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Israel’s fruit of the vine: Newfound respect for very old tradition

Growing grapes in the Golan Heights.FOR a long time, Israeli wines — like those of California — suffered from what could be called the Rodney Dangerfield syndrome: They didn’t get any respect.

Wine connoisseurs considered the handful of Israeli wines made in the years before and after the Jewish state gained independence in 1948 to be syrupy, unsophisticated, “unexciting.”

Not worthy, in other words, of serious consideration.

Sixty-five years later, even the most high-browed, nose-in-the-air sommeliers, oenologists and enophiles (these are the lofty terms by which wine lovers and experts like to refer to themselves) have been forced to admit that Israeli wines are among the best in the world.

During the 1980s, advances in winemaking technology and new grape varieties allowed wineries to begin producing wines that dared to challenge their European and California cousins.

People fond of excellent wines began paying serious attention to such labels as Carmel, Barkan, Golan Heights, Efrat, Binyamina, Tishbi, Dalton and Castel.

By 2007, one of the world’s foremost wine critics, Robert Parker, decided to tour Israeli wineries and review their products for the first time. Out of 100 wines reviewed, he gave 14 of them a score of 90 or higher on a scale of 100, with any score above 90 considered “world class.”

Parker’s partner, Mark Squires, had this to say about Israeli wines in the prestigious Wines Advocate newsletter: “Israel has a real wine industry that deserves consumer attention.”

While that might sound a bit understated or like faint praise, in the world of wine expertise it was a powerful imprimatur — a clear declaration that Israeli wines had finally arrived.

Actually, arrived isn’t quite the right word. It was more that Israeli wines had finally returned.

In fact, the ancient Levant — with Palestine at its heart — was the very cradle of the wine industry. The Romans, who conquered and colonized the region more than two millennia ago, learned how to make wine from the indigenous Middle Easterners, including Jews.

A few facts attesting to the intrinsic Jewish love of wine:

Archaeologists have discovered evidence of winemaking in the Middle East all the way back to the Chalcolithic Era, or Copper Age, about 4500 and 3500 BCE. This is, of course, long before there even were people who identified themselves as Hebrews or Israelites.

When Judaism became a religion, and Jews a distinct people, wine was already a well-accepted part of their lifestyle. Since ancient times, wine has been considered central to any number of Jewish rituals,including Shabbat observance, weddings, the High Holidays and Passover. No less than a dozen types of wine are mentioned in the Talmud. Its centrality to Purim celebrations is only too well-known to the Jewish people.

During the Roman era, historians have written, the average Jewish family consumed an astonishing average of 350 liters of wine per year (compared to today’s average Israeli consumption of a mere four liters per year).

In those days, growing vineyards was one of the most profitable industries in the region. Only piracy on the high seas, it is said, brought better returns on investment.

That golden age of Israeli winemaking came to a rather sudden end during the Seventh Century, when Islam — theologically opposed to the consumption of alcohol of any kind — conquered much of the region, including ancient Palestine, from the Byzantine Empire.

In the wake of their victory, the Muslims methodically uprooted as many grapevines as they could find.

It wasn’t until the late 19th century and the arrival of the earliest Zionist settlers that the manufacture of wine in the region began a slow comeback.

The famed early Zionist Baron Edmond de Rothschild underwrote Jewish settlements devoted to winemaking as early 1882. Early Jewish agricultural settlements like Rishon Lezion and Zichron Ya’acov chose viticulture as their main industry. In 1906, a collective of grape growers began an establishment that eventually evolved into Carmel, Israel’s dominant winemaker to this day.

These were, for the most part, kosher wines intended primarily for ritual purposes. They were just the sort of wines that experts routinely wrote off as unexciting.

But the era of respect was not far away.

Yankel SolomanWHILE grapes are grown in any number of regions in modern Israel, one region has stood out as one of the nation’s best and fastest growing winemaking areas.

Some two-thirds of the Golan Heights, in Israel’s far North, was won from Syria during the Six Day War of 1967 and formally annexed by Israel in 1981.

While the region’s sovereignty is still disputed by much of the international community — and while the possibility remains that Israel might one day return it to Syria — the uncertainty has not discouraged the Golan’s grape growers from moving full speed ahead.

Today there are any number of small “boutique” wineries operating in the Golan, some of which specialize in organic agricultural and production methods.

There is also one big player, the Golan Heights winery, which harvests 11% of Israel’s grapes and now ranks third in size among Israel’s wine manufacturers, behind Carmel (which harvests 57%) and Barkan (which harvests 15%).

The Golan Heights operation, located near the site of the ancient village of Katzrin, was recently visited by a group of journalists representing the American Jewish press.

The group was given an information-filled tour of the winery’s sprawling facility and a tasting of some of its best wines, representing the Yarden, Galil Mountain, Golan and Gamla labels.

