Israel's mostly-cooperative climate; new, quality grape varieties; and the expertise of young winemakers who've studied abroad, add up to up to a wine revolution.
(Via the MFA website)
Noah may have started off on the wrong foot when he planted his vineyard in Israel, but at least his descendants are getting it right. Around the world, Israeli wines are winning prizes and accolades, which is intoxicating news indeed for local winemakers.
Top American wine maven Robert Parker says, "The wines are getting better all the time and some of them are superb." Wine magazines likeWine Spectator write "…Quality is on the upswing" and leading wine critics - and just plain folks looking for something to drink with dinner - are discovering that Israeli wines aren't just for Friday night Kiddush (blessing) anymore.
So what's changed since the average bottle of Israeli wine was a sticky, syrupy non-experience? (Which is an apt description of the wine produced by the Carmel Winery when it was founded by Edmond James de Rothschild in 1882.) Plenty. Both in terms of knowhow and the unbridled Israeli passion for winemaking.
Daniel Rogov, resident wine and restaurant critic at the Hebrew-language Ha'aretz daily says of the industry today: "We have a retinue of winemakers who are internationally trained and internationally experienced, some Israeli-born, some not. We have world class winemakers and that's very important.
"Second, the wineries have gone really state-of-the-art. The big and medium wineries all have very modern facilities, and all the techniques for making very fine wine. Third, and most important, we are learning more and more and developing our vineyards better in terms of technology," says Rogov.
Three years ago, he points out, Mark Squires, who writes for Parker, visited Israel and wrote about our wines and gave them a great deal of praise. "Some 13 or 14 wines scored over 90, which [means they are] really outstanding wines," Rogov says.
From Rothschild to ribbon-winners
Whether it's on the wind-swept hills of Israel's Golan Heights or the low-lying lands of the Negev, there's a branch of a major winery or one of some 200 or more independent, boutique wineries in operation. Carmel Winery's wine development director Adam Montefiore notes: "Israel has joined the world of quality wine producers, and added to its history in this area, which is as long as anyone's."
A quality wine "…has to have good balance between all its elements - the fruits, the tannins, the woods have to be in fine balance," Rogov explains. "For it to be a good quality wine, it also has to have what I call a good structure; that it's built so that it will last for more than just a short period of time - it will cellar nicely for a minimum of five years, in some cases 75-80, but not with kosher wines. And third of all, one of the axioms I subscribe to is: Not all wines have to be great, but all wines have to give the drinker pleasure."
"It's in the eye of the beholder," says Montefiore. "What I consider a quality wine differs from what you or your wife thinks. Wine is like music - everyone can choose what they want. Some people like basic music, some people like Bach. Some like rock or hip hop… So basically a wine that's tasty to someone is a good wine. And it's the variety of wine that makes it so interesting."
Citing success at growing grapes at higher altitudes like in the Upper Galilee, Golan Heights and more recently the Judean Hills; Israel's mostly-cooperative climate; the planting of new, quality grape varieties; and the expertise of young winemakers who've studied abroad, Montefiore isn't surprised by Israel's achievements. "Add to that the desire of the wineries themselves to make better wines and the current increase in the pursuit of quality and it adds up to a wine revolution," says Montefiore.
"Revolution" is a word he frequently uses to describe various turning points in Israel's wine-making history, beginning with Rothschild's early efforts and culminating with his Carmel and other large wineries that are competing with the production of high-quality wines by the country's smaller boutique wineries.
It's a winner's revolution as well, at least based on Carmel's September triumph. One of its wines won the Decanter International Trophy, a prize considered the "Oscar" of world wine awards. His company's Yatir boutique winery was also cited by Parker, "the highest possible third party recommendation," Montefiore insists. "When someone like Parker tastes Israeli wines and says they are good, then its official."
Indeed, when Parker first reviewed Israeli wines in 2007, he awarded 14 of them more than 90 out of a maximum 100 points (world-class). Meanwhile, UK wine critic Oz Clarke included two Israeli wineries, Domaine du Castel and Yatir, in his Pocket Wine Book 2010. Clearly, Israeli wine has earned a place at the table alongside other outstanding international wines.
Israelis need "wine education"
That's pretty amazing in a country where Rogov notes "people still drink Diet Sprite with their meal when they dine out." So there's plenty to teach Israelis about the value of good wine. "I'm not saying that we've arrived," says Montefiore. "I'm saying we're on a journey, and if we look where we were some 20 years ago, and we look where we may be in another 20 years, it's very exciting."
Some new trends in Israeli wine-making include planting more vineyards at higher altitudes like the Upper Galilee, Golan Heights and Judean Hills. Old vineyards are being re-used to produce better-quality wine, and Israelis are becoming bigger fans of sparkling wines, both cheap and expensive.
