An Insider's guide to restaurants, wine, spirits and culinary travel

Israel Travel: the israeli wine road

                                                                            By Ken Schechet

Israel travel wouldn't have included winery visits until recently. To put it bluntly, Israeli wine used to suck, and that was a shame because there was no reason that the country couldn’t make outstanding wine.  This, after all, is one of the cradles of wine history.  Wine was made here thousands of years ago, long before it was made in Europe.  Wine is mentioned in the Bible many times.  It has always been an important part of most Jewish religious ceremonies.  Noah planted a vineyard.  Spies that Moses sent to the land of Canaan returned with grapes.  Jesus’ first recorded miracle was turning water into wine.  Ancient wine presses and vessels have been unearthed all over the country.  It’s been a part of this area for a long time, yet in previous visits I was rarely offered a glass of wine in anyone’s house and almost never saw a wine list in a restaurant.  The wine just wasn’t very good, and quantity trumped quality in the roughly ten wineries that were operating then. 

Today there are somewhere between 200 and 300 wineries ranging from significant operations to many garagistas located all over the country.  Israel is a land of an enormous number of microclimates capable of producing all sorts of wines, much like other “long” places such as Chile, California and Italy.  There is land influenced by its proximity to the sea, there is desert, there are mountains and there are plains.  There is reddish, mineral rich soil known as terra rosa, there is limestone, there are chalk deposits, and there mountains formed by basaltic lava flows.  There is lots of sun.  Basically you have every possible combination of soil and temperature that you need to produce good wine from almost any grape, and you have it all in a country the size of New Jersey. 

What’s been added in the last decade is the desire to make great wine.  Israelis have become wealthier. Their standard of living is rising.  They travel around the world.  They see what other people eat and drink.  Many have come home demanding better wine.  Some have returned with the desire to make it, and I saw the same passion in the Israeli wine makers that I have seen in people who make wine all over the world.  They feel they were born to do this and they are not going to stop until they are producing world class wine.  Per capita wine consumption in Israel has doubled in the last ten years, indicating that they are well on their way.

A quick word about kosher.  First, not all kosher wine is Israeli.  Chateau D’Arsac (Margaux) from France, Becketts Flat Margaret River from Australia, Batasiolo Langhe Nebbiolo from Italy, Terroso Carmenere from Chile, Torras de Belmonte from Portugal and Goose Bay Marlborough Sauvignon Blanc from New Zealand are all kosher.  Conversely, not all Israeli wine is kosher.  Being kosher involves many things that are just good winemaking practices such as cleaning tools, vats, and other equipment, letting the fields lie fallow every seventh year, and using kosher materials such as yeasts in the winemaking process. 

There is also a religious component to kosher wine.  It can only be handled by Sabbath observant Jews from when the grapes reach the winery to when the wine is served.  The winemaking process must be overseen by rabbis.  The religious rules surrounding wine are actually stricter than the rules regarding food like chicken.  No one could tell me why this is but I suspect it may be because kosher wine has sacramental uses as well as general consumption.  Wine must be kosher to be sold in supermarkets in Israel, and that is why all the large wineries are kosher.  For the small wineries it is both a personal and a business decision to be kosher or not.  There is nothing about being kosher that harms wine.  If fact, all the procedures to keep everything clean probably help the quality. 

There is one exception to this.  Some wines used to be boiled to make them so kosher that they could be handled by a non-Sabbath-observant Jew.  These wines, known as Mevushal, are now flash pasteurized.  I have had people swear up and down that the quality of these wines are just as high as regular kosher wines but I’m not buying it.  No winery I visited gave me a Mevushal wine to taste.  All Mevushal wines are labeled as such.  If you are trying Israeli wines, unless you have a religious reason to buy Mevushal, I would take a pass on them. 

I’d like to acknowledge the invaluable assistance of my cousin, Shimon Kahanovitz, who made the winery appointments and then drove me hundreds of kilometers all over Israel so I could write this story.  His background with the Ministry of Agriculture also added to my understanding of what I was seeing. Israel’s premier wine writer, the late Daniel Rogov, helped me pick wineries to visit and generously met with me in Tel Aviv. 

