While there’s little question that Israel would be classified as “Old World” in a historical sense—the country’s winemaking dates back thousands of years, including numerous Biblical references—Israel’s wine industry has only recently started gaining serious traction.
“Winemaking in Israel flourished for thousands of years, but largely disappeared after the fall of Byzantine rule in the region,” says Anat Levi, CEO of Golan Heights Winery. As a result, the Israeli wine industry is considered relatively young, reinvigorated only in the 20th century.
Golan Heights Winery’s history mirrors that assessment. The first vineyards were planted by moshavs and kibbutzes (both forms of agricultural cooperative communities) in 1976 after a visit from Cornelius Ough of the University of California, Davis. Ough was excited by the area’s winegrowing potential, thanks to its cool climate, high altitude and basalt-derived soils.
The grapes from the vineyards were initially sold to large cooperatives. However, after winemaking experimentation produced promising results in 1982, the Golan Heights Winery was built in time for the 1983 harvest.
In only a few decades, the winery has fostered a reputation of quality and craftsmanship. It has grown in part because of an intense pride for the land, investment in its personnel and an understanding of its vineyards.
“The foundation of our success is our terroir and the people that translate our beautiful spot on earth into high-quality grapes and wine,” says Chief Winemaker Victor Schoenfeld.
“Israeli wines today are dynamic and exciting,” says Levi. “They reflect our local Mediterranean climate. They also reflect the idiosyncratic Israeli culture of today, which is a unique mix of new innovations and ancient traditions. These are New World wines produced in the Mediterranean, close to the birthplace of the vine and wine.”
Golan Heights Winery produces three brands: Gamla, Golan and Yarden. Yarden is the winery’s flagship label, Gamla is intended as a more affordable quality line and the Golan wines are designed with great freshness for early drinking. Together, the winery’s three brands account for approximately 40% of Israel’s wine exports.
Innovation is at the center of the Golan Heights Winery, as it has embarked upon multiple progressive initiatives pioneering geographical mapping, vineyard meteorological stations, soil scanning and precision viticulture.
“We are excited that several development projects are now coming to fruition, and are already showing exciting results in the 2012 vintage,” says Schoenfeld.
Perhaps the winery’s most impressive and ambitious undertaking is its recent investment in plant propagation, in partnership with Entav of France, to develop disease-resistant clones and the world’s first insect-free “mother block” and nursery.
The goal is to eventually supply Entav-branded vines to all of Israel. Projects like this, as well as sharing of winemaking research with other producers, have helped Golan Heights Winery build an atmosphere of camaraderie and support. This not only improves the quality of its own wines, but those of the entire Israeli wine industry.
Golan Heights Winery continues to raise the standards and improve the image of Israeli wines, emphasizing its high quality and vast potential. For these reasons, Wine Enthusiast selects it as our New World Winery of the Year.