Driving through Israel’s Judean Hills is a bit like driving through Tuscany or Napa. Vines line the hills on each side of the winding road, and wineries are set among the forested rolling landscape, spotted with wildflowers. Just 25 miles from the Mediterranean Sea, the Judean Hills has a more moderate Mediterranean climate than that of northern Israel, remaining green even in the heat of the summer.
With a winemaking history that goes back 5,000 years, the Judean Hills is undergoing a revitalization, after serving for many years only to support the demand for sacramental wine. In the 1990s, several small wineries began growing international grape varieties, which did well in the limestone-based soil. Now the area is the fastest growing in Israel, with more than 25 wineries.
Located between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, the Judean Hills are the easiest for travelers to reach; the heart of the region is a 45-minute drive from each city. Road maps are easy to follow, and signs are posted in both Hebrew and English. Most wineries require appointments for tastings or tours, so contact them by phone or email before you go. They can also provide detailed maps and directions.
For kosher wineries, visitors must be accompanied through the facilities by a mashgiach, or Orthodox supervisor, who ensures that the kashrut, or Jewish dietary laws, are followed properly, meaning only Orthodox Jews are permitted to handle the equipment—even a non-Orthodox winemaker cannot touch the wine or equipment. For visitors, the rule of thumb is look but don’t touch.
Domaine du Castel
Haute Judee 90974
Set atop a high hill, Domaine du Castel is unassuming yet prominent, with a simple blue door leading the way to a state-of-the-art winery and cellar. Self-taught winemaker Eli Ben Zaken, who works with his sons Eytan and Ariel, makes two red Bordeaux-style blends and a Chardonnay. All the grapes are sourced from their property or nearby vineyards under their supervision. The first vintage was released in 1995, and the winery became kosher in 2003 to reach additional markets. Winery visitors can tour the facilities, including the massive barrel room that is lit by modern lanterns.
Eshtaol Junction 99775
With Italianate architecture and views of rolling hillsides that evoke Tuscany, Flam is another family-run operation that echoes the European vibe. Just down the hill from Castel, Flam, which will be kosher as of the 2010 vintage, was established in 1998 by Golan and Gilad Flam, the sons of Israel Flam, the first Israeli to attend the viticulture and enology program at the University of California at Davis. The winery is known for its Classico red blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot but the brothers also bottle an unoaked Sauvignon Blanc-Chardonnay blend, Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and, most recently, a rosé. When you taste on the stone patio, combining the breeze with the view, you realize just how Mediterranean the area really is.
Clos de Gat
Avalon Valley 99740
Set amidst 35 acres of estate vineyards, Clos de Gat is one of the top wineries in Israel. Clos is the French term for an enclosed vineyard, while Gat is the Hebrew word for wine press; the property features a 3,000-year-old press, one of the oldest in Israel. Guests can see the press as well as taste wines on the portico overlooking the vineyards and hills. Winemaker Eyal Rotem makes three labels, a Bordeaux blend called Clos de Gat, the Har’el series of varietal bottlings of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, and Sycra, a high-end line only produced in select years. The non-kosher winery is one of the few in Israel to use only wild yeasts for fermentation.