Vitkin winery

My first stop was of great interest to me.  It was in a little village called Kfar Vitkin in the central coastal plains north of Tel Aviv.  Some of my relatives settled in this village when they came to what is now Israel many years ago, so I have known it for about 40 years.  It is a place that raises cows and chickens.  Now it has a winery. 

Doron Belogolovsky was in the mineral business, spent a lot of time in Italy, learned to love wine and started a winery part time in an old cowshed.  He grows some grapes locally such as Syrah, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Tempranillo, and Sangiovese, but he buys most of his grapes from the Judean hills outside of Jerusalem.  His initial vintage was in 2001 but the first serious release was in 2002.  He got help from his brother-in-law, Assaf Paz, who had made wine in Italy, Australia and at Jordan Winery in California, but he basically learned on the job.  (Assaf is now winemaker at Benyamina Winery, not far from Vitkin).  This is still officially a part time project but Doron is up to 40,000 bottles in 2007 and the winery is his thing.  There are no rabbis anywhere and the wine is not kosher.  He sells to restaurants and liquor stores and is starting to export, mostly to Canada and France. 

White Israeli Journey 2007 is a combination of Viognier, Gewurztraminer, and an old variety of Colombard originally planted in Israel by the Rothschilds.  Those vines are 35 years old.  It was a delightful, fun, fragrant summer wine that would be enjoyable as an aperitif or with fish.  In fact, I ordered it in a fish restaurant in Tel Aviv about a week later and my whole family liked it.  The wine costs about $18. 

The 2007 Riesling was just released and Doron says it needs to be aged.  It had very good fruit, good acid and was very promising.  I couldn’t taste earlier releases because they are sold out.  His 2005 was exhibited at a Tel Aviv Wine Expo and was highly praised by wine critic Mark Squires.  It was also admired by a German importer, and Doron is now negotiating to export Riesling to Germany.  Unbelievable!

His 2006 Pinot Noir ($21) had great aroma and surprised me by how good it was.  It is aged 10 months in wood barrels that were used for white wine.  The vines are 8 years old and the wine should improve as they age.  Doron claims that a friend snuck this wine into a blind tasting in California and it won.  The Judgment of California.  I smell a movie.

The 2006 Carignan has not been released yet.  It should age four to six years.  He made this just to show he can grow the varietal.  A barrel sample was an outstanding, smooth, elegant wine with great mineral overtones.  I loved it.  It will be about $28.  But the wine that has won him prizes in Israeli competitions (aside from the Riesling) is the 2004 Petit Syrah ($30) made from 30 year old vines in the Judean Hills.  This wine just explodes with flavor and aroma.  It’s a great expression of the varietal (http://vitkineng.90.kidumnet.com/).

galil mountain

For a complete change of pace I next went to Galil Mountain in the upper Galilee, about 200 yards from the Lebanese border. 

This winery is a joint venture between Kibbutz Yiron and the Golan Heights Winery.  Grapes come from five vineyards in the Galilee which all have different soils.  Soil in the Galilee changes every mile, so you go from volcanic in the Kibbutz itself, to terra rosa with limestone, then to clay without traveling very far.  The Golan Heights Winery was clearly interested in the quality of the soil when they chose this place for a partnership.  The high elevation, cool breezes, different temperatures during the day and night and the well-drained soil are custom made for French varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.  It is a big, beautiful, state of the art winery that produced its first wine in 2000.  This is an extremely high tech operation that produces one million bottles of wine with only four employees working the winery.  The crusher is from Italy, the press is from Germany, but almost everything else was made in Israel.  Add to this Micha Vaadia, a young, smart winemaker with a Masters from UC Davis and you’ve got the basis for a very successful operation. 

Galil Mountain Avivim ($20) is a white blend of 74% Viognier and 26% Chardonnay that ages nine months in French Oak.  It is very fruity with flavors of apricot, banana, peach, pear and vanilla from the oak.  It was full of flavor and a very nice dry wine.  This is a new release and bodes well for the future.

