation. However, the opening of imports, an unfriendly tax structure and the rise of whisky, which became the spirit of choice in Israel, coincided with the sharp decline of Israeli brandy.
Carmel stopped producing brandy in the early 2000’s because it was not considered profitable. The beautiful old pot stills and impressive continuous still, both of which were in the tall tower at Rishon Cellars, were sold for scrap. Absolutely criminal, they should have been under some preservation order, like the buildings where they were situated. The rare old casks of matured brandy were used up in the final expressions of Brandy 100, Brandy 120 and Rishon XO. A tradition of more than 100 years, ground or rather whimpered to a halt. It was not just Carmel. Even Tishbi Winery’s handsome pot still, purchased second hand from Remy Martin, has become mainly a tourist attraction.
Now, Carmel is relaunching brandy again, but it is with a difference. It is out-sourced from a third party continuous still, without the library of old brandies they used to hold. The brandies are called XO, VSOP and 777 (revived), a kind of VS. These names which signify different periods of maturation, are being launched at the same time which explains all you need to know!
The Carmel Brandy leaflet says the 777 was aged for a minimum of three years. The Zichron Yaacov VSOP was matured for 5-7 years and the Rishon Le Zion XO for between 13 and 35 years. I must admit I found them over sweet, too spirity, lacking in fruitiness, lacking a middle palate and not a patch on the Carmel brandies of old. However, of course it is good that Carmel is again producing brandy. At least there will be a commercial Israeli brandy on the shelves again, joining that old survivor, Stock 84.
Cremisan Monastery and the Julius VI Brandy may provide more interesting alternatives for either a genuine older aged brandy or an authentic artisan production. Another grape based brandy is known as Grappa in Italy and Marc in French. It is made from the pomace, the remains of the grapes after pressing. It includes skins, pulp, seeds and stems. The Marc de Galilee from Julius Distillery is an expression of a talented handcrafted distillery.
Once, Carmel even used grape alcohol also to produce vodka and arak. Later they discovered imported molasses alcohol was cheaper, more practical and by using it they avoided complications with kashrut. When global brands became available in Israel, the locally produced spirits and liqueur industry crashed. However, Arak is still produced here. This is the indigenous spirit of the Eastern Mediterranean, known as Arak in Lebanon, Jordan and Israel, Raki in Turkey and Ouzo in Greece and Cyprus. Of the commercial Araks here, Elite Arak is still by far the largest in sales. Kawar is arguably the best in quality, but thankfully there are also craft distillers like Pelter, making artisan Araks. No doubt though, it is the Lebanese Arak that is the finest expression of this spirit.
In Lebanon, the grapes will be made into wine and then distilled to make Arak. Michael Karam in his excellent book Arak & Mezze, outlines the artisanal, domestic cycle in Lebanon. A family will harvest grapes from their own vineyard. What they can eat, they will keep as grapes. They will make the rest into wine. This they will drink through the winter months. As the wine begins to turn sour in the spring, they will distill the remainder two or three times in a rudimentary domestic still, adding anise to make arak. This they will drink during the summer, before the cycle repeats itself. Brun, El Massaya, Ksarak and Touma are some of the well-known brands, made by leading wineries. They normally use their indigenous varieties like Obeideh and Merwah as the base for making Arak. The Lebanese regard their Arak with the same reverence that a Scotsman has for his Whisky.
Turkey is the largest grape grower in the Eastern Mediterranean, and the 5th largest in the world. However, only 2-4% of their grapes are reserved for winemaking. Their major industry for grapes is in the production of raisins. Harvested grapes are dried and the berry dehydrated. The most romantic notion is of grapes drying naturally in the sun, lying on mats by the vineyard. The more commercial and practical option is machine drying to reduce the moisture content. Raisins are not so prevalent in Israel, but I remember what a treat it was for my children to receive a little red box of sultana raisins which they would devour, one by one, until the box was empty.
There is another tradition in our region. Palestinians will produce dibs, or grape molasses, from white grapes. This is made by boiling and stirring, and it is a totally natural product. This grape syrup is as old as time. It provided sweetness before cane sugar, necessary calories during the winter and it was another way of maximizing the use of the precious annual yield of grapes. In fact, this is also part of the culture in Greece, Lebanon, Turkey and in other wine producing countries. Each country has its own name. Dibs can be mixed with tahini for breakfast, poured over pancakes, added to yoghurts or made into Malban, a bite size, fruit jelly cake with added pistachios, or into a dried fruit leather.
Of course, there other derivatives of wine. Vermouth, is an aromatized and flavored fortified wine. The Vermut Sec de Galilee (made by Julius Distillery) and new individual expressions called Vedetta 52 Vermouth (by Eyal Drori) are an innovative new look at the Israel produced vermouth. For those who remember the Carmel & Stock vermouths, these will be more authentic, interesting and far better quality. Lastly, wine vinegar; I suppose Balsamic Vinegar from Italy, is an exalted wine vinegar. Carmel used to sell a kosher wine vinegar, but these days wine vinegar is hard to find in Israel.
So next time you see a vineyard dormant and resting during the winter, blooming in the spring, heavy with ripening fruit in the summer, or with the leaves turning different shades of red and yellow in the autumn, remember the variety of its bounty. It may be used for food to eat, wine to drink, and so much more!
Wine trade veteran Adam Montefiore has advanced Israeli wine for 35 years. He is referred to as the English voice of Israeli wine. He is the wine writer for the Jerusalem Post. www.adammontefiore.com