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15 Quick Facts about Israeli Wine
By W. Blake Gray
Mar 9, 2010
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1.)  Though grapes have been grown in the area for more than 10,000 years, the Israeli wine industry is very young.  There are no indigenous grapes because Muslims ripped out all the grapevines during one of their periods of conquest.  We don’t know what varieties Jesus drank.  Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of Chateu Lafite, restarted the Israeli wine industry in 1882, but he had to import grapevines from India to do it because France was plagued by phylloxera at the time.

2.)  Modern Israeli wine was nasty for more than 100 years -- sweet wines made from large crops grown in hot regions.  Jews must drink wine as part of their many religious ceremonies, and the locals grew accustomed to wine not being very good.  If you’ve ever had the displeasure to taste Manischewitz, you can imagine.

3.)  If it wasn’t for the Six Day War in 1967, Israeli wine probably would still be nasty.  But the territory captured from Syria -- the Golan Heights -- is the best terroir in the country.

4.)  Nonetheless, Israeli wine was still nasty until the early 1990s, after Golan Heights Winery brought in UC Davis-trained American experts.  But they were practically the lone rangers of good wines until the 21st century.  Israeli wine has changed more in the last decade than during the previous 120 years.  I tasted a lot of very good wines during my recent visit to Israel, and it’s hard not to be excited about their future.

5.)  Israel’s wine industry is still tiny.  It’s the 35th largest wine producing country in the world, behind nations like Mexico and Canada.  But Israelis don’t drink a lot of wine -- 4 liters per capita, less than half of the U.S. -- so exporting is crucial for growth.  More than half of all exports go to North America.

6.)  In Israel, elevation is everything.  It’s a hot, dry country, so the only way to grow quality grapes is on mountains (that’s why they call it Golan Heights).  Other high spots growing decent wine grapes are Galilee and the Judean Hills, the spine of mountains in the center of the country.  But the bulk of grape production (90% in the 1960s, 44% today) comes from the hot, low-lying, fertile coastal regions.  It’s like a reverse image of California: Coastal grapes bad, inland grapes good. 

7.)  Most wines have acid added to them and winemakers are unapologetic about doing so.  It’s a striking contrast from other wines grown in warm climates that can be flabby and soft.  In fact, wineries in general -- even boutique ones -- are unapologetic about the kind of industrial processes that PR-savvy American wineries hide.  Frankly, it’s refreshing.

8.)  Almost no wineries grow grapes organically (one exception, naturally, is quality leader Golan Heights Winery, which has an organic Chardonnay vineyard).  One obstacle is that cover crops cannot be seeded or the grapes would not be kosher.  Most farmers are not shy about irrigating, which is a necessity in a hot, dry climate.  But yield is a sensitive issue; Israeli yields per hectare are much larger than in Europe, and draw continuing disdain from European wine experts.

9.)  For decades the Ministry of Agriculture severely restricted imports of grape clones, and every winery had to make do with the same ones.  But recently the government was forced to relax these restrictions when it discovered that practically every vine in the country’s nurseries was infected with leaf roll virus.  “Now you can open a catalog from Davis and choose what you want,” says Dalton Winery winemaker Naama Muaem, 35.  She is setting up computer-run climate stations throughout new vineyard sites to try to determine which variety will do best in which block.

10.)  There’s no consensus on what grape is best for Israel and won’t be for decades because the oldest vines (mostly Carignane and Petite Sirah) are only about 40 years old.  Currently Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the most planted varietals, but that’s more about marketing than quality.  I liked many of the Cabernets, but I wonder if the world needs more Cabernet.  Carignanes, Syrahs, Cabernet Francs and -- oddly -- Gewurztraminers were generally more interesting.

11.)  In 1990, when their wine was nasty, Israelis drank about 70 percent white wine, which makes sense with the climate and the cuisine, which is rich in salads and vegetables.  Now, when their wine is good, they drink about 75 percent red.  Israeli wine writer Shy Segev says people are still traumatized by the bad Emerald Rieslings of the 1980s, and wary of even the good Gewurztraminers and Viogniers of today.

12.)  There are more than 250 wineries in Israel but only 30 are kosher.  However, the 17 largest Israeli wineries are all kosher.  This is because Israeli supermarket chains will not carry a wine if it’s not kosher: orthodox Jews make up only about 10% of Israel’s population, but more than 60% of the population prefers to keep kosher.  Moreover, Israel’s main export customers -- American Jews -- are looking for kosher wines.  Some wineries that were not previously kosher have become so to increase their sales prospects.

13.)  With the exception of some banned inessential filtering agents like isinglass, the main difference between kosher and non-kosher wine is who touches it.  Kosher wine can only be handled in the winery by Sabbath-observant orthodox Jews.  Most winemakers are not orthodox and have to rely on helpers to draw samples from barrels, turn valves, etc.  Most say it’s not a problem -- this is how Michel Rolland makes wine, right? -- but you catch an occasional undercurrent of resentment, as from the winemaker who told me he’s not even allowed to have keys to the winery.

14.)  Israel’s big 3 wineries -- Carmel, Barkan and Golan Heights -- control 70% of the market, and 65% of exports.  Golan Heights has always been quality-oriented, but Carmel and Barkan until very recently made nasty wine.  However, spurred by competition from new boutique wineries, both have invested a lot of money.  Carmel’s wines, to me, are much better than before but still not at the level of other good wines in the country.  Barkan now has an impressive reserve lineup, including one group of Cabernets -- Altitude Reserve -- that couldn’t be released in 2006.  Why not?  The grapes were not tended well because people were shooting at vineyard workers from across the Lebanese border.  Napa Valley growers don’t generally have this problem.

15.)  Israeli wines tend to be expensive: the tipping point for good wines seems to be $25-$30 US, and I didn‘t see many good wines at $15.  The wineries say it’s because all the materials need to be imported -- glass, etc.  On the plus side, even the very best, most exclusive wines in Israel don’t reach $100 US.  I’ll pay more than $50 for a country’s best wine, especially when it’s a country that’s an exciting new wine frontier.  As good as Israel’s wines are now, I can’t wait to taste what another decade of improvement will yield.