Wine making in Israel dates back 5,000 years to the Phoenicians, who planted and cultivated vines around the Mediterranean. Wines produced in the region which is modern day Israel, were so highly regarded, that for over 1,000 years they were exported in Canaanite jars to the empires of Egypt, Greece and Rome. It was such a focal point of everyday life for local people, that it became central to their livelihood, culture and even their health.
Production was maintained until the Muslim conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries brought a halt the industry and the culture surrounding it. A revival was seen during the crusades between the 11th and 13th centuries. When Islamic rule was re-established and the Jews exiled, the industry once again fell into a steep decline.
In 1848 wine making once again started to be revived. A rabbi in Jerusalem established what is recognised as the first winery of modern times. However, this did not last, but it stimulated local interest once more in wine making. Then in 1870, the Jewish agricultural college of Mikvek Israel started a course dedicated to viticulture.
By the late 19th century, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of the world renowned Château Lafite Rothschild in Bordeaux, took an interest in the region. He oversaw the transportation of some major French grape varieties to the region and their local cultivation. He was also responsible for bringing French technical expertise in viniculture to the area. In 1882, together with local business partners, he set up the Carmel Winery. Vineyards were established and production facilities built near Haifa in localities of Rishon LeZion and Zikhron. His legacy is still alive and flourishing today, as Carmel are now the largest wine producer in Israel.
After the State of Israel was formed in 1948, the wine industry started to thrive once again. Initially, wine makers just concentrated on producing Kosher wines for local consumption and export to Jewish communities worldwide. During this time the wines were less complex and sweeter than those produced today. In the 1950s, the wines were predominantly made using Cabertnet Sauvignon and Merlot. Many of the old vines were of French origin. The quality varied greatly and the wines did not find favour outside of Jewish communities. In this period the vineyards were based on the slopes which followed the Mediterranean coastline.
By the mid 1960s, wine makers such as Carmel looked to other parts of the country for cultivating vines. What they found were areas where microclimates existed that combined better climatic conditions and more fertile land to grow vines than the historical region close to the Mediterranean. Today, there are six distinct regions. They tend to have vineyards established at higher levels above the sea than the original ones. The result is that the wines now produced differ significantly from those of the 1950s and 1960s. Through better climatic conditions and modern winemaking techniques, it is now possible to produce both dry and sparkling wines.
What also has greatly helped the producers to offer wines of high and consistent quality is the knowledge that has been brought in from overseas. Experts from France, Australia and California have ensured that modern cultivation techniques are followed. This has been combined with state of the art wineries, built to ensure that all aspects of wine production deliver a wide range of quality wines.
Let us look at a wine maker in each of the six regions and a few of the wines they produce.
Region 1 - Galilee
The Upper Galilee is a mountainous area in the north of the country. It is thought of as having Israel’s most beautiful vineyards. The soil in this area is a mixture of reddish clay terra rossa, volcanic ash and gravel. This combination provides a fertile growing environment which drains well. The vineyards are located close to the northern border with Lebanon at 12 to 15 hundred feet above sea level. The majority of the vineyards were only planted from the mid 1990s. In winter, the temperatures go down to 60 fahrenheit and climb to the mid the 80s in summer. Around 25% of the country's production comes from this region.
I have chosen the Kishor winery for review. The Winery was established in the village of Kishorit during 2010. This is a village dedicated to a providing a home and future for people with special needs. It is surrounded by natural woodland and the landscapes of the Western Galilee. The vineyards in this area have be planted on soil that was once used during the time of the Phoenicians right up to the period when the Crusaders occupied the land.
Red – Kerem Kishor Adom
NOSE: Red fruits and spices
PALATE: Medium-bodied with soft tannins and a long finish
FOOD PAIRING: Grilled or barbecued meats, mature hard cheeses
SUMMARY: Made from a blend of Merlot, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Syrah. It is a dry wine and packs a punch at 14% alcohol. It sells for around £20.
White – White Skill
NOSE: Citrus blossom, tropical fruits and fresh herbs
PALATE: White fruits mixed with citrus notes give a big round flavour and long clean finish
FOOD PAIRING: Grilled chicken and white fish, sardines, mackerel, green salads and creamy mushroom pasta dishes
SUMMARY: Made from a blend of Sauvignon Blanc, Viognier and Riesling grapes. A big wine that is crisp and refreshing with a 14% level of alcohol. Merchants are selling bottles for around £20.
Rosé – Rosa Skill
NOSE: Spicy red fruit flavours with a background of herbaceous aromas
PALATE: Soft red berries and well balanced citrus acidity deliver a very fresh clean finish
FOOD PAIRING: Grilled or barbecued lamb, stuffed roasted pepper, Dover sole with a beurre noisette sauce
SUMMARY: Made from the Grenache grape. Has a 13% level of alcohol. Again available from merchants for around £20.
