Dan, of team wineHouse, is currently in Israel exploring the Israeli wine industry. This is his recap on the experience!
Three weeks ago my brother and I embarked on a whirlwind trip around Israel to see the countless historical and religious sites the country has to offer. And oh, the wineries too! This area of the world has extremely deep historical roots in viticulture, dating back thousands of years. Before the Greeks, Romans, and yes, the French, people living in this region were making wine. But due to political conflict and religious strife (unfortunately seems to be an ongoing theme), winemaking all but came to a halt for nearly 1,000 years.
But in the late 1800s, with the growing Zionist movement, Baron Edmond de Rothschild of the famous French family helped jumpstart the Israeli wine industry with his insights, financial resources, and purchasing large tracts of land designated exclusively for grape growing. But still the Israeli wine industry failed to flourish commercially. It wasn’t until the 1990s until things really started to develop when many small and boutique wineries popped up. Today, this geographically-small, but extremely climate diverse country boasts over 250 fully operational wineries that are churning out world-class wine. While domestic wine consumption has steadily been climbing in the recent years, the vast majority of Israeli wine is still exported, mainly to the US and Europe. (Note: Check your favorite local wine shop – i.e. wineHouse – for our top Israeli selections!).
Climate & Varietals
While Israel has countless microclimates, it’s principally a hot, Mediterranean climate. This land’s indigenous grape varietals disappeared long ago while winemaking was actively discouraged or altogether outlawed. Today growers are producing an array of Vitis vinifera varietals. Israeli wine makers do best (in my opinion) with the Bordeaux varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Malbec, as well as Syrah (Rhone). While reds definitely stole the show, we had some very nice whites, notably Sauvignon Blanc, Gewürztraminer, and Viognier.
After talking to many of the winemakers and winery staff here, the most resounding messages we heard were:
“This isn’t the old Israeli wine.” — New and improved growing and producing methods are now yielding high quality wines.
“Just because wine is kosher doesn’t mean quality is compromised.” — This goes back to those negative stereotypes. They’re simply not true. It’s fantastic wine that just happens to be kosher.
“Just because a wine is from Israel doesn’t mean it’s kosher.” — While the majority of “Israeli wine” is kosher, this is not always true nor are Israeli wineries constrained in their approach to wine making.
“Israeli/kosher wines are regarded and categorized improperly.” — These winemakers would like to see their wines moved from the “kosher section” in the backs of stores and organized throughout the store based on grape varietal just like any other wine growing region.
One thing to note about visiting the wineries here: Don’t expect a beautiful property surrounded by serene landscapes and vines like you would expect in California. To maximize the scarce arable land, strict zoning policies are enforced by the government. This means the industrial-zoned production facilities are sometimes miles away from vineyards. From these vineyards (which are often contracted or leased from farmers) grapes are shipped to the winery by trucks immediately after harvest. One advantage of this is vintners aren’t limited to the land on their property and can choose grapes from certain areas that have preferable microclimates for growing specific varietals.
We found visits to wineries are usually very personal and non-commercialized, especially at the smaller operations. Expect to talk to the head winemaker or someone high up the chain of command and in a small group. Sometimes my brother and I were the only people on the property. This created very intimate and genuine experiences. We were always warmly welcomed as the people here are very hospitable and went above and beyond to make us comfortable. However, it is necessary to call or email ahead and arrange a visit to make sure you can be accommodated.
Israeli wine is usually dismissed as sweet, low-quality, sacramental wine, but I can attest firsthand that is no longer remotely true. Israeli wine is taken very seriously by the talented people who make it and the quality speaks for itself. It’s just that wineries are fighting to shake preconceived notions and break out of the “kosher” category. As a whole, Israel is an up-and-coming region worth exploring. But not just the wine…the food and people are equally enjoyable! Some non-wine-related highlights on our trip included Jerusalem, Tel Aviv, Sea of Galilee, Dead Sea, Amman, Wadi Rum, and Petra.
I would be remiss not to mention Joshua Greenstein of the Israeli Wine Producers Association who helped organize and guide us along our travels. He was extremely helpful, well known and respected among all the winemakers. He was vital to us having a fantastic trip. Also, many thanks to the wineries we visited: