Vintage Travel

International love for Israeli wine harks back to biblical times, and now after centuries of decline, the country’s vineyards are reclaiming their renown

by Anna Harwood

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Wine making in Israel has not had a smooth history. In fact, wine making almost disappeared for hundreds of years. But with collaboration from both Europe and America, the Israeli wine industry emerged on the international stage when the Golan Heights Winery won the Best Winery Award at Vinitaly 2011. Considered one of the world’s most selective competitions, Vinitaly awards just 71 medals for over 3,700 wines submitted and just one grand prize.

Winning international recognition for its wine is not a first for Israel. Four thousand years ago, ancient Egyptians  recognized that the land of Israel had “wine more plentiful than water” and the grapevine is one of the seven species indigenous to the Holy Land in biblical texts. So great was the vine’s importance that place names throughout ancient Israel make reference to viticulture, including Mount Carmel (Hill of the Vineyard of God) and Nahal Sorek (River of the Vine Tendril).

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Wine making flourished in the Second Temple period and the historian Josephus Flavius (37 – 95 CE) wrote that the Galilee, in the north, produced “fruits in a wondrous manner.” He described the vine and the fig as “the kings of all the fruit trees.” But after the fall of the Temple and the expulsion of the Jews from the land, many of its vineyards lay abandoned and in ruin.

While wine production persisted despite the expulsion, the Arab conquest in 636 brought with it Islamic rule that forbid the consumption of wine. Vineyards were uprooted and wine making mostly ceased.

With the beginning of modern Jewish settlement in 1882, immigrants escaping the pogroms and anti-Semitism of Europe began coming to Palestine. The noted philanthropist and wine expert Baron Edmond de Rothschild saw the potential of returning viticulture to the Holy Land and funded the beginnings of a wine making industry in Rishon LeZion near Tel Aviv and Zichron Yaacov in the north. Wine production increased and the Carmel Winery was born.

At the time of the founding of the State of Israel in 1948, about 14 wineries were producing wine. While the quality had a long way to go to reach international standards, the industry had begun in earnest.

The turning point in the Israeli wine industry is credited to the rediscovery of the agricultural potential of the Golan Heights region. It is a story that typifies the fairytale nature of the region and the magic hidden within its soil.

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In the early 1970s, Cornelius Ough, Professor of Viticulture and Enology at the University of California, was on a trip to Israel when he realized that the Golan Heights would be perfect for growing high quality grapes. At the same time, dotted around the hilly landscape were farmers, both independent and from kibbutzim, who were desperately trying to till the land. Vineyards were laid out and seeds were planted. The grapes they produced were of such high quality that rather than sell them to the already established wineries at a low price, the farmers decided to form a cooperative and begin their own operation. The Golan Heights Winery’s mission was to utilize the finest quality grapes, invest in the best equipment and hire the most knowledgeable experts from around the world.

The results spoke for themselves. The Golan Heights Winery’s first Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon, 1984, won a gold medal at the International Wine and Spirit Competition in 1987, stunning the wine world and triggering a revolution in the Israeli industry. Israeli winemakers saw that it was possible to create award-winning wines from the fruit of Israeli vines. In a short time the Golan Heights was dotted with wineries and vineyards trying to capture the magic that was flowing through the soil. Soon other winemakers – including Carmel, Pelter and Bashan – started to win awards, as well. By 2008, wine critic Mark Squires, of the prestigious Wine Advocate magazine, wrote: “The corner has been turned qualitatively. Israel has a real wine industry that deserves consumer attention.”

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Whether because of its perfect climate, variety of altitudes (temperatures can vary by as much as 20°F in different locations) or the basalt in the soil, the Golan Heights and Northern Galilee have claimed the title of Israel’s best growing area. But viticulture has grown by leaps and bounds throughout Israel, particularly in the Judean Hills region, as well as in the south, with farmers adjusting their techniques to harmonize with the area’s topography.

Beyond great soil and climate, Israel’s winemaking success owes much to companies utilizing the latest in technological advances. For instance, humidity, sun exposure and wind intensity all impact the vine, so the Golan Heights Winery placed meteorological stations in 13 locations to provide up-to-date information on all its vineyards. Victor Schoenfeld, the company’s chief winemaker, says other key innovations have included electro conductivity scanning to determine soil quality, water measurement techniques to create the perfect irrigation schedule, and a type of geographical mapping called NDVI to determine the condition of multiple vegetated areas. “We get just one harvest each year, just one chance to make things work,” says Schoenfeld. “The key to our success is to accumulate knowledge and have meticulous long-term planning.”

Carmel Winery, Israel’s oldest commercial winery, has also kept up with cuttingedge trends. It uses a micro-winery, built in 2003, to experiment with new methods and wines, and has an advanced crush center for juice extraction. The company’s smaller boutique wineries produce highlevel handcrafted wines.

In 2011, Carmel won an international trophy at the Decanter awards. And last year Hugh Johnson, the world’s most prolific wine writer, gave Castel Winery, in the Judean Hills, the maximum four-star rating. Also last year, Golan Heights won the Wine Star award for Best New World Winery.

Perhaps the best evidence of the newfound regard for Israeli wines can be seen among Israelis themselves. Almost every good restaurant’s wine list includes top-quality Israeli labels. Courses on wine appreciation are offered in major cities. And the country now has its own wine magazines and wine columns in the national press.

But apart from winning awards and enjoying newfound prestige, making premium wines simply makes good business  sense, explains Schoenfeld. “We have no advantage in producing low-cost wines, as we are a small country with high costs. Where we can excel is by producing top quality, award-winning wines that continue to wow international audiences.”

Anna Harwood made aliyah from London, England to Jerusalem two years ago. She writes about Israeli culture and technology.