Region 2 – The Golan Heights
The Golan Heights is in the north east of the country. It is a volcanic plateau which rises to 4,000 feet above sea level and is tempered by cool breezes from the snow-covered Mount Hermon. The Golan has 3 distinct sub-regions. Southern Golan overlooks the Sea of Galilee and is 1,150 feet above sea level. The soil is primarily made up of basaltic clay. The middle Golan starts around 1,320 feet above sea level and rises to around 1,650 feet. The soil is a mix of basalt and volcanic materials such as ash and lava. Finally, there is the Upper Golan which starts at 2,500 feet rising to 4,000 feet. Again, the soil is primarily a basalt and volcanic combination. Winter temperatures can dip to 0 fahrenheit and rise to the mid 80s in summer. Vineyards were first established in 1976. Wines from The Golan Heights were the first to become internationally recognised. When the grapes are ripe, the vineyards have to be extra vigilant to protect the vines as wild board tend to come foraging at night. The region produces about 18% of the country's wine.
I have chosen the The Golan Heights Winery for review. It was established in 1983 by four kibbutzim and four moshavim (cooperative communities). Their focus is to produce quality wines that are exported around the globe and enjoyed locally. They produce four label brands with a range of varieties and styles: Yarden, Gamla, Hermon and Golan. I have reviewed a wine from each of the 4 labels.
Red – Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon
NOSE: Ripe cherries, blackberries and plums, along with notes of earth, tobacco, chocolate and spice
PALATE: A powerful big full bodied wine with well balanced dark fruits and tannins delivering a long rich finish
FOOD PAIRING: Well hung game particularly venison, slow-cooked oxtails, grilled lamb skewers, savoury lentil-mushroom stew and hard mature cheeses.
SUMMARY: An excellent example of how the local terroir and climatic conditions can enable the Cabernet Sauvignon grape to deliver a great wine on its own. Comes in at 14.5% and needs to be opened an hour before serving. A wine to lay down and enjoy after a few years. Merchants are offering bottles for between £25 and £35.
Red – Golan Merlot
NOSE: Blackberry, cherry, orange zest, spice and hints of fresh herbs, along with subtle notes of oak and earth
PALATE: A medium bodied wine that has a nice balance between dark cherries and aromatic spices.
FOOD PAIRING: Hearty lamb stew, herb-roasted turkey, or blackened salmon fillets.
SUMMARY: For a dry wine it has a big alcoholic volume of 15.5%. An all round good day-to-day wine. Merchants are selling bottles from £10 to £15.
White – Gamla Brut (Sparkling)
NOSE: Lemon, lime, green apple, floral and mineral notes, with hints of toasted bread
PALATE: The clean fruit flavours are well balanced with a biscuity background and small bubbles to give an enjoyable uplifting finish.
FOOD PAIRING: Great on its own but works with lightly smoked fish, caviar, fresh oysters and prawns and a rich pate.
SUMMARY: Made from a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir grapes. It will surprise anyone who does not believe that this style of wine can be successfully made in the Middle East. It has an alcoholic content of 11.5%. Look to pay £25 to £35 a bottle.
White – Mount Hermon
NOSE: Tangerine, grapefruit, peach and pineapple, rounded out with flowers and a touch of grass
PALATE: A medium bodied wine that has a nice balance between soft mature fruits and citrus
FOOD PAIRING: Grilled chicken salad, sardines and mackerel, squid, octopus as well as acidic cheese like Cheshire, halloumi and feta.
SUMMARY: Made from a blend of white varietal grapes. For a crisp dry white it is surprisingly 13.5%. Merchants are offering bottles for £10 to £15.
Region 3 - Central Mountains
As the name implies, this region is in the middle of Israel and forms its backbone. Within the region there are four sub-regions comprising of Mount Carmel, Menashe Hills, Shomron Hills and the Judean Hills. The region starts from Haifa in the north and runs down the country to Beersheba. The majority of this region's vineyards are located in the valleys north east of Zichron Ya’acov. Between them they produce around 11% of the country's wines.
The most northerly region that rises to 500 feet from the Mediterranean. Soils vary from chalky clay, terra rossa and limestone. It benefits from a warm Mediterranean climate with cooling sea breezes. This is where Baron Edmond de Rothschild first chose to plant vineyards. It is also where the winemaker Carmel started operations in 1889. As they are such a major player today within the Israeli wine industry, let us look at 3 wines in their extensive range.