Hosting the group was the affable Yankel Solomon, a self-described modern Orthodox wine lover who, in perfect English, provided a treasure trove of information about winemaking in general and in the Golan Heights specifically.

Solomon expressed considerable pride that the Golan Heights winery is a virtual poster child of the historic full circle that describes the Israeli wine industry. The rocky and hilly region in which the winery is located today was considered optimum grape growing country by the ancient Jews who once lived here.

On the grounds of the winery today are a number of archeological artifacts found locally, such as stonework and architectural items, that bear the grape cluster motif, long the hallmark of wine growers.

An ancient coin, found in the ruins of the nearby ancient site of Gamla — once the Jewish capital of the Golan — bears the same grape cluster motif and is used today as the logo for the winery’s Gamla label.

Solomon also noted that all of Golan Heights’ wines are kosher, but his conversation on that subject was relatively brief, simply, he said, because the subject itself is so complex.

The requirements for certifying wine as kosher are so exhaustive — incorporating virtually every stage of the winemaking process, from growing to harvesting to aging to bottling — that even a cursory discussion of the topic would have kept the group there all afternoon.

He noted that the winery was established in 1983, a case of excellent timing, since this is just about when international wine experts began taking Israeli wine seriously.

In fact, the wine critic mentioned above, Robert Parker, gave two of his highest ratings to Golan Heights vintages — a score of 93 for its 2005 Yarden Gewürztraminer Heights Wine and a 91 for its 2003 Yarden Katzrin.

Recently, Golan Heights winery was the first Israeli winner of the coveted Wine Enthusiast’s Wine Star award for best New World winery.

Golan Heights, Solomon said with ill-concealed pride, was the main reason why international and domestic connoisseurs began noticing Israeli wines, thus triggering the explosive growth and “quality revolution” in the industry.

THE winery, in classic sabra fashion, is owned by four kibbutzim and four moshavim (collective and cooperative farms respectively) and is run by a board of directors. Its wines are the most widely exported Israeli wines.

In the beginning, the Golan Heights winery had 300-400 acres of vineyards and produced about 150,000 cases of wine a year. Today, it has 1,600 acres of vineyards — most of them located quite close to the winery, an important fact since the freshness of grapes is crucial to good wines — and produces nearly 500,000 cases per year.

Its daily production, Solomon said, is about 30,000 bottles.

That translates into annual sales of some $30 million.

The reporters touring the winery were given an astounding amount of information.

They learned how growers determine the precise day on which to harvest grapes, how important the amount of sunshine and rainfall is to each year’s vintages, how lighter wines are finished quickly after harvest and how heavier wines are placed in oaken barrels to age, how important aging is to the finished product, why it’s so crucial to maintain very precise temperature controls, why it’s best to drink “younger” wines within a year or two and best to consume aged wines up to a decade after bottling, how the Golan’s mineral-rich volcanic soil and relatively moderate climate gives the region’s grapes a distinctive flavor all their own.

Solomon also made the interesting point that Israel’s flourishing wine industry is good for the country’s crucial tourist trade. There is a new form of tourism in Israel, he said, one already familiar in places like France and California: wine tourism.

Wine lovers who like to travel are arranging their vacations to include grape-growing and winemaking regions. They include stops at wineries, have a few tastes and then grab a few bottles to take home.

Solomon pointed out the fact that the present group of journalists — whose itinerary was organized by the Israel Ministry of Tourism — was standing in a winery at that very moment.

The ministry, he suggested, knows exactly what it’s doing.

WINE, Solomon added, is not just good for other sectors of the Israeli economy, such as tourism, but is increasingly becoming good for the economy itself.

Ha’aretz wine critic Daniel Rogov wrote in the 2008 edition of Rogov’s Guide to Israel Wines that there were then some 130 wineries in Israel, a country about the size of New Jersey.

Sales of Israel wines reached some $140 million in 2007, with $21 million of that in exports — a 42% increase from the previous year.

By 2011, the latest year for which figures have been calculated, the export figure had risen to $26.7 million.

So, obviously, the steadily increasing respectability and economic viability of Israeli wines is good for tourism and good for the Israeli economy.

But what about the wines themselves?

Finally, after unloading troves of wine-related information and tramping across the extensive grounds and facilities of the Golan Heights Winery, Solomon leads his guests into a cool and pleasant room furnished with a long cloth-covered table, upon which repose neat squadrons of sparkling, as yet unfilled, wine glasses.

He generously offered tastes of his winery’s pride and joy, reds and whites, expensive Yardens and inexpensive Golans, fruity Cabernet Sauvignons, elegant Merlots, dignified Shirazs.

The writers, though general, run-of-the-mill editors and reporters — not wine critics by any stretch — nevertheless had no difficulty in rendering their unanimous opinion.


Copyright © 2013 by the Intermountain Jewish News

Chris Leppek

IJN Assistant Editor |

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