Galil Mountain Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 ($16) is 100% Cabernet that spends 6 months in stainless steel tanks.  It is young, fruity, and a pleasant table wine that compares well with wines of its type from around the world. 

Galil Mountain Shiraz-Cabernet ($16) is 53% Shiraz and 47% Cabernet and has an alcohol content of 14.5%.  It spends ten months in American oak.  I found it very aromatic, something I was starting to notice about Israeli wines, and quite different than Australian versions of the same blend.  Full bodied with a nice elegant finish it was fine but not my favorite version of this blend.

Galil Mountain Yiron is a Bordeaux blend and the premium line from this winery.  The 2004 at $30 was 72% Cabernet, 25% Merlot and 3% Syrah.  This is a classic full bodied Cab blend with all the cherries, berries and so forth that you expect, but also had a floral component.  It was very, very good although I think it will be better in two or three years.  This wine won a gold medal at Vinexpo in France in 2001 and has also won prizes in Germany.  The 2003 recently was the top wine in a New York Times tasting of Israeli wines.  Seek this out if you want to see what Israeli wine is capable of.

Yiron Syrah 2004 ($28) was an eye opener.  This was only the second vintage for this wine and they have produced a 100% Syrah that can stand up to anything.  Full bodied with soft tannins and an earthy character, the wine just explodes with flavor. A great effort (http://galilmountain.co.il/english/about).

bazalet hagolan winery

This winery is in the rich basalt (bazelet in Hebrew) soil of the Golan Heights overlooking the Sea of Galilee.  Bazelet really refers to lava stones in the soil that drain into underground springs.  The winery produces only Cabernet Sauvignon which is all grown at the winery.  Winemaker Yoav Levy was a sales manager for heavy equipment who just loved wine and became an amateur winemaker.  He made his first wine in an old bomb shelter near his house and it was undrinkable.  He moved the winery to an old cowshed and went to school.  He also got a lot of advice from the winemakers at the Golan Heights Winery and an American winemaker.  The wines got better and he eventually built the current modern winery. 

His partner is a religious Jew so the wines are kosher.  One observant Jew handles the grapes and only he has the keys to several rooms.  Yoav will make about 70,000 bottles of wine this year, and it is now very good wine.  The plan is to grow to 100,000 bottles and then stop, although he’s thinking about Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.  They sell through a wine club of devoted fans, restaurants, and specialty wine shops.  They have even shown up on the wine list at Legal Sea Foods. 

There are really only two wines.  The bronze label ($30) is aged for eight months in oak barrels.  It is a very nice wine that I thoroughly enjoyed.  The Reserve ($40) has a silver label and is aged for 20 months.  It has won gold medals in both France and Canada.  I loved this one.  It was one of those occasions where I stopped spitting and just sat there and drank the wine while looking at the beautiful scenery around me.  The people working there are very happy, they make great wine, and it’s a nice place to be (http://www.bazelet-hagolan.com/).

golan heights winery

Many people in Israel will tell you that the quality revolution in winemaking there started at the Golan Heights Winery.  It is located in the mountains near the borders of both Syria and Lebanon.  The vineyards are at altitudes ranging from 400 meters to 1,200 meters, producing many microclimates up and down the mountain.  These microclimates are carefully matched to grape varietals ensuring that the right grapes are grown in the right places.  The winery has been in existence for 25 years and currently produces six million bottles each year, 30% of which are exported. 

Victor Schoenfeld, the head winemaker, is a graduate of UC Davis and had stints at Robert Mondavi and Chateau St. Jean in California and Champagne Jacquesson & Fils in France.  He came to Golan Heights in 1991 on a three year contract.  He’s still there.  Victor quickly realized that Israel would never be successful in low cost mass market wine and went directly to making high quality wines using the most modern techniques possible.  He’s a great believer in R&D (almost $4 million is spent each year on it) and thinks that will help Israel make up for their relative lack of experience.  They have machines that measure the width of the vines.  They also measure the conductivity of the soil up and down the mountain and map it.  They analyze how the sun crosses the fields at this latitude.  NASA satellite imagery helps determine optimum planting.  A network of meteorological stations throughout the vineyards and a system of micro sensors attached to the vines collect temperature and humidity readings on a minute-by-minute basis.  Sometimes you’re not sure if you are talking about making wine or launching the space shuttle.  But, indeed, they make wine---world class wine. 