Red – Limited Edition Red
NOSE: Ripe plums, cassis, violets, mint and cedarwood cigar box
PALATE: A big full-bodied wine with intense dark fruit flavours, well blended with soft rounded tannins and a slow lingering finish.
FOOD PAIRING: Grilled lamb chops, pork belly. boeuf bourguignon, and hard cheeses.
SUMMARY: Made from a blend of 45% Cabernet Sauvignon, 35% Petit Verdot, 10% Malbec and 10% Cabernet Franc. A wine for special occasions which must be opened a good hour before serving. One to lay down as it will develop through ageing. If you feel like spoiling yourself and those nearest and dearest to you, then expect to invest from £50 upwards a bottle.
Red – Carmel Mediterranean
NOSE: Black plums, raspberry, ripe cherries and a hint of spice.
PALATE: A full-bodied wine that balances spicy dark fruit flavours with soft tannins.
FOOD PAIRING: Roast duck or goose, casseroles or stews, lightly spiced dishes and hard cheeses.
SUMMARY: Made from a blend of 30% Carignan, 25% Syrah, 16% Petit Verdot, 12% Mourvèdre, 10% Petite Sirah and 7% Malbec. This dry red comes in at a punchy 15% . Expect to pay from £35 a bottle.
White – Kayoumi Vineyard Riesling
NOSE: Citrus blossoms, lime and lemongrass leaves
PALATE: A fragrant medium bodied wine that balances rich fruit with citrus notes.
FOOD PAIRING: Smoked salmon or trout, roast veal or pork and sauerkraut.
SUMMARY: Made solely from the Johannisburg Riesling grape. It has won a few international awards. If you like Riesling then a bottle will cost you between £25 to £30.
Going south from Mount Carmel, we come to the Shomron Hills. From 2000, vineyards have started to operate in the area, taking advantage of the climatic conditions and soil. The predominant limestone terroir at 2,300 feet to 2,800 feet provides excellent vine growing conditions.
I have chosen the Tura Estate Winey to review. It was set up in 2003 by married couple Vered and Erez Ben Saadoun. Their wines are exclusively made from the estate's own vineyards. After initially investing in a vineyard and selling their produce to winemakers, they decided to study the art of winemaking and then go into the business for themselves. Here are a couple of the wines they produce.
Red – Mountain Heights Cabernet Sauvignon
NOSE: Black plums and cherries with a hint of cigar box.
PALATE: A full bodied wine with rich dark fruit flavours with soft tannins.
FOOD PAIRING: Roast beef or venison, rich stews and casseroles, hard mature cheeses.
SUMMARY: The wine is aged in, mostly new, French oak barrels for 22 months to develop its flavour and body. Robert Parker rated it 89/100. If you want to try it for yourself then a bottle will cost £35 to £55.
White – Mountain Vista Snow
NOSE: Buttery and citrus fruit aromas with a mineral background
PALATE: A pleasant rich buttery flavour that is tempered with citrus flavours and a clean finish.
FOOD PAIRING: Green leaf or pepper salads with cold fish or meats, avocado and prawns. Just nice to enjoy on its own as well.
SUMMARY: Made from a blend of Viognier, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc grapes. A pleasant everyday wine which can be bought for £15 to £20.
Below the Shamron Hills and in the centre of the country are The Judean Hills. They are close to Jerusalem. The Hills range from 1,650 feet to 3,300 feet. The soil is primarily terra rosa on a limestone base. It is common to find fossils in the vineyards which demonstrate the long history of this specific region. Vines have been cultivated in the region since the early 1990s.
The producer I have chosen from this area to review is the family run Hayotzer Winery. The winery's origins date back to 1847 when it was established by the Shor family in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was the first recorded winery in Israel. Today, eight generations later, it remains the oldest and one of the largest family wineries in Israel. In partnership with experienced and renowned French-born winemaker, Philippe Lichtenstein, the winery is producing quality wines in the modern style. Here are 3 examples from their range.
Red – Auteur Cabernet Sauvignon
NOSE: Blackberries, red cherries and hints of vanilla.
PALATE: A full bodied wine that blends the richness of dark berry flavour with the more fresh acidic red berries to give a rounded first taste, background of spice and long smooth finish.
FOOD PAIRING: Roast beef or lamb, pheasant or duck, hard mature cheeses.
SUMMARY: Open an hour before serving. Will benefit from ageing. Merchants are selling bottles from £35.
Red – Genesis Cabernet Sauvignon
NOSE: Cherry and red berries
PALATE: A medium bodied wine that blends red fruit flavours with soft tannins. Not a long finish.
FOOD PAIRING: Simple grilled meats, sardines and mackerel.
