Israeli Wines Year in Review

Wine Educator David Rhodes more »

Recently, I attended the yearly Israeli Wine Expo in Tel Aviv and I wanted to share some of my observations gained there and in my travels and conversations with Israel wine insiders.

Rhone is Still Waxing, While Bordeaux is Waning
In the pie of Israeli wine offerings, if some segment is gaining a larger piece of the pie it has to be at the expense of another segment.

Rhone single varietals & blends are continuing to hold and gain interest Syrah (also called Shiraz) leads the way as a single varietal or as part of blends with Cabernet (a very Australian type of offering) or a “GSM”  Grenache, Syrah & Mourvedre blend (and many variations on that theme).

So, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlots, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec (“the five Bordeaux reds”) blends and single varietal offerings are still prevalent just not as ubiquitous as before as more winemakers try to deviate from the Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay default more common 15 to 20 years ago.

Native Varietals Still Gaining Traction
Although the push for unique wine grapes to our area hasn’t lost interest, the jury is still out whether they can make wines as good or better as “Noble Varieties” such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay or Syrah.

Some very good international reviews (scores in the 90’s or gold medals at competitions) is a cause for cautious optimism but some prominent local winemakers are not convinced that these grapes possess the characteristics to offer the complexity and balance of established international varieties planted here. Maybe when these grapes have vineyards that are 10 to 20 years old and as wineries and growers gain more experience with these grapes we will experience more dynamic vintages in the future.

The Barkan Winery, under the leadership of Ido Lewinsohn MW, released a new native red Yael single varietal from a Golan Heights vineyard in their restaurant targeted Beta series. With a half dozen grapes now being made and marketed locally, the industry has definitively embraced the effort over the last several years. Time will tell if this a fad or if it will grow into a significant fraction of what’s on shelves and wine lists. Since vines take years to develop and often a decade or more to show true potential, any new grape getting into several wineries is a major development.

Poor, Poor Pinot
Some wineries like Vitken, Yarden, Midbar and Gvaot have long offered Pinot Noir defying stereotypes that you can not grow and make decent Pinot Noir at such low latitudes. Typically, a grape associated with colder climes like Burgundy and Champagne in France, Germany, Oregon or New Zealand, the seven month summers of Israel seemed to offer inhospitable possibilities yet at higher elevations in the Golan Heights, Judean Hills, Galilee, Negev and Shomron several wineries made respectable wines. YET, marketing those wines hasn’t been easy. And the grapes are known to be difficult to cultivate.

So, it’s not that surprising that some wineries like the Jerusalem Winery and Tishbi have stepped back from currently releasing Pinot Noirs as reds but switched gears to offer them as the grape behind a rose. Even though roses can be exceptional wines, it would be fair to say consumers have much lower expectations and an Israeli rose can be easier to market as well.

Pinots also contribute to occasional Blanc de Noirs and spectacular sparkling wines like the Gamla Brut and sparkling Rose under the Yarden label.

What’s That Pét Nat?
Speaking of sparkling wines, a wider selection of Israeli Pét Nats seem to bubbling up into the market. The first offering I noticed was from the Dalton Winery and this more casual style of sparkling wine showed promise for offering a more affordable and diverse alternative to Champagne style wines.

Pét Nat stands for Pétillant Natural, the OG method of making sparkling wine that predates the Champagne Method. The Champagne method can be very labor intensive compared to make other styles of wine and includes a secondary fermentation in the bottle by adding yeast and sugar to an already finished still wine.

The Pétillant Natural method allows the first fermentation to happen inside the bottle (compared to most still wines that are fermented before bottling) and the carbonation from the fermentation remains in the bottle. The resulting carbonation is under significantly lower pressure than Champagne style wines which require heavier bottles, a special cork and caging to prevent the bottle from exploding and the corks from prematurely popping.

Pét Nats will be seen in conventional looking wine bottles and often will feature an old school metal soda pop type cap as easy to open as a bottle of beer. One interesting aspect of Pét Nats is that there are not the traditional restrictions of Champagne on what grapes you can use so an almost infinite amount of single varietals and blends are possible.

With Israel’s long summers any and all expansions to wines best served chilled present a welcome addition to our expanding array of choices.

I’ll have mine as a twist
The Carmel and Tishbi Winery have long offered spirits as part of their portfolio and it’s not a stretch to offer brandy as it’s distilled wine (in contrast to whisky which is basically distilled beer).

Adding to the availability of winery made spirits, Dalton (making maybe the most changes of a larger winery over the last few years) released a well received gin while the Pelter Winery in the Golan has been making a larger selection of quality gins, arak and bourbon barrel aged whiskies for several years now .

With this in the back drop we are seeing more smaller independent distilleries come onto the scene including the Golani Distillery  and the award winning Milk and Honey in Jaffa.

Local vermouths (basically herb infused wines) are also rising in number while local restaurants and bars are adding a wider local and imported selection.

David Rhodes is a California trained sommelier and wine educator who has worked in restaurants and wineries in the United States and Israel. David has written about Israeli wines for 15 years and appeared in hundreds of radio shows and podcasts in Israel, the US, Germany, China and Australia talking about what is special about Israeli wines.
He can be heard as a reoccurring guest on Israeli radio and can be contacted at [email protected]


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