Wine is an integral part of Judaism, a part of every holiday meal. Wine and vineyards are referred to numerous times in the bible, and many ancient wine presses have been found throughout Israel. But Israel has only recently come into its own as a producer of quality wine, notably quality wine that happens to be kosher.
The Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute (IEICI) refers to four periods of wine revolutions in Israel. The first was in the late 1800s, when Baron Edmond de Rothschild started the Carmel Winery in Rishon Le Zion and Zichron Yaakov. The second revolution, a century later, was when the Golan Heights Winery came on the scene; the late Daniel Rogov, preeminent Israeli wine critic, wrote in The Ultimate Rogov’s Guide to Israeli Wines that this winery is “largely responsible for placing Israel on the world wine map.” A few other wineries followed in the 1990s (the third revolution), slowly building Israel’s reputation as a wine-producing country, winning awards and accolades.
In the last seven years, the industry has skyrocketed, with over 250 wineries, some 70 of which are kosher. The IEICI refers to this period as the fourth revolution. Rogov’s first Israeli wine guidebook was published in 2005; in 2006 the first wine show was held in Israel, Israwinexpo, now a biannual event; famed wine critics Robert Parker and Hugh Johnson began to include Israel in their annual wine guides in 2007; and the number of boutique and “garagiste” wineries grew, while established wineries began producing higher-caliber wines.
As winemakers transition from hobbyists producing wine for family and friends to professional producers, they lean toward going kosher. In order to be carried in Israeli supermarkets (where most wines are sold), they need to be kosher, and kosher wines are also more easily exported.
Yossie Horwitz, who reviews kosher wines for the Yossie’s Corkboard blog (www.yossiescorkboard.com), says “Within the Jewish community, the Orthodox interest and sophistication has grown exponentially both culinary and in wine, with more people taking more of interest in drinking high-quality wine.
“Israeli wineries have risen to that occasion,” he says.
“There’s been a huge jump in the last five years,” agrees Jonathan Livny, who writes on wine for Yedioth Ahronoth and for the blog www.israelwines.co.il. “Israeli wines have shown the world that you can be kosher and still have wonderful wines.”
This October, during grape harvest season in the middle of Sukkot, I visited several kosher wineries in Israel. These are just a handful of the notable wineries, and you can easily create a winery-based itinerary through the country. Tours are available at each and costs range from about $5 to $20, including tastings. Most require advance reservations.
Carmel Winery, Mt. Carmel Area
Carmel is the oldest and largest winery in Israel, producing 15 million bottles a year. They own other wineries as well, including the lauded Yatir, at the northern edge of the Negev. For decades, they made primarily syrupy kiddush wine, then became part of the fourth wave in the wine revolution when they began producing a line of top notch wines in 2003. Wines to try: Private Collection 2011 Viognier, Appellation Carignan Old Vines 2008; Yatir 2008 “Mashak” (Merlot, Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon blend); Gewürztraminer (a perfect dessert wine).
Golan Heights Winery
This is where the modern Israeli wine scene began—the second wine revolution, in which eight kibbutzim and moshavim joined forces to create one excellent winery. There are wines in all price ranges here, starting with Golan, then Gamla, and the top Yarden label. The facility is huge and impressive, producing 6 million bottles a year; the first vintage was in 1983. Try Yarden Galilee HeightsWine (an ice wine, made from Gewürztraminer grapes); Yarden 2T (made from two types of Portuguese grapes, Touriga Nacional and Tinta Cao); Yarden Syrah.
Antique Safed Winery
Moshe Alon has been making wine since 1996; in 2004 he moved to this location in Old Safed. His brother Paul is the owner, and his wife Karen works in the winery as well—literally a Mom & Pop operation, across the path from their house, with some of their seven children popping in periodically. Try the Gewürztraminer 2009 and the rich garnet colored Cabernet Sauvignon 2011.
Founded in 1995 by Mat Haruni and his son Alex, English immigrants. It’s located in an industrial complex near the Lebanese border. Moshe Haviv came on as CEO eight years ago to grow the company, which now produces 1 million bottles a year. “I want to make the best wine in the world,” Haviv declares, and they’re certain on the right track. Try Sauvignon Blanc 2011 Reserve; Alma Blend 2009 (with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc), and Shiraz Reserve 2009 (a gold medal winner).
Galil Mountain Winery
Located at Kibbutz Yiron near the Lebanese Border, Galil Mountain is a joint venture between the kibbutz and Golan Heights Winery. Six local vineyards supply grapes to the winery, which has sleek architecture and a state-of-the art feel The goal, when they began in 2000, was to be big, producing at least a million bottles a year of quality affordable wines. Try Galil 2011 Viognier; Galil Rosé; Galil Barbera 2010, and Yiron 2009 (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Petit Verdot).
Rimon Winery is a novelty—but worth a visit. Wine critics comment that, since the “wine” is made from pomegranates, it is really a liqueur, not a wine. It’s located in the same complex as Dalton and a few other wineries. They make both dry and sweeter wines. Most popular is the Port-Style Wine, a rich, sophisticated after-dinner drink.
Domaine du Castel
Castel was one of the first third-revolution wineries, started in 1992 by Eli Ben Zaken, a native of Alexandria who made aliyah in the 1970s. This is one of the higher-end wineries in Israel. They make three wines (plus a rosé, which tends to sell out every year): C Blanc de Castel, Castel Grand Vin, and Petit Castel.
Brothers Golan and Gilad Flam started this winery at the end of the third wave, in 1998, aided by their father Israel, who had been a winemaker at Carmel Winery for 35 years; their mother Kami is also part of the business. They now make 100,000 bottles a year, with six wines in their repertoire. Try Flam Blanc 2011 (a blend of Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay); Flam Classico 2010 (Merlot, Cabernet Suavignon, Cabernet Franc, and Petit Verdot); and a beautiful Syrah Reserve 2010.
Part of the third wave of wineries in Israel, Tzora is located on the kibbutz of the same name, but independently owned. The current owners, including general manager Uri Ran, have been continuing to create excellent wines since 2008. Try Neve Ilan Blanc 2011 and Misty Hills 2009 (a Cabernet Sauvignon-Syrah blend).
Kadesh Barnea Winery
Located on Moshave Barnea, in view of the Egyptian border in the Western Negev, Kadesh Barnea was founded in 2000 by Alon and Nira Zadock. Son Yogev and his wife Eden both studied oenology in Florence, and Yogev is now the winemaker. Their wines, made with Negev-grown grapes, are promoted as Wines from the Desert. Try the Merlot and the Cabernet Sauvignon.