SUMMARY: An entry level everyday wine from the Hayotzer range which merchants are selling for £14 to £20 a bottle.
White – Virtuoso Chardonnay
NOSE: Ripe pear with notes of lemon curd and cream
PALATE: Rounded fresh fruit flavour with a light buttery background and clean finish.
FOOD PAIRING: Grilled chicken or white fish, salads with tuna or sardines.
SUMMARY: Worth a try if you see it in the supermarket, wine merchant or on a restaurant wine list. Merchants prices start around £20 a bottle.
At the southern end of the Central Mountains is Yatir Forest. It is not a wine growing region. In this area you find Israel’s largest planted forest.
Region 4 – The Coastal Plain
This hot and humid region is where the majority of wine making was historically located. The area runs along the Mediterranean coastline and rises inland to 500 feet. The vineyards are mainly located above 300 feet. Here the vines are cultivated on alluvial sandy soil and benefit from a cooling Mediterranean breeze. Baron Edmond de Rothschild did plant some vines here in the 1880s. The wines tend to be sweeter due to the climate. It is a much better environment for growing table grapes, strawberries and citrus fruits. Many of the historical wine growing vineyards have been ploughed up and the land used for a range of agriculture, business and housing developments. The region though still contributes around 15% of the country's wines. Its close proximity to Tel Aviv and hot climate have resulted in a diminishing wine industry. There are a few stalwarts still making wines in this area. I have selected wine from the Alexander Winery for review.
Alexander is a boutique winery founded by winemaker Yoram Shalom in Tel Aviv in 1996 and then relocated to Beit Yitzhak. It is named after his father. The unique and striking metallic labels reflect the family’s heritage from North Africa and Italy. The wines are individual expressions of Shalom’s winemaking style and have won acclaim and an international following. I have chosen the following 3 for review.
Red – Alexander The Great Grand Reserve
NOSE: Dark plum and blackberries with spicy notes and a hint of vanilla
PALATE: A big complex wine whose flavours evolve in the mouth. Dark fruits come first then the tannins kick in and the flavours linger with a long finish.
FOOD PAIRING: Roast meats such as beef and venison, strong well hung game such as pheasant , duck in cherry sauce, mature hard tangy cheeses
SUMMARY: The wine is made from a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Petit Verdot, 10% Cabernet Franc, 5% Shiraz and 5% Mourvedre which accounts for its depth and complexity. It is aged in oak for 48 months. Must be opened an hour before drinking. This is a serious wine made in very limited quantities. Be prepared to pay upwards of £150 a bottle.
White – Parent Series Liza Sauvignon Blanc
NOSE: Lime, grapefruit and freshly grown grass
PALATE: A complex wine that mixes white fruit flavours with citrus giving a long clean finish
FOOD PAIRING: Grilled white fish or chicken, salads, spaghetti alle vongole or moules marinière
SUMMARY: Another clean dry white that surprises you being made in the Middle East. Bottles can be bought from merchants for £22 to £30.
Rosé – Reserve Series Rosé Roger
NOSE: Red fruits, spicy and floral notes
PALATE: Has a clean refreshing red berry taste, a hint of apple blended with grapefruit citrus. Very clean finish.
FOOD PAIRING: Grilled meats and fish, meze and lamb tagines, soft and hard cheeses that are not tangy or too acidic
SUMMARY: Made from a blend of 40% Mourvedre, 40% Granache and 20% Shiraz grapes. Merchants are selling this wine from £32 a bottle
Region 5 – The Judean Foothills
The region sits between coastal Tel Aviv and inland Jerusalem. I remember seeing vineyards on both sides of the road when taking the drive between these two cities. However, I never got to stop at any and sample their wares. The land is one of rolling hills and deep soil comprising of a chalky and clay mix. The Foothills rise from 500 feet to just over 1,100 feet. Summer temperatures range from mid 80s fahrenheit down to a winter low of 40. It is the largest wine producing region with an output that is 27% of the country's total. Being a short drive from both Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, this region is where most tourists with an interest in wine visit. There are many small boutique wineries. I have chosen the Bravdo winery for review.
Zuri Arkin in partnership with the Shuslov family established the winery in early 2001. Using grapes from vines planted in 1989, their first harvest, comprising the Cabernet Sauvignon grape, came later in the same year. The crop produced around 2,000 bottles. From this humble beginning, the winery now produces over 70,000 bottles annually from a variety of grapes. Here are 3 examples of their output.
Red – Landmark 2B
NOSE: Blackberries and plums, with notes of black pepper, herbs and tobacco
PALATE: A full bodied wine having dark fruit flavours balanced with soft tannins. There are hints of spices and vanilla in the long finish.
