When it comes to Old World wine, it’s hard to get older than Israel and the Middle East. In the Book of Genesis, it’s said that as soon as the floodwaters dried, Noah planted a vineyard near “the mountains of Ararat,” near the modern-day border of Turkey and Armenia. In the Book of Deuteronomy, “the fruit of the vine” is considered one of the seven blessed fruits of Israel.
In 1882, early Jewish settlers in Ottoman Palestine turned to Rothschild for agricultural assistance. He sent experts to assess the climate and soil, and they subsequently planted vines using cuttings from his French vineyards.
By 1892, the winery at Rishon LeZion, then still a small settlement, had its first commercial harvest. It, along with vineyards at Zichron Yaakov, would go on to produce wine under the name Carmel Mizrahi.
Today, a small group of investors owns what is now Carmel Winery, which has continuously produced wine since its founding and is now one of the largest wineries in Israel.
“As the only winery in Israel, and one of the few in the world, founded by the Rothschild family, we recognize our responsibility to produce the highest-quality wines throughout our entire range,” says Michael Jesselson, part-owner of Carmel.
Israel’s Pivot to Dry Wines
After the vineyards were affected by phylloxera in the 1890s, the Israeli wine industry was dominated by kosher sweet wine often marked for export. But things began to change when Carmel started to produce dry table wine in the 1960s.
Two decades later, a resurgence occurred in Israeli winemaking, as several new vineyards were planted and wineries opened. Consultants from France and California helped bring the nation’s wine industry into the modern era.
Improved site selection techniques, winemaking technology and a focus on dry, food-friendly wines contributed to its ascent.
Today, there are approximately 300 wineries in the country. Most of these are boutique or medium-sized, but three producers—Barkan, Carmel and Golan Heights—account for more than 70% of the national output.
Both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon from Israel can exhibit mint or eucalyptus notes in addition to dark fruit flavors.
Used for varietal wine or in Bordeaux-style blends, the majority of Israel’s Cabernet Sauvignon grows in Golan Heights, Galilee and Judean Hills, where higher elevations provide a cooler climate. It’s made in a wide range of styles and price, from somewhat fresh and fruity to long-aged and quite expensive icon wines.
Merlot was used primarily as a blending grape until Golan Heights Winery released a bottling in 1986, the first varietal Merlot produced in Israel. The grape’s softer tannins create a wine that’s fruit-forward, relatively easy-drinking and one that requires less aging than Cabernet Sauvignon. Both Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon from Israel can exhibit mint or eucalyptus notes in addition to dark fruit flavors.
Keeping a Traditional Focus
Viticulturists turned recently to traditional Mediterranean varieties that thrive in Israel’s hot, sunny climate. One of the pioneers is Recanati Winery. Its head winemaker, Gil Shatsberg, focuses on the cultivation of warm climate grapes.
“Eight years ago, during our in-house tastings of fruit from different vineyards and plots, we began to notice a clear preference for warm to hot climate varieties such as Petite Sirah, Syrah, Marselan, Carignan [and] Colombard,” says Shatsberg. “These blind tasting results compelled us to rethink the roles these varieties played in our winemaking approach. We set about identifying these unique vineyard sites and began producing a vineyard-designated reserve series from them.”
“As a relatively young winemaker, I entered a world…with a focus on…Cabernet Sauvignon and Bordeaux blends,” says Yehuda Nahar, co-founder/winemaker at Jezreel Valley Winery. “I wanted to choose varieties that grow best in a warm country like Israel…This led me to focus on wonderful local varieties that grow well in our warm climate such as the Israeli Argaman and Mediterranean varieties like Carignan and Syrah.”
Three “crossed” varieties have also made a splash in Israel: Petite Sirah, Marselan and Argaman.
Petite Sirah is a natural and somewhat accidental cross between Peloursin and Syrah that occurred in an experimental vineyard in 1860 by François Durif. In Israel, it was first used to add color and backbone to entry-level blends. Recently, varietal bottlings have been highly rated by international wine critics. Look for bottles from Dalton or Vitkin wineries.
Another French cross, Marselan, is well-suited to the climate and terroir of Israel, especially in the Judean Hills and Galilee. Marselan plantings are very small, less than 1% of total planting. But this cross between Cabernet Sauvignon and Grenache is an up-and-coming favorite of winemakers.
Israeli researchers seeking a wine grape that provided rich flavors and deep color created Argaman, a cross between Souzão and Carignan. Its name translates to “crimson.”
Dr. Shivi Drori, of the Ariel University Wine Research Center, has been instrumental to help salvage two ancient, indigenous varieties, Marawi and Bittuni, thought to be extinct.
Recanati introduced Marawi, a native white grape, with its 2014 vintage. The first vintage of the red Bittuni, harvested in 2016, has just entered the market.
Other white grapes are grown here as well, which account for a little more than 20% production. The two most popular are Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc, but you can find small amounts of varieties like Gewürztraminer, Viognier and Chenin Blanc.
The majority of the wine produced in Israel continues to be kosher, which means it’s been made by Sabbath-observant Jews. This can be an obstacle to widespread recognition in the U.S., especially if the wine is sold in a separate aisle or section.
“Our wines are enjoyed around the world, most often sold as Israeli wine,” says Victor Schoenfeld, head winemaker at Golan Heights Winery. “In the U.S., with such a well-defined kosher market, Israeli wines often get placed in the kosher section of wine store, resulting in unnecessarily limiting the audience for our intriguing wines.
“While putting Israeli wines in a dedicated section may have made sense 40 years ago, those days are long gone.”