Far too many wines are produced to go through them here.  There are three main labels, Yarden (premium), Gamla (midrange), and Golan (everyday).  There is also a super-premium series called Katzrin that is only produced in special years.  There are also multiple single vineyard wines that have won awards all over the world.  The 2004 Katzrin Chardonnay was selected as one of the world’s top 60 Chardonnay wines of 2008 at the Chardonnay du Monde held this March in Burgundy.  The 2005 Yarden Gewurztraminer Heights Wine got a 93 from Robert Parker this year.  The 2003 Katzrin, a Bordeaux blend, got a 91. 

I thought a Brut for $20 was delicate and very enjoyable.  It is imported into Italy by Gaja.  An organically farmed Chardonnay at $19 was intense and a great buy.  A $17 Viognier was harvested and made by hand because it has a rough skin.  Sometimes they are sensible enough to put high tech to the side.  It had great varietal character and was very good.  Multiple Syrahs are made by planting French and Australian clones on different parts of the mountain.  One, a single vineyard Syrah from the Ortal vineyard at $55 was just outstanding.  A 2004 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon at $26 was excellent compared to similar California wines.

Golan Heights Winery products, particularly the Yarden line, are widely available in the US and should be sampled to see where Israeli wine is headed (http://www.golanwines.co.il/english).

ella valley vineyards

I next headed for the Judean Hills which surround Jerusalem, another of the prime regions for winemaking.  This area, which is at roughly the same latitude as San Diego, is at a high altitude giving it a relatively cool climate.  Wine has been made here forever and ancient wine equipment, presses and the like, have been unearthed throughout these hills.

The Ella Valley, traditionally where David fought Goliath, is an ideal place for wine production.  The company of the same name has multiple vineyards throughout the valley and a winery strategically placed in close proximity to all of them.  They make about 200,000 bottles per year of all premium wine, 40% of which is exported.  The wine is kosher because their feeling is that once you’ve produced more than 50,000 bottles the wine is hard to sell in Israel if it’s not kosher.  There are three full time observant workers in the winery.  They, like most other Israeli wineries, are trying to position themselves in the market as a Mediterranean, not Middle Eastern, winery. 

All grapes are estate-grown. Harvesting is done at night to stop early fermentation and is by hand.  Any grapes not up to standard are thrown out.  They use the best equipment available but still monitor everything.  Three white varietals and five reds are grown.  Wines from different plots are kept in separate tanks.  They may be released as single vineyard wines or blended, and they will tell you what’s been done on the label along with when the grapes were picked, how many months the wine was in bottle before release and a lot of other information.  All wines spend at least ten months in bottle before release.  They don’t want to keep wines in barrels too long.  All this care and attention results in wonderfully clean, well-made wines.

A 2004 Cabernet Sauvignon was full bodied, complex, and a little earthy which I liked.  It is 100% Cabernet, barrel aged for 14 months.  A 2004 Merlot, which received a silver award from Decanter, had 5% Cabernet Sauvignon added and also spent 14 months in barrel.  Both were excellent although restrained wines which needed quite a while to open up.  A 2003 Dessert Muscat was very different from other wines of this type that I’ve had.  It was very viscous due to aging 17 months in French oak.  Alcohol was added to bring it to 16%, quite a change from the 5% Italian Moscatos that I’ve developed a taste for.  Once you get past the strong punch of this wine it actually had a pleasant sweet, nectary taste of tropical fruits and honey and great mouth feel.  Not my favorite but not bad at all.  Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Syrah, Pinot Noir, and various red and white blends are also made.  Ella Valley is a good example of the quality coming out of the smaller boutique vineyards of the region.  Prices range from single digits to $40 but vary significantly by distributor in the US (http://ellavalley.com/en/). 

domaine du castel

Eli Ben-Zaken ran the first upscale Italian restaurant in Israel. He introduced fresh pasta to the country.  Naturally, he wanted good wine to go with the food.  A trip to France sealed the deal.  He ordered a glass of the “local” wine in the village of Puligny-Montrachet and couldn’t believe what he got. (Needless to say, he had no idea where he was.)  He began growing grapes and making wine as a hobby.  Most of the wine was given to friends.  One of the friends gave a bottle to Serena Sutcliffe from Sotheby’s when she visited Israel.  She contacted Eli and encouraged him make wine and teach others how to do it.