FOOD PAIRING: Meats with reduced sauces, pheasant or venison with creamy green pepper sauce, hard mature cheeses such as mature cheddar or Comté.
SUMMARY: Made from a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot grapes. A big wine to be enjoyed on special occasions. For a wine of this quality with merchants asking £40 to £50 a bottle, it is worth a try.
White – Barbados Chardonnay
NOSE: Peach with grapefruit notes and lemon zest
PALATE: A big flavoured wine having rounded ripe fruit flavours balanced with gentle acidity and a buttery background that ends in a clean mineral finish.
FOOD PAIRING: Grilled lemon chicken, flat white fish such as sole, plaice or turbot with a caper sauce.
SUMMARY: A good example of an oaked Chardonnay. Expect to pay from £20 to £30
Rosé – Barbados Rosa
NOSE: Citrus blossom and cherry and apricot
PALATE: A light fresh fruit flavour with gentle acidity and a clean finish
FOOD PAIRING: Seafood, avocado vinaigrette, lamb meatballs, nut roast
SUMMARY: Made from 100% Merlot. A pleasant enough rosé that has comes in at 13%. Bottles from merchants will cost £18 to £25.
Region 6 - Negev
The Negev is the desert region which makes up half the country. Vineyards are located in the Negev Highlands, mostly around the locality of Mitzpe Ramon. The soil here is a sandy loam and sedimentary rock mix. The Highlands rise to 3,000 feet and there is very little annual rainfall. The temperature range, even during summer is enormous. During the daytime it can reach 105 fahrenheit, drop to cool evenings and very cold nights. However, the climatic conditions ensure blights and diseases are very low. The key to growing vines in the area is irrigation which Israel excels at in a hot climate. The first vineyards were planted in the early 1990s. However, the difficult conditions have kept wine production low with only 4% if the country's output coming from this region. Wine producers are not helped by the local population of wild camels who roam freely and love to munch on their produce.
One of the wine makers that have defied these adverse conditions and produces quality wines is the Yatir Winery. The winery was founded in 2000 as a joint venture between local farmers who cultivated their own vineyards and the Carmel Winery. Carmel saw potential in the Yatir region. Today, the winery produces around 150,000 bottles and has been rated among Israel’s top wineries by both local and international wine critics. The wines are made from a variety of grapes grown in over 70 different vineyards within the area. Here are three of examples of their wine range.
Red – Yatir Forest 2016
NOSE: Ripe dark fruits and berries, with a hint of spice and chocolate
PALATE: Full bodied rich fruit flavours and gentle tannins with a light pepper and spice finish
FOOD PAIRING: Grilled lamb, venison and well-hung pheasant, stews and casseroles, hard mature cheeses
SUMMARY: The 2016 vintage is made from a blend of 55% Cabernet Sauvignon, 25% Petit Verdot and 20% Malbec. The wine was aged in French oak barrels until February 2018. It was then stored at the winery for a further 24 months to mature before being released onto the market. The wine maker does vary the percentage mix of the grape varieties each vintage to ensure that the wine retains a consistent taste and quality every year. Merchant prices for the 2016 vintage range from £60 to £75 a bottle.
White – Yatir Viognier
NOSE: Peach, chamomile, acacia, quince, papaya, citrus fruit and citrus blossom
PALATE: Nectarines balanced with citrus fruit acidity and a fragrant tangy finish
FOOD PAIRING: Grilled chicken breast with a black olive sauce, crab or lobster salad, barbecued sardines or pilchards.
SUMMARY: The wine is initially fermented in stainless steel tanks. Then 2/3 of the wine is put into used oak barrels for 6 months. The wine maker blends the wine again before bottling. To try this wine you will spend between £28 and £35 a bottle.
Red – Yatir Creek
NOSE: Black cherry, black currant, cassis and roasted almonds
PALATE: Rich dark fruits balanced with spice and soft tangy tannins
FOOD PAIRING: Grilled meats such as beef, lamb and duck, spicy food, kleftiko and meatballs
SUMMARY: Made from a blend of 76% Syrah grapes, 12% Tannat and 12% Malbec. A wine that is reminiscent of a Burgundy but has that exotic extra flavour found in many Middle Eastern wines. You will pay merchants £35 to £45 a bottle.
I hope you have enjoyed this tour through the wine industry in Israel. The country's wines can be found, albeit in limited numbers, in supermarkets and high street wine merchants. If you live near a Kosher supermarket or wine merchant, pop in and ask them to recommend some bottles to enjoy. With over 300 producers, ranging from small boutique wine makers to large commercial suppliers, there is plenty to choose from.