Both in general and specifically, regarding Israel and consumers of kosher wine, Rogov notes three distinct new directions: "Number one is going from low quality to high quality; number two is a move to preferring red wines over white wines. Another direction, in Israel and with consumption of kosher wines in general, is people drinking more wine because they recognize this as part of cultured life," not necessarily involving ritual, he adds.
Montefiore insists, however, that currently the "most exciting thing is the revolution at Carmel." With its 40 percent of the industry, "when the biggest winery turns around and starts producing high-quality wine and says: 'We're producing quality table wines instead of Kiddush wines, and we're going to reduce the amount of wine we produce to increase quality, it's an amazing turnaround for the industry." It's also a sequel to the developments that launched the quality Israeli wine-making that's becoming so widespread.
Golan gold - apples to grapes
Wander around Israel and there's plenty of evidence of ancient wine-making, even remnants of a production site on the Spice Trail near Avdat built some 2,000 years ago. So it's no surprise that similar evidence also turned up on the Golan Heights, notes Golan Heights Winery marketing director Arnon Harel. But it was apples, not wine, that Golan farmers were interested in when a professor from the University of California at Davis visited the scene in the 1970s.
"He was brought in to look into apple growing, and he said that we had ideal conditions in the area to raise wine grapes," says Harel. "It was an experiment and we didn't know if it would succeed." So it was that seven Golan Heights communities and one in the Upper Galilee formed the Golan Heights Winery, launching an experiment that transformed the production of Israeli winemaking.
With the help of American-imported technology regarding which barrels and containers to buy and other insider information, Harel and his associates "…were surprised because suddenly we were producing high-quality wine in Israel, where before that, we produced mostly sweet wine." When the first bottle of Cabernet Sauvignon was opened in 1983, Israel had a prize-winning wine of its own.
"They brought in international experience, which allowed them to tap into new things," one observer of the Israeli wine scene notes about the winery, located in Katzrin, the largest Israeli town in the Golan Heights. "That started the whole wave in Israel of everybody trying to make better wines, followed by the boutique wines revolution… They were the catalysts. They planted in high altitude areas and decided: 'We want to make the best wine possible.'"
The Golan Heights Winery now produces four million bottles a year for export and a million that are sold in Israel. Some 60,000 people visit the site annually, as part of the increasing wine tourism in Israel, which naturally ends with tastings.
"We had dreams but we didn't know if they would work out," says Harel of the winery's early days. The key to their success: "You have to love it, and feel connected to the earth you plant in, and be a happy person, because wine is a happy product."
A boost from boutiques
Similar words are heard from 200 or more Israeli boutique winemakers, who got a jump on the continuing quest for quality some 20 years ago, during another major change in the industry, and continue to produce outstanding wine.
At about the same time as a food revolution began in Israel in the 1980s, with the opening of higher-class restaurants, young wine-lovers started to make their own wine, resulting in the opening of a number of boutique wineries.
"There was almost a whiff of peace in the air with Oslo… Israelis felt unthreatened for the first time in a long time and started traveling more abroad, seeing the wine and food there and saying: 'I'd like some of that.' There was a better economy then, as well. So all these things together meant that there was a kind of wine revolution in Israel, manifested by these boutique wineries springing up all over," says Montefiore.
Today, there are between 200 to 400 Israeli wineries, depending on how you classify them. Some are one-person outfits just getting by, while others have succeeded to the point where they were bought by larger wineries.
A lucky few wineries have achieved international success by dint of the hard work and vision of winemakers who never dreamed they'd go into the business of producing high-quality wine.
Raising the bar at Ramat Raziel
That's what happened with Eli Ben-Zaken, who planted two grapevines outside his house on Moshav Ramat Raziel opposite the chicken coops back in 1988, never thinking of it as anything more than "a hobby… It was never a dream to become a major winemaker."
But today, as proprietor of the Domaine du Castel family-owned winery in the Judean Hills - which launched the boutique winery revolution and has always pushed the envelope when it comes to quality - he's delighted he took the path to producing world-class wines despite having no formal training in winemaking.
Having already headed up a culinary revolution in Israel in the '80s with the Mama Mia restaurant he started with Sergio Molcho, which produced its own pasta, the Egyptian-born and European-educated restaurateur, who came to Israel in 1970 after first volunteering to fight for Israel during the Six Day War, just couldn't find an Israeli wine he liked enough to serve.
"I was always curious why there was such a difference in quality between Israeli and European wines," he says as we sit in a wine barrel converted into a chair in the tasting room of his establishment, which produces 100,000 bottles a year, half for export. "So in 1988 I just decided to make some wine for my friends," based simply on what European winemakers taught him or what he read in books
Four years later, he and his wife Monique had a hit on their hands: The first 600 bottles of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which Ben-Zaken called Castel Grand Vin or "The Big Wine of Castel" were given to enthusiastic friends and some were even sold. Domaine du Castel, with its symbol combining the nearby Castel fortress, the Lion of Judah and three stars representing the three Ben-Zaken children Ilana, Eitan and Ariel who would grow up to work in the winery, was on its way.
