Israel’s Wines of Celebration – by Adam Montefiore

Sparkling wine is the wine of fashion and celebration. Whether on New Year’s Eve or at a wedding, it remains the classic wine to make a toast with.  It is also  symbol of success and happiness. Though it is a style of wine that has taken Israelis time to learn to appreciate, sparkling wines have become very popular almost overnight in Israel. The number of imported sparklers, mainly Cava from Spain or Prosecco from Italy, has increased dramatically. To counteract the invasion, and for those that want to drink ‘blue and white’, Israel is today making an excellent range of sparkling wines of all styles, at every price point.

Champagne is the ultimate expression of the art, which is replicated by ‘traditional method’ sparkling wines made elsewhere. It is little known, but between the late 1950’s and 1980’s, Carmel produced genuine ‘méthode champenoise’ sparkling wines. It was expensive undertaking needing a special work force as everything was done by hand. There was also little understanding and no market for expensive sparkling wine in those days and so they eventually stopped production. It was too unprofitable. The only remaining clue of a champagne past, are the old pupitres, which can still be seen at the Rishon Le Zion Cellars.

Carmel’s specialist winemaker for sparkling wines was Koby Gat. He was a Francophile and his main interest was in sparkling wines. As Carmel’s focus changed, his did also and he later became the company agronomist looking after Carmel’s vineyards. The main wine flying the flag for Israel was President’s Sparkling wine, made primarily from Colombard grapes. It was initially made by the champagne method, and later by the charmat process. It was sold abroad as Brut Cuvée and Blanc de Blancs, all under the Carmel label. Another brand was Sambatyon. There was also a Chardonnay Sparkling Wine at one stage. Apart from these, there were a number of cheap, frothy, semi sweet wines made for the catering market like Blue Star and Carnival.

However, it was not until the 1990’s that Israel took a giant step forward to producing quality sparkling wine. The Golan Heights Winery sent their new young winemaker, Victor Schoenfeld, to work for six months at Jacquesson Champagne to learn the secrets of the ‘champenoise.’ The Golan then invested in all the modern equipment to make champagne method sparkling wine. This time the process was mechanized and gyro-pallets were used instead of manual remuage. Their efforts resulted in three traditional method sparkling wines: Yarden Blanc de Blancs, Yarden Brut and Gamla Rose.

At the 1996 International Wine & Spirit Competition in London, Israeli sparkling wine arrived on the international stage. Yarden Blanc de Blancs, then a non vintage wine, won the Trophy for The Best Bottle Fermented Sparkling Wine. This high profile award was repeated in 2003 when Yarden Blanc de Blancs 1997, by then a vintage wine, won the same trophy. The 1999 vintage also won a prestigious trophy at Vinitaly of 2006. These prizes were to the immense credit of the Golan Heights Winery and showed their versatility, producing award winning wines in every category – white, red, dessert and now sparkling.

Today President’s, Brut Cuvée, Sambatyon, Yarden Brut and Gamla Rose are history. They are no longer made. The main Israeli sparkling wines of today, which don’t suffer by comparison with the imports in any way, are as follows:

Yarden Blanc de Blancs Vintage

Israel’s finest champagne method sparkling wine, made 100% from Chardonnay grapes grown on the high altitude northern Golan Heights. This is a vintage wine. The grapes are hand picked in whole clusters. The wine rests four years on its tirage yeast before release. The next expression of this wine won’t be available until the end of 2010. The wine is delicate with tropical fruit notes, a toasty backdrop and a very clean, citrus finish. This is Israel’s finest sparkling wine. It is of the quality of the finest champagne and is made totally authentically, but is a great deal better value. Yarden is the premier label of the Golan Heights Winery.

Pelter Blanc de Blancs NV

A tiny production of traditional method sparkling wine, made from Chardonnay grapes grown in the Galilee and Golan. The wine rests for three years on its yeasts. The result is a fresh, aromatic and intense wine. Pelter is one of Israel’s best new, small wineries. The wine is rare, exclusive and expensive.

Gamla Brut NV

Gamla Brut is made by the traditional method from 50% Chardonnay and 50% Pinot noir, grown in the relatively cool climate Golan Heights. The wine is left to age for one year at least before disgorging. The wine is bone dry, with good berry aroma and refreshing acidity. Gamla is the second label of the Golan Heights Winery.

Private Collection Brut NV

This sparkling wine is made by the charmat or cuve close method. It is made from Colombard and Chardonnay from the Judean Hills and Viognier, from YatirForest, in the southern Judean Hills. Five percent of the Chardonnay was fermented in small, French oak barrels. The wine is refreshing, with an aroma of lime, green apple, with hints of lightly toasted bread. The quality to price ratio is excellent, and it is as good as any Cava. Private Collection is the premium mass market label of Carmel Winery.

Tishbi Brut NV

A bottle fermented sparkling wine made 100% from French Colombard grapes, grown in the Shomron Region vineyards, close to Binyamina and Zichron Ya’acov. This was a style of wine previously made by Tishbi Winery. They then stopped for a few years and have now decided to reintroduce it again. Though not yet released, there are good reports.

Selected Sparkling NV

An ‘extra dry’ sparkling wine made from Colombard and Sauvignon Blanc grapes grown in the coastal regions of Israel. It is light, fruity with a delicate and not too obvious sweetness. The wine represents excellent value for money. It is proving especially popular for banqueting and events. Selected, produced by Carmel Winery, is the largest selling brand in Israel.

Israeli sparkling wines can more than match up to the needs of any party, wedding or celebration.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s