Israel is a ‘new world’ wine country, in one of the oldest wine regions on earth. In this Biblical land, one can find a curious combination of the new, old and ancient world of winemaking in a country no bigger than New Jersey. It is one of the smallest wine producers in the world, harvesting approximately 43,000 tons of grapes in 2009.
Ancient Israel, with roots going back deep into Bible times, must have been one of the earliest wine producing countries – at least 2,000 years before the Greeks & Romans took the vine to Europe. It took a Rothschild to renew the tradition and create a modern wine industry. Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of Chateau Lafite, founded Carmel Winery in 1882 and built two large wineries with deep underground cellars, at Rishon Le Zion and Zichron Ya’acov. Until today, they remain the two largest wineries in Israel.
The initial advice and expertise was French. However the quality revolution really began with the founding of the Golan Heights Winery in 1983. They brought in expertise from California and showed the world, and more important Israelis, that it was possible to make international class wines in Israel.
However something close to a wine fever has gripped the country in recent years. The area of vineyards has increased to nearly 5,000 hectares and there are now well over 250 wineries, many of them domestic garagistes, which have sprung up in the last 10 years. The larger wineries reacted to the boutique boom by re-investing in quality. The long journey of Carmel, from sacramental to single vineyard wine, somehow encapsulates the revolution that has taken place.
Israeli Wine Today
The Israeli wine industry is built on the pillars of three very large wineries: Carmel, Barkan & Golan Heights. Carmel owns Yatir Winery, Golan – GalilMountain and Barkan – the Segal brand. Together they control 70% of the market. There are about 30 commercial wineries harvesting more than 50 tons a year. The largest ten wineries have over 90% of the market. These are: Carmel, Barkan, Golan, Teperberg, Binyamina, Tishbi, GalilMountain, Recanati, Dalton and Tabor. In total, Israel produces about 35 million bottles of wine a year.
Over 50% of Israel’s exports are to North America, and a further 30% to Western Europe.
Israel is famed for its agriculture. Drip feed irrigation, which is used worldwide, was an Israeli invention that revolutionized the global agricultural industry. Israel’s viticulturists are technologically advanced and up to date. Most of the wineries are modern, state-of-the-art and the major wineries all employ internationally trained winemakers, with experience in major wine producing countries. The Israeli wine industry is dynamic and constantly on an upward quality curve.
The main grape varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. There are some interesting varietal Cabernet Francs and Old Vine Carignans and Petite Sirahs too. Amongst the whites, there are also Gewurztraminers, Rieslings and Viogniers. Israel has won major awards for dry white wines, sparkling wines and for some luscious dessert wines, but is probably best regarded for its red wines.
Israel is an Eastern Mediterranean country, so it is not a surprise that the climate is mainly Mediterranean. Like many long, narrow countries there are a surprising variety of different mesoclimates in so small an area.
The country is divided into five wine regions: Galilee, Shomron, Samson, Judean Hills and the Negev. The most successful regions for producing high quality wines are those with higher elevations like the Upper Galilee, Golan Heights and Judean Hills. They rise from 500 to 1,200 meters above sea level and will even experience snow in the winter months.
Most of the larger wineries produce wines that are kosher, but it is a mistake to assume all Israeli wines are kosher. The word ‘kosher’ should not be confused with the sweet sacramental wines, which have given all wines that are kosher a bad name. Quality Israeli wines ‘that happen to be kosher’, are harvested, fermented and matured in exactly the same way as a non-kosher wine. They win awards and receive high scores – the fact they are kosher is thoroughly incidental. However, for those who require kosher wines, Israel is without doubt, the finest producer of kosher wines in the world.
Lately, sommeliers, retailers and wine critics all over the world, are beginning to show great interest in Israeli wine. They are impressed not only by the knowledge and enthusiasm of Israel’s viticulturists and winemakers, but also in the quality of the wines, which are receiving rave reviews at the very highest level. The likes of Robert Parker and Hugh Johnson, Decanter and the Wine Spectator have in recent years come to realize something exciting is taking place in Israel. Arguably, Israel is today producing the best quality wines to be found in the Eastern Mediterranean.
IsraWinExpo welcomes you to the world of Israeli wines. Experience the revolution for yourself. Taste – and prepare to be surprised!
Adam S. Montefiore is Wine Development Director for Carmel Winery & Yatir Winery.
He regularly writes about wine in international and Israeli publications.