"It was a strange feeling - as if someone had just taken me by the hand and shown me the path. I couldn't just ignore it," the silver-goateed winemaker recalls. People told him he was crazy and should plant in the north, but he knew otherwise. "This area has produced wine for a few thousand years, I think even before the First Temple period…The Romans took Jewish slaves to work in the vineyards in Rome because they were so skilled."
Ben-Zaken also likes the feeling of continuing that tradition while competing with the world's best, declaring: "I'm a Zionist, and I'm very proud to show that we can make wines as good as those in Europe." And he's proud to have launched the boutique winery revolution that "raised the quality of wine in Israel and has shown the big guys, the large wineries, that there is a market for this in the Israeli public."
There were only three boutique wineries when he opened. Now there are some 30 to 35, as well as popular wine tours, comprised of foreigners and locals, who travel on what he notes has become a regional wine route.
While on a visit to the winery recently just after harvest - which came early this year because of the intense heat - the grape leaves still clinging to the vines look like rows of dancers clad in greens, reds and browns, and a red tractor stands ready to travel to any of the 37 acres of vineyards.
Some had already been pruned in advance of the next harvest, looking a little sad but also indicating a new beginning. Planting new vineyards, Ben-Zaken says, "is like having babies, very touching. Its new hopes really, like children - you invest in something you will see the results of only much, much later."
Ben-Zaken himself admits that in the early days "it was really touch and go - we could have failed easily," but he received a boost from the woman he refers to as the winery's godmother, Serena Sutcliffe, Wine Master of Sotheby's in the UK.
The ubercritic wasn't very likely to taste a wine from a barely-known Israeli winery, but a journalist friend of Ben-Zaken's had a colleague who was going to be meeting with Sutcliffe and asked if he'd like to send along a bottle.
"I had nothing to lose, it was my first vintage," he recalls. "And a month later we got a letter saying: 'It's fantastic, a real tour de force, extraordinary and unlike any other Israeli wine…' The letter for us was a marketing tool, but for me a stamp of approval that good wines can be produced here, in Israel."
What makes his Blanc du Castel Chardonnay, and two red wines, Domaine de Castel Grand Vin and Petit Castel - the latter two blends of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc and Malbec - so special?
It's not just the French method of high density, low yield, or its great terroir - outstanding soil and climate - Ben-Zaken says, but "the way it's prepared… it's delicate, there's finesse to it, an elegance. These are not big blockbusters; they are subtle and release layer after layer."
The winery also uses what a guide refers to as "the Rolls Royce" of French oak barrels, each costing more than $1,200, where the wine sits for up to 24 months, in keeping with the winery's motto: "We give time to time."
Ben-Zaken also is delighted with letters from around the world - including Japan - "from people saying: 'We just opened your wine last night and had to write how much we enjoyed it.' " While he believes the nation's wineries need more government support to improve, he's pleased to be setting the tone for quality wine in Israel and welcomes any challenge from Carmel or the other "big boys," adding: "When something succeeds in commerce, others still want a piece of the cake."
Setting the bar high for quality in Israeli wine, he can also afford to laugh now about the fact that his family almost moved from Egypt to Australia - where wine-making is booming and there's much more land. As for the future, having set such high standards, "We think with the vineyards aging and us learning more and more, we hope we will be able to make more high-quality wine."
While he'd still prefer to spend less time behind a desk, when he does get a chance to walk through his vineyards, the feeling is "nothing but pleasure." His winemaking success also has reminded him that "we pass through our lives…and the question is not only what we've taken for us, but what we've left behind, and I'm very proud and happy that I have left something behind."
From video-making to vineyards
One of the most fascinating elements of Israel's boutique winery revolution is the proliferation of boutique wineries opened by people who get the wine bug and leave their previous careers behind.
Zeev Dunia was previously head of the video and television production department at Jerusalem's Hadassah College of Technology when he was bitten by the winemaking bug while making a film about the process in 1994-95.
"I was a filmmaker for 25 years. At first I wasn't particularly interested in the subject [of wine]," Dunia says as he pauses to check the grapes. "But as the film was done, which took about a year because it followed the process of wine-making from the vineyard to the glass, I started to develop unconsciously some sort of interest that grew.
"This happens to quite a lot of people - they discover wine and without really having any training, it becomes more and more something you get involved with, and that's really the magic of wine. If we had to describe what's so special about it, it's that it's never the same. Every bottle of wine is slightly different… the more you get into it, the more it surprises you," he says.
Dunia now owns and runs SeaHorse Winery in Bar Giora in the Judean Hills. This small but outstanding operation produces about 1,500 cases of wine annually.
