Israeli Wines

Ξ February 12th, 2008 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs |

Rogov’s Guide

The last time I was in Israel and tried the local stuff was before my wine epiphany and I wasn’t paying any attention to what it was or where it came from, so my recent business trip was a perfect chance to expand my knowledge. My Israeli colleague Yaron knows of my wine obsession and had a present for me – the new Rogov’s Guide to Israeli Wines whose author, Daniel Rogov, is a respected food and wine critic. I enjoyed the historical and background information and now I’m diligently working through the detailed reviews of the various wines and wineries.

There are 5 wine regions with names that should be familiar to most readers; Galilee, Shomron, Samson, Jerusalem Mountains and the Negev. There’s an excellent map (the same as in Rogov’s guide) on the IsraelWines website.

Galilee covers the Northern quarter of the country and includes the disputed Golan Heights – occupied, and then formally annexed, by Israel following the 1967 Six Day war and the 1973 Yom Kippur war.
The Golan Heights Winery, with its Katzrin, Yarden and Gamla ranges, is regularly vaunted as the best wine producer in the country and I’ve enjoyed the excellent Gamla Cabernet-Sauvignon on previous visits.

Moving South is Shomron, the Hebrew name for Samaria, which is the country’s largest growing region and includes the Mount Carmel and Sharon areas.

The Carmel Winery, the largest producer in Israel, was founded as a cooperative by Baron Edmond de Rothschild (of Château Lafite Rothschild) and produces some of its wines out of Zichron Ya’akov while the nearby town of Binyamina, named for the ubiquitous Baron (Edmond Benjamin James), is also the name of Israel’s fourth largest winery.

Samson (Hebrew is Shimshon) covers the remaining Mediterranean coastal area from Tel Aviv down to Gaza and east towards the Jerusalem Mountains but it appears that, as a growing area, it is not overly renowned for the quality of its fruit.
Carmel (above) has its headquarters in Rishon le Zion just south of Tel Aviv, where the first winery was set up by Baron de Rothschild in 1890, and Israel’s second largest producer, Barkan, is based in Kfar Saba.

East of Samson is the Jerusalem Mountains region, also known as the Judean Hills. The wide range of terrain and climates means that this is a popular area for new wineries and has potential for producing superb world-class wine. Rogov writes that “a true route des vins is developing in this area” and I have to agree, as I managed to visit 2 wineries (and a Monastery selling wine from a 3rd) in the short half-day I had free at the end of my trip. I’ll report on these separately but, of other producers in the region, Castel seems to be garnering a reputation for consistent quality.

Desert bloom

The final region is the most southerly. The Negev is known by most people as a desert but in high-tech and relatively water-rich Israel advanced irrigation techniques have allowed quality grapes to be grown. Carmel and Barkan have both planted vineyards in the Negev and in the future lessons learned here may allow wineries other hot countries improve and develop.

OK, I imagine a lot of you are thinking – nice information, but what about the wines? Well, I can confirm I did try some while I was there, but most were tastings and I’m going to cover them in other posts.

The remaining 2 were opened at a Kosher Restaurant in Tel-Aviv, and finished off in my hotel room over the following nights.

Binyamina has already been mentioned and we had their Yogev 2005 Cabernet-Sauvignon Merlot. The wine had a delicate nose wish a dash of liquorice and some almost hidden green spiced oak and vanilla. The softness of the nose carried on into the first taste which was well balanced and smooth with mild tannins stroking the sides of the tongue and a warming mid-palate – feminine sprang to mind when first drinking it. Unfortunately the finish was a bit quick and left a little heat at the back of the throat.

Dalton Winery is a smaller producer in Upper Galilee and the Canaan Red, 2006, is a blend of Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah. The addition of the Syrah to the mix, compared to the Yogev, set my expectations that this would be a fuller, spicier wine and the nose continued this expectation – there’s was extra complexity and a touch of white pepper but also a little sweetness suggested. In the mouth again there’s a smooth delicate feel, not that different from the first (feminine still feels right), a little cherry on the front (and a bit of that pepper), less dryness on the sides but a lot more on the top of the palate. The finish is longer, with some sour cherry.

Although neither wine had any complex flavours the fruit is fresh, the texture is very pleasant and the wine screams warm weather, with ripe, sweet grapes. I’d put both in the 85-86 range and was more than happy with both as accompaniment to the meal we had.

Finally it is worth mentioning the differences between the 3 main types of wine producer in Israel at the moment, Commercial, Kibbutzim and Boutique (there is also the religious aspect to the wine; Kosher, non-Kosher and Sacramental/Altar wine, but that deserves a post of its own).

Commercial wineries will be familiar to Western consumers, from the big boys of the industry (Carmel produces over 25 million bottles, has export sales of $5m and dominates with 50% of the domestic market) to the medium and small sized private producer. With few exceptions their wines are Kosher, mainly because they have to be to get on the shelves of most of the Supermarkets where Israelis buy their wine.

Ella Valley

Kibbutzim wineries, like the Kibbutz, are something uniquely Israeli. After 1973 the new conservative Likud coalition started to dismantle the socialist infrastructure of the Labour party which had allowed the Kibbutz system to flourish. Exposed to taxation and market pressures many looked to profitable industry as opposed to the basic agriculture of the past, and winemaking was one of these options. Such wineries were set up to make a profit to plough back into the Kibbutz and while some are small or concentrate on religious consistency rather than quality, Ella Valley is one of the more successful examples producing over 150,000 bottles. Unfortunately when I visited it was mid-Friday afternoon and it had already closed for the Sabbath, which is a shame as Rogov is complementary to its wines.

Boutique wineries in Israel are the smaller private producers who make anything from a few thousand to a few tens of thousands of bottles. Without reliance on Supermarkets many produce non-Kosher wines in styles more familiar to European and U.S. consumers as they strive for quality and variety.

For more information check out Israel Wines and Wikipedia.



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From the Vineyard to the Glass, Winemaking in an Age of High Tech


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