January 13, 2008

Israeli wineries can feel more self confident today. The Wine Advocate, the mouthpiece of Robert Parker, the world’s most famous wine critic, published details of its first ever tasting of Israeli wines at the end of December 2007. The results were not at all bad – in fact for some wineries, rather good.

No less than 14 wines scored more than 90 points and this is an important threshold for Israeli wines to have passed. The highest scoring red wine in the tasting was Yatir Forest from Yatir Winery at Tel Arad. The best white wine was ‘C’ Blanc du Castel from Castel, situated in the mountains west of Jerusalem and the best dessert wine was the Yarden Heights Wine from the Golan Heights Winery. Four wineries excelled by receiving at least two wines with 90+ scores. They were Carmel, Castel, Golan Heights and Yatir.

The result of the tasting was the eagerly awaited judgment of the most powerful and influential wine magazine in the world of wine, which can make or break reputations with its much sought after opinions.

The tasting supports my long held opinion that Israeli wines are in fact world class and that we are producing the finest quality wines in the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean. Whilst proud of the successes, it also encourages us to continue the upward curve and be still more quality orientated in future. Israel has done well, but we still have a long way to go.

Not all Israeli wineries produce wines that are kosher. However, it is significant that no less than 11 of the top 14 wines in the order of merit are kosher.

Sometimes our most disbelieving followers are our Jewish consumers who have grown up with Manischevitz or Palwin sacramental wines and assume that all kosher wines are by definition poor wines.

However, The Wine Advocate summary of the tasting was very clear: “No one should avoid wines because they have kosher certifications… in fact Kosher wines are amongst the best in this report, such as those from Domaine du Castel and Yatir.”

This brings home another truth that we have known for years – a kosher wine can be a great wine and it is irrelevant to the quality if it is kosher or not. Coming from me, this is what you would expect, but from Robert Parker’s publication, it is a very significant statement that should help to change preconceived ideas.

Israel is a ‘new world’ wine country, in one of the oldest wine regions on earth. In this Biblical land, one can find a curious combination of the new, old and ancient world of winemaking in a country no bigger than Wales or New Jersey.

Ancient Israel, with roots going back deep into Bible times, must have been one of the earliest wine producing countries – at least 2,000 years before the Greeks and Romans took the vine to Europe. It took a Rothschild to renew the tradition and create a modern wine industry in Israel. Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of the famous Bordeaux winery Chateau Lafite, founded Carmel Winery in 1882 with advice and expertise from the French. He built two large wineries with deep underground cellars, at Rishon Le Zion, south of Tel Aviv, and Zichron Ya’acov, south of Haifa.

However, the quality revolution really began with the founding of the Golan Heights Winery in 1983. The winery brought in expertise from California and showed the world, and more important Israelis, that it was possible to make international class wines in Israel.

The Israeli wine industry is built on the pillars of three large wineries: Carmel, Barkan and Golan Heights – which together control about 70% both of the local market and of Israeli wine exports. There are 25 commercial wineries in all.

Something close to wine fever has gripped the country in recent years. The amount of vineyards planted with noble varieties has doubled and there are now over 200 wineries, many of them boutiques.

The majority of them have sprung up in the last 15 years. The most famous of these is Castel, situated in the mountains west of Jerusalem. Some of the new quality wineries, like Yatir, Flam and Clos de Gat have provided much needed variety and added color to the Israeli wine scene. This in turn has galvanized the larger wineries like Carmel, Golan, Barkan and Teperberg, all of whom have responded by building new wineries.

Israel is famed for its agriculture. Drip irrigation, which is used worldwide, was an Israeli invention that revolutionized the global agricultural industry. The same high standards may be seen in our vineyards. The use of meteorological stations in the Golan vineyards or pioneering attempts to plant vineyards in the desert, show Israel’s viticulturists are dynamic and up to date.

Israel is an Eastern Mediterranean country, so it is no surprise that the climate is mainly Mediterranean. However, in the higher altitude vineyards of the Upper Galilee, the Golan Heights and Judean Hills, the climate is cooler and there is even likely to be snow during the winter months. It is these areas where the new fine wines from Israel come from.

Most of the fine wines highlighted by The Wine Advocate are red. These are wines to buy as gifts, to lay down or to enjoy on an important occasion. Each of these will now automatically become sought after wines. I suggest you look them out while stocks last. For anyone who had any doubts, Israeli wine has arrived!

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Jason Harris

Jason Harris

Executive Director

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