"There's a lot of passion involved, whether you are a grower in the vineyards or a winemaker," says Dunia, who uses the French method of dense planting and low yield and takes pride in "the unique varieties of wine" he produces, particularly his Zinfandel and his latest addition Chenin Blanc.
A few years ago, the visiting wine critic of La Figaro and a Gallery Lafayette representative at an exhibit in Tel Aviv told him that his wine was "the best wine we have ever tasted in Israel."
Wearing a wide-brimmed hat to protect himself from the sun, he spends time in his vineyards every day, sometimes to shoo away the deer that have a fondness for his grapes. He says that winemaking grants him a deeper connection to the land on which his grapes grow.
"One thing that has happened over these past 10 years is that I really understand the importance of working the land and what it does to us. Before that, I felt I was a citizen of the world, could live anywhere and do my thing. Now, once you have planted something in the soil, you cannot leave… And I think we should be more attentive to the importance of agriculture, not in the sense of business… It's our future."
Bottoms up, please
Still, despite the awards and expansion of Israel's wine scene in recent years, all is not rosy, with the industry struggling with the issue of export vs. local consumption. While Israelis consume between five and seven liters annually, "that's simply not enough" to maintain the industry, which must count on local sales to survive, says Rogov, noting similar problems in vineyard-saturated California and Australia.
"Twenty years ago, everyone was uprooting apple orchards to plant vineyards; now they're uprooting vineyards to plant apple trees, and we may face a situation like that in the end." Too much expansion is to blame, he says, predicting that as many as half of those passion-driven boutique wineries may close.
The other problem is the lack of an Israeli wine culture, he says. "When Israelis started traveling abroad, they began to realize that wine is a part of the cultured place in life, and you would've thought that would've increased local consumption. It hasn't. What it has done is that people who really understand wine are drinking better and better wine, but overall, not more people are drinking wine.
"We have to get people to drink more wine," he adds. "I'm not talking about turning people into alcoholics but…drinking for the pleasure and the company. So I think more and more people have to be made aware of that."
"Wine is culture," says Montefiore. "In France they have wine on the table like we have ketchup on the table in Israel…If we can get Israelis to drink more wine and less vodka and coffee, then we'd be a quieter place.
"Thucydides, the Greek philosopher, said that man became civilized when he planted the vine and the olive tree. Wine has been a part of our culture for a very long time, and what we're trying to do is make it a symbol of modern Israel."
Ramping up on exports, one sip at a time
The bottom line, of course, is sales, and Israeli wines - branded in a new campaign with the logo "Mediterranean Inspiration" - are making steady progress abroad, with some $18 million worth of wine exported by the beginning of November, continuing an upswing that was only halted temporarily by the recession last year.
Between bringing journalists to Israel who'd never considered Israel a "wine country" to organizing presentations abroad, Michal Neeman, business development manager in the Food and Beverages department of the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute, senses the export market is promising.
Witness a recent event promoting Israeli vintages held in Houston, where there is "a lot of interest in wine," she says. A luncheon with VIP guests for people from the trade was followed by a tasting event for wine enthusiasts at a local wine bar. "The response was amazing," she says. "Over 400 people paid to come and taste the wine. Some of the wineries simply ran out of good wine."
According to Neeman, more unexpected regions are expressing interest in Israeli wine as well, including Japan, Korea and Taiwan. A Japanese delegation is expected this month as guests of the Foreign Ministry, and as part of its branding efforts to promote Israel's image, they realized they had to play up local food and the emerging quality wines, says Neeman.
While Israeli wines must still struggle with complaints that they are too expensive, overall "interest and curiosity about Israel wine is growing. Now we're at a point where some people have heard about it; it's not totally unknown. They are curious to come over," she says.
"I did a wine-tasting event in Paris in January and there were three journalists who expressed an interest in coming to Israel. That's a change because for a while it was difficult to bring people here, and now they're interested… What's so impressive to me each time and is really nice is that people are amazed by the quality of the wine they drink." Middle East politics aside, Neeman and her team, in conjunction with other government and industry bodies, are winning over wine lovers, one sip at a time.
That's only natural, says Montefiore, who believes Israeli wines can be good ambassadors. "While once it was the Jaffa orange and the kibbutz that symbolized Israel, now its quality wine and high-tech," he notes.
Moreover, Montefiore feels that sending someone wine from a particular place in Israel "is like sending someone a picture of a time capsule from that spot. So that's why wine is such a beautiful product to represent Israel in giving gifts. It's of international quality and represents the place, agriculture and industry of the country and its culture, and an industry which started 5,000 years ago."
As for Noah, if he could see the state of Israeli wine-making today, Montefiore is convinced "he'd be so happy that the area where he first planted is now making world-class wines."