The last decade has seen a tremendous surge in production of high quality wines in Israel, with wine sales reaching the $140 million mark. With the help of wine experts, ISRAEL21c offers you a guide to the country’s best eight wineries.
The number of Israeli wineries has grown dramatically in the last 10 years, and today there are about 150 wineries in a country the size of New Jersey (which has only 30 wineries, according to the Garden State Wine Growers Association). In fact, 85 percent of the wineries operating in Israel today were founded in the last decade. They range in size from small boutique enterprises to large companies producing more than 10 million bottles a year.
According to Daniel Rogov, Israel’s resident wine critic and author of the annual Rogov’s Guide to Israel Wines, sales of Israeli wines have reached $140 million and the country exports more than $22 million worth of wine annually.
The Middle East and eastern Mediterranean was the cradle of wine production, and the ancient land of Canaan was one of the earliest countries to cultivate wine, over 2,000 years before the vine reached Europe.
Excavations in recent years have uncovered ancient presses and storage vessels, indicating that a well-developed and successful wine industry existed throughout the area. Grapes, grape clusters and vines were frequent motifs found on ancient coins and jars.
Israel has five wine-growing regions: The Galilee, including the Golan Heights; Shimshon, between the Judean Hills and the Coastal Plain; the semi-arid Negev desert region; the Sharon Plain near the Mediterranean coast and just south of Haifa, which is the largest grape-growing region in the country; and the Judean Hills around Jerusalem. The most common grape varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Carignan, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay. The main importers of Israeli wines are the US, France, the United Kingdom, Germany and Canada, in that order.
Israeli wines are out there on the circuit, garnering great reviews. Just last year, renowned American wine critic Robert Parker reviewed wines from 40 Israeli wineries and awarded high scores of over 90 points to 14 different wines. That’s impressive in the wine world, where a score of over 90 points places a wine in a class of exceptional character and complexity. Moreover, 11 of those wines happened to be kosher, and Parker pointed out that the kosher label was simply not relevant to the quality of the wine. That’s another major statement and one that puts the Carmel Kiddush wine reputation to rest, and for good.
Now that you know that Israel is the best wine producer in the Eastern Mediterranean, what wines should you be drinking according to the experts?
|Parker gave top marks of 93 points to just two Israeli wines, and one was the red 2003 Yatir Forest from the Yatir Winery. Grown from the grapes of the relatively small Yatir vineyard – just shy of 100 acres – the wine is named for the nearby forest. The winery is located in Tel Arad, west of the Dead Sea and the desert town of Arad. Yatir grows all its own grapes, including Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Syrah, Malbec, Carignan, Tempranillo, Mourvedre and Viognier. Guided by Eran Goldwasser, Yatir’s Australian-trained winemaker, the winery fills a total of 800 casks each year, some of which are shipped to the Carmel Winery, which owns Yatir, although the winery is managed by its own staff. From its 100 acres, Yatir produces 120,000 bottles, of which 20 percent are exported to the US, Canada, the UK and France.|
2. GOLAN HEIGHTS
|Parker’s other favorite was the 2005 Gewurztraminer Heights wine Yarden, a dessert wine from the Golan Heights Winery. Set up in 1983 using Californian techniques, this is the winery that put Israel on the global boutique winery route. Jointly owned by eight kibbutzim and moshavim (agricultural settlements) that help supply the grapes, the winery is one of Israel’s largest, producing six million bottles annually, 30% of which are exported. Napa native Victor Schoenfeld, the winery’s chief winemaker, recently told Business Week that the winery has shortages, as demand for their wines outstrips supply. With three labels – Yarden, Gamla and Golan – the winery produces some 17 varieties of wines from 1,600 acres of vineyards and has sales of $30 million.|
|It’s not surprising to find kibbutzim behind several wineries, given the connection between agriculture and grape growing. But it does take a fine hand to develop the right grapes and that’s what Kibbutz Tzora had in Ronnie James, a kibbutz member who had been growing grapes on kibbutz land for other wineries, but longed to make his own wine. That’s what he finally did in 1993, yielding some 1,500 bottles, although the business has since grown and become independent from the kibbutz. Now run by winemaker Eran Pick, Tzora works with three terroirs in the Judean Hills region on some 75 acres of vineyards and produces around 80,000 bottles of wine from the Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Merlot, Chardonnay and Gewurztraminer grapes.|
4. Domaine Du Castel
|Parker also gave high marks to three Castel wines, including a 92 to the Grand Vin, the family winery’s flagship. He called the Grand Vin “beautiful,” and “bursting with flavor,” while the Petit Castel was pegged as “impeccably balanced” and the Blanc du Castel was his pick for favorite dry white. Meanwhile, sources at the Judean Hills winery tell us that their Chardonnay – offered on El Al Airline’s first-class wine list – won best in first class wines of all the airlines. Not bad for a 30-year-old winery begun by papa vintner and owner Eli Ben-Zaken, who works with his two sons, Eytan and Ariel. You can also buy futures in Castel wines, or just order a case, that can be shipped anywhere in Israel, the US and Europe.|
5. Carmel Winery
|The list of top wines includes Israel’s oldest winery, the Carmel Winery, which began life as a wine cooperative in 1906, helped along by French philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild. Carmel was Israel’s dominant winemaker for many years, known primarily for its sweet wine that adorned many a Sabbath table. Currently the owner of the largest two wineries in Israel, as well as three boutique wineries, it also owns 3,750 acres of vineyards around the country and produces some 30 million bottles of wine each year. Along with its mass-market labels, such as Selected, it also produces premium wines, including the Carmel Limited Edition that won Parker’s heart.|
|The Tulip Winery is another family effort, established by the Yitzhaki family in Kfar Tikva, just north of Haifa. Yitzhak Yitzhaki and his son Doron run the winery, working with four different vineyards located in the north and along the Judean Hills, outside Jerusalem, growing Cabernet, Shiraz, Sirah and Petit Verdo grapes. The concept behind working with vineyards in different regions is that it leads to more unique wines, reflecting the various terroirs. Besides producing their award-winning wines, Tulip has won accolades for establishing its winery in Kfar Tikva, a residential community in the Jezreel Valley for adults with special needs, and working closely with the members of the community, including several who work at the winery. The family-run concern currently produces approximately 8,000 cases of wine each year.|
7. Clos de Gat
|Winemaker Eyal Rotem had everything planned when he began planting his first vines around his home. Based in the Judean Hills, the winery’s name is a play on words – ‘Clos’ is French for an enclosed vineyard surrounded by stonewalls while ‘Gat’ is the Hebrew word for an antique wine press. Clos de Gat began as a partnership with a nearby kibbutz, with the planting of vineyards over an area of 35 acres. Rotem considered his grapes very carefully, planting Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Syrah and Chardonnay as well as small amounts of Sauvignon Blanc and Viognier. Now producing about 50,000 bottles each year, wine critic Rogov believes that the success of this small winery is due to Rotem’s extensive knowledge of the soil and weather conditions of his vineyards, as well as the use of minimal watering to allow the roots of the vines to reach the natural water table.|
8. Sea Horse Winery
|We conclude our list with the much acclaimed Sea Horse Winery on Moshav Bar Giora, just southwest of Jerusalem, that has been growing organic Syrah and Zinfandel grapes in its vineyard since 2000. The vines are carefully nurtured during their growing season and yield fruit that makes for unique-tasting wines. The Antoine, a Syrah and the Lennon, a Zinfandel (one of the first to be produced in Israel) are made with only organic grapes, although winemaker Ze’ev Dunie does add sulfites to his wine, to allow them to develop and age.|