Israel's Moment In the Sun

Red-wine quality surges as a new generation takes charge
Kim Marcus
Posted: June 30, 2008

The streets are filled with wine lovers relaxing after a busy week of work. The branches of olive trees sway in the gentle breeze blowing from the Mediterranean, which glistens in the distance. A large stone winery beckons. This, however, is not a Tuscan scene, but rather Zichron Yaacov, Israel's leading wine village, which lies just south of the bustling port city of Haifa.

At the same time that Israelis have been discovering the joys of wine culture, the quality of Israeli wine has improved. Powered by a young, internationally oriented generation, the country's wine industry has gained significant ground over the past 10 years.

I last visited Israel in 1998 to survey its emerging wine scene. The contrasts between then and now are telling. A decade ago the number of wineries producing dry table wines could be counted on two hands. And it was difficult to find wines that could break 85 points on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale. Today, there are about 100 wineries, many of them small family-run operations. During my trip in late February, when I visited more than 20 wineries, I found (in non-blind tastings) that many bottlings surpassed the 85-point threshold, and a few even crossed into the outstanding range (90 to 94 points).

I came away impressed by the leaps in quality, especially of the red wines, and by the dedication of the vintners. On my previous visit, many bottlings were tired or had matured before their time. This year, many reds displayed mineral elements and firm structures, as well as rich spicy notes, pointing to an emerging Israeli style.

From the northern reaches of the Galilee and the Golan Heights, to the Negev desert in the south, Israel is on track to make wines with a distinctive style and taste. It's an amazing turnaround for a nation that has been mostly overlooked in the worldwide wine sweepstakes.

"Israeli wines are robust, with a lot of fruit and alcohol. Our job as winemakers is to make Israeli wine more refined but not hