Israel is probably not the first country that springs to mind when you think of wine. It certainly wasn’t for me. However, I found myself at the Master of Wine bootcamp in Austria, and there I met two incredibly talented Israeli winemakers who had signed up for the course as well. Charming and erudite, they were also humble, fun and passionate about their wines and their terroir. Eran Pick has gone on to become Israel’s first MW, and Ido Lewinsohn is completing the final phase of the arduous exams.
This encounter led to an invitation to go to Israel, visit the wine regions and write an article about the Israeli wine scene. The invitation received a very swift 'yes!’
Israel was not at all what I had imagined it to be. Tel Aviv was a pulsing, energetic, colourful sea-side city, the world class restaurants boasted some of the most delicious fresh ingredients I have ever tasted. It is worth visiting the country just for the food! I managed to fit in a visit to Jerusalem old town, an incredible place where history is sown into every inch of its fabric as well as staying with friends in the wonderfully bohemian town of Jaffa. These adventures alone could have filled a book, but it was the wine that I was there to learn about.
The first visit was to the beautiful Golan Heights winery situated at 1000m above sea level in the Galilee wine region. Usually I am the first to leap at the opportunity to walk around the vineyards, especially with views like these, however, the signs saying ‘beware of mines’ and the dull thud of mortars in the distance was enough for me to scoot from the car to the safety of the winery feeling like Marie Colvin. A touch melodramatic perhaps (I blame the years spent doing Am-Dram) but it was a stark reminder of the turmoil that has rocked the region for decades, impacting the daily lives of ordinary people on both sides of the conflict.
Despite the rather alarming background noise (I was assured we are at a safe distance, sound travelling far and all that) it was an absolutely fascinating visit. The winery is producing some exquisite wines. They have incredible volcanic soils, cold snowy winters and long hot summers mitigated by cool breezes and cold nights; factors that combine to create a near perfect terroir. This was something I would see again and again throughout my visit. Winemaker Victor Schoenfeld came over from California on a 3 year contract in 1992, and, blown away by the potential of the region and the winery, he never left. We tasted a 17 year old Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon that was sublime; silky, perfumed, fresh yet showing lovely tertiary complexity.
Next we visited Galil Mountain Winery in the Upper Galilee. This was another spectacular winery with the most breath taking views, perched as it was at the top of the valley overlooking Lebanon. A blessing and a curse it turns out, for at the height of the war with Lebanon, rockets were launched from the valley directly opposite the winery. Despite rockets flying overhead, harvesting continued that year as they (the rockets) were destined for a town 4km behind the winery. I was impressed by their faith in the accuracy of the Lebanese rockets. You could still see the glint of the sun on the rocket placement, though it has thankfully remained silent for years. These are stories I have heard from Lebanese wineries as well, and again underscores the fact that whether war or peace, the average citizens are just trying to get on with their lives. Once again I was struck by the purity of the wines that we were tasting, the incredible silky texture of the tannins, the complex aromatics and the vibrant freshness; again laying testament to this wonderful climate.
On to Recanati in the Hefer Valley where my friend Ido Lewinsohn was making the wine and this is where I discovered where Israel’s true talents lay; in Mediterranean varieties. The Bordeaux varieties were beautiful and indeed world class, but tasting the likes of Petite Sirah, Marselan and Carignan they were just so exciting! They had texture, energy, complexity and freshness, you got the sense that these grape varieties that had found their home. Ido explained that many wineries continued to focus on the Bordeaux varieties due to consumer demand, while the Mediterranean varieties were more a labour of love for the winemakers.
From one friend to another we went up to the Judean Hills to see Eran Pick MW at Tzora vineyards. These wines were just so beautiful; intense, concentrated, complex yet refined and elegant. Again terroir is king, the vineyards are the beating heart of Tzora and the wines a reflection of their meticulous care. The wine making is deliberately hands off to best showcase the beauty that nature has given them.
With Eran I dug a bit deeper into what it means to be an Israeli wine, and more specifically a Kosher wine. The assumption for many is that all kosher wine is pasteurised which is not the case – that only happens to the passover wine. To be kosher requires the juice to be only touched by Sabbath observant Jews. So as a non-Sabbath observant Jew, if Eran wants a sample of the juice to analyse it he must ask someone who is observant to collect it and bring it to the lab. It also means no working on Sabbath so spontaneous ferments are not realistic. It is best to inoculate the fermentation to start on the first day following Sabbath so the trickiest 1/3 of the ferment has happened before everyone leaves the winery for 24 hours (the last thing you want is a stuck fermentation while there is no one there), nothing can be left to chance.
In reality being a kosher wine means planning ahead, it in no way impacts wine quality or style, that was clear from every tasting I have done. But why would they continue to certify as Kosher if they are not practicing themselves and it adds a layer of complexity to the winemaking process? Especially when the term has people mistakenly believing it has been pasteurised? The answer was simple. The majority of their global sales go to the Jewish diaspora, so until the rest of the world catches on there is very little market for non-Kosher Israeli wine.
This land of stark beauty has more problems to contend with than any other I have visited. Politics rear its ugly head even in the wonderful world of wine. Wines are periodically boycotted as a political statement, war erupts on the boarders, land is contested. I met one woman whose vineyards are now in contested territory, as such she has no wine of origin to sell her wines. No-one will even buy the grapes as they don’t come from anywhere. She is desperate, she cannot continue and yet she keeps making her wine, wine she can’t sell, because that is her love and to stop is untenable.
Yet despite the hurdles wine producers face there is such a tangible sense of excitement and adventure among them; ancient grape varieties are being nurtured and reintroduced, new, high altitude terroirs are being discovered and planted, boundaries are being pushed and cutting edge winemaking is ensuring the translation of these magnificent terroirs into the bottle.
This was possibly one of the most eye-opening wine trips I have ever done. I visited some of the most beautiful vineyards, I met a multitude of passionate, talented and down to earth people, I tasted some wines that left me at a loss for words they were so good. I can armed with some loose and ill-informed assumptions but came away with filled with excitement for the wines and respect for the producers. The wines are available in the UK, do yourselves a favour and try them, you won't be disappointed.