The Clos de Gat vineyards in the Ayela Valley. ‘Israel has found ways to innovate, in particular by growing grapes in locations – and in soil – where no one expects success.’Once upon a time, the words wine and Israel conjured up syrupy, sugary, red concoctions. But those days – and those wines – are nearly a thing of the past. Wine is now big business.

According to information on the Israel Wines website, the country exported nearly $13.8 million worth of wine last year. More than 80% of the exports go to North America and Western Europe.

An innovator in high tech, biotech, and electronics has come to define Israel in recent years. Now that same innovative spirit is coming to the fore in Israel’s vineyards.

In September, the 30th edition of Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2007 appeared in bookstores (and online). A perennial best-seller, this year’s edition contains information on more than 6,000 wines and wine-growing regions. No less than 24 Israeli wineries are included in this extremely popular publication. A number of wineries received stars for the first time, proving that Israeli wines continue to compete on an international level.

Israeli wineries awarded stars for the first time: Barkan, Chateau Golan, Clos de Gat, Dalton, Ella Valley, and Recanati.

Israeli wineries appearing on the list for the first time: Bazelet Ha Golan, Chillag, Sea Horse, and Vitkin. (Binyamina and Efrat returned to the list after an absence of a few years.)

Wine has been a part of Jewish tradition and heritage for more than 2,000 years, but it wasn’t until the 1880s, when agricultural advisors to Baron Edmond de Rothschild recommended planting vineyards in the sandy soil of pre-state Israel, that the “modern” era of Israeli winemaking was ushered in. In 1882, with the support of the Baron, the Carmel Wine Company was founded (now known as the Carmel Winery).

Planting some of the first grapes from cuttings imported from India, those early pioneers battled tremendous odds and reaped few rewards. It wasn’t until 1895 that Carmel started marketing wines coming out of wineries in Rishon Lezion and Zichron Ya’akov. It took nearly another 70 years until Carmel sold and exported “varietals” such as Cabernet Sauvignon.

It’s only been in the past 20 years that Israeli wines have liberated themselves from the sticky corner of the wine shop’s kosher section. The Golan Heights Winery is not only one of the country’s top three wineries but is generally credited with spearheading the country’s “wine revolution” in 1984.

Taking the advice of experts, Golan farmers from eight kibbutzim and moshavim planted vineyards of white (sauvignon) grapes. According to a previous article in ISRAEL21c, (“Drunk with the flavor of success,” May 2003), “the combination of wide diurnal and annual temperature ranges, high altitude, and rich volcanic soil created optimal conditions for [growing] grapes.” The rest is history.

The winery today produces 5.4 million bottles of varietals, blends, and sparkling wines. It holds an 18% share of the domestic market, and its wines represent 38% of exported Israeli wines. (According to the company’s website, Golan Heights exports to more than 25 countries around the world.) The Cabernets and Chardonnays coming out of the winery put Israeli wines in a new league and paved the way for the next generation – the boutiques.

Depending on whom you ask, the number of boutique wineries in the country ranges from 125 to 200. Names such as Meishar and Bustan and Margalit and Castel have made the “big guys” (Carmel, Golan Heights, Binyamina, among others) take notice. The boutique wineries “have greatly influenced the bigger producers,” notes Oded Shoham, Carmel’s export manager for Europe, especially “with [their] innovative new changes in vision and direction.”

According to Shoham, the “new generation of young, world-educated winemakers is at the forefront of production” in the country. Carmel, which exports to 40 countries, began its Handcrafted Wines of Israel in early 2004 to provide “marketing and logistics for 10 of Israel’s top boutique wineries.”

Shoham, who also manages Handcrafted Wines of Israel, says he sees “new styles of wines – French, California, Italian, Australian, and others – coming out of Israel.” This “new generation has taken the great fruit available and is showing new potential.”

In the low-lying sandy soil only 190 feet above the Mediterranean Sea at Ashdod, lay the vineyards of the Meishar Winery. Owned and operated by Ze’ev Smilansky and his family, Meishar produces grapes on its 2.25 acres that go into its own Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Shiraz. “We do everything,” Smilansky remarks, “from the planting and pruning to the harvesting, labeling, bottling, even corking! It’s a family affair and a labor of love.”

Smilansky says the international wine community is fairly conservative. They have certain traditions and expectations of what a wine should be and how it should taste, but “Israel has found ways to innovate, in particular by growing grapes in locations (such as the Negev and Arava)- and in soil – where no one expects success.”

Despite the success of Golan and Carmel, Smilansky doesn’t believe Israeli wines are well known. Good Israeli wine is a well-kept secret, but the smaller wineries have actually caused an improvement in the overall quality and “benefited the larger wineries.”

As a boutique vintner, Smilansky says it’s difficult to sell profitably. Looking ahead to the next five years, he predicts that some of the boutique wineries will close or consolidate, but “the ones that survive will become more business savvy, more professional, and will cooperate on marketing and sales.”

(Reprinted with permission from Trendlines. The article first appeared in the Federation of Israeli Chambers of Commerce newsletter.)