To most, Israeli wines are only used for religious reasons. Until this week, I could not name one Israeli wine brand besides Manischewitz. It’s true, Israel has traditionally produced mostly Kosher wines of “lower quality”. The topics of quality vs. quantity and increasing non-religious consumption came up severals times as we toured Israel’s wine country. In total, we drove 700km from Tel Aviv to Zichron Ya’akov, Golan Heights and the Upper Galilee. I’m proud to say that we covered a good taste of what Israeli grapes have to offer.
Israel has a distinctly Mediterranean climate with hot, humid summers (April – October) with very little precipitation and a cold, rainy winter (late October to March). Its latitude is similar to San Diego, California. Baron Edmund de Rothschild, a co-owner of Chateau Lafite recognized the opportunity to pioneer modern Israeli winemaking . Around 1882, he sent Israel grape varietals from southern France to help Jewish entrepreneurs kickstart a new industry. We learned that many of these growers were of Romanian descent. His vineyards were planted in Zichron Ya’akov (e.g. Carmel Winery) and Rishon Le Tzion, south of Tel Aviv.
While visiting Aqaba in Jordan, we randomly met a wonderful American couple from Chicago who suggested we visit a tiny boutique winery called “Somek” about an hour north of Tel Aviv.
Somek is one of many small boutique wineries working hard to grow the local wine industry. They produce a mere 10,000 bottles per year using traditional methods. Barak, the proprietor gave us an intimate tour around his backyard where the wine is made. He and his Romanian family have maintained the vineyard for five generations. He passionately explained the manual care that he puts into the process. For example, he crushes the grapes by hand with and old school crusher and moves the remnants in small buckets for fermentation. A unique aspect of his technique is the lack of filtering. His family decided years ago to make wine that they want to drink, not for mass consumers. So, Somek wines are super rich and full of fruit. Barak explained how they age the wines for 2-3 years in French Oak barrels and then 1-2 years in the bottle. Another tidbit we didn’t know is that winemakers combine multiple barrels of the same variety before bottling….. to gain consistency across the vintage.
We tasted everything from his Cabernet Savignon, Red Bordeaux Blend “Bik’at Hanadiv”, Syrah blend “Adom”, and Merlot. The Merlot was surprisingly “fruity soft” compared to what we’re used to in the states. Barak promptly ended our informative 45 minute tour ($7.50 each) to pick up his kids from school. We purchased a bottle of the rare Carignon for a future night around the Kabbalah haven of Safed (Zefat).
The Zichron Ya’akov region also boasts the much larger Tishbi family winery (1M bottles) and Israel’s top producer Carmel Winery (15M bottles). Carmel was founded by Rothschild circa 1882. Both employ modern technologies from California. We stopped by each winery without a tasting appointment. Carmel was caught a bit off guard, poured us a few reds and sent us on our way without charge. Tishbi has an elaborate tasting room setup with an outdoor restaurant. The tasting was good, but nothing to write more about. Our pizza and cheese plate was scrumptious as we sat outside in the their courtyard dining area.
Our drive around Banias Nature Reserve provided the opportunity to squeeze in a 5pm visit Golan Heights Winery. Golan Heights Winery produces the Yarden, Gamla and Golan wine brands. We were specifically excited to taste more of their high-end Yarden after buying a bottle of the 2005 Cabernet Savignon in Jerusalem. Our tasting was mostly interesting because it was guided by an Orthodox Jewish man. He showed us a special aluminum paper-like filter used for pouring and gave out bottle openers. The tasting was short, mostly non-reds (e.g. Gewurztraminer) and non-Yarden’s. Hopefully we’ll find Yarden back in California!
This place is in a world of its own spanning the mountains of Naftali near Lebanon to the Admon Mountain. Christie hit a bullseye with her wine tasting research. The region is most suited for viticulture due to its high elevation, cool breezes, marked day and night temperature changes and rich, well-drained soils.
We made an appointment with Itzhak Cohen at the Ramot Naftali Winery in the “Moshav” town of Ramot Naftali. Itzhak lives directly behind the winery and proudly states it as a hobby. The facility is elaborate and well equipped for tourism and future expansion. Unlike Somek, Itzak has his wine certified Kosher by the Hasidim. We were not allowed to touch the barrels. His machinery was quite sophisticated and his 10,000 bottle process effortless. Two interesting points were his use of oval-shaped Italian oak and Barbera grapes. Of course, we left with the fabulous 2005 Cabernet Savignon. Itzak is strategizing on how to distribute his wines outside Israel. He explained how the local market is saturated with grapes and the ongoing need to find export opportunities.
Before leaving Itzhak, he called his long-time friend and fellow winemaker, Yossi Barak at 3 Vines Winery. We merrily navigated the village to Yossi’s house and wine laboratory. This wine tasting experience was by far our favorite. Yossi and his wife made us feel like family members during our 2 1/2 hour visit.
We sat in his barrel slash tasting room listening to his thoughts on Israel and its wine. Itzhak and Yossi began making wines together in 2003. The local market boom brought upon the opportunity to start their own wineries. Israeli wine makers are now looking to China and India for new opportunities…. because the US and Europe are already saturated with great wines. He also explained how many Israeli people do not yet drink fine wine for leisure. The popular use is still for religious purposes.
The whole Kosher business is an interesting topic in itself. Wineries basically pay Hasidim to bless the wine process. There really is no difference between “Kosher” wine and Yossi’s wine. Yet, those who think business first get distribution through this traditional channel. Yossi and other boutique wine makers are eager to change the mindset that all Israeli wines are kosher and of lower quality.
Yossi started our tasting with his Chardonnay and showered us with several red varietals of various vintages, including his Cabernet Sauvignon, Barbera, Merlot and Syrah. He showed us an easy way to preserve opened wines… It’s all about keeping the oxygen out, right! First, take two or three small sparkling water bottles (with twist caps). Before pouring the wine, immediately fill and seal these bottles from the larger bottle. Now, drink each small bottle until you are toasty. The remaining bottles are oxygen free and ready to drink whenever. In the end, we loved the Cabernet blends and wound up purchasing the delicious 2010 Barbera. We would have joined the club on the spot if we were at home in the Bay Area!
Our time in wine country ended with a warm visit to Yossi’s home where we sat at the kitchen table and talked more. The hills surrounding the Lebanese border were in clear view with sunny vineyards in the foreground. We walked between grape vines back to our car wondering how much it would cost to have a vacation home next to Yossi!
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Wine Country, Israel