That was the start of Domaine du Castel, the first winery in the Judean Hills, which were renamed Haute-Judee by Mr. Ben Zaken.  Although it is now up to 200,000 bottles a year it is still known as the king of Israeli boutique wineries.  All the grapes are grown within ten minutes of the winery, many in their own vineyards, in an attempt to reflect the local terroir.  Although Mr. Ben-Zaken lived in Italy for a time, the winery is very French influenced.  He tries for wines that are elegant and food friendly.  He considers himself a traditionalist using modern technology.  Only three wines are made.  “C” Chardonnay is consistently ranked as one of the best whites in Israel.  I tried a barrel sample of the 2007 and found it to be not a California wine, not a French wine, but somewhere in the middle.  It was rich, full, buttery, balanced and lovely.  2004 Petit Castel is primarily Merlot with a bit of Cabernet Sauvignon added.  Medium bodied and fruity, it was the best Merlot I tasted in Israel.  The signature wine is the Grand Vin Castel, a superb Bordeaux blend.  This wine, 70% Cabernet with Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, has been one of the top rated wines in Israel from the beginning.  Eli feels that the 2006 which has better grapes and new wood barrels will be the best yet.  I tried a barrel sample and found it to be beautifully balanced, fruity Bordeaux, easily competing with almost anything I’ve tried before. 

Eli joked that his life story would be titled “Waiting for Parker”.  Well, Parker came and all three wines scored 90 and above.  The Grand Vin got a 93.  Hugh Johnson also came and named the Castel Grand Vin one of his 200 favorite wines in his 2008 pocket wine book.  The quality of these wines is without question.  The issue is price.  The Chardonnay is close to $60 a bottle.  The Grand Vin is over $70.  The wine community continually debates if these prices are worth it, although after the Parker ratings they may be considered bargains.  Mr. Ben-Zaken has sold out his wines and couldn’t care less.  He’s now selling wines that are still in barrels on the futures market.  This is world class wine in Israel (http://www.castel.co.il/en/default.aspx).

final thoughts

Those were the wineries I was able to visit, but they are certainly not the only ones of note.  Others to look for are Segal, Recanati, Dalton, Yatir, Chillag, Margalit, Tzora and Clos de Gat. Given the advanced agricultural techniques and general high tech that has always characterized Israel the wine revolution there is not surprising.  What is surprising is the speed at which it is occurring.  What will they be producing here in the next ten years? 

The wines here tend to be robust, aromatic, a little spicy, high alcohol, but very elegant.  The wines are not quite European and not quite American (sort of like the country), however a distinctive Israeli style has not yet emerged.  I suspect that regional styles will happen first.  Israel will never be a major player.  There just isn’t enough land available to grow grapes.  But they can grow more than can be consumed in Israel, so exporting will increase.  Interestingly, given its long winemaking history, Israel has no indigenous grape.  If there was one it was probably wiped out during the Moslem conquest in the seventh century when all grapevines were pulled up.  It would be interesting if they found a varietal that just came to life in their environment, like Malbec in Argentina or Shiraz in Australia.  Currently the emphasis is to out-French the French and that’s probably not going to happen.  But the quality now is such that Israel has earned a place on the world stage.  It is time for wine shops in the US to take Israeli wines out of the “Kosher” section in the back of the store and put them in with the other varietals where they belong.   

Right now, Israel is a small niche, somewhat like Sicily, but one that should be of serious interest to people who love wine.  It’s well worth your while to seek one out today and experience one of the most interesting things going on in the wine world.  Not to do so just wouldn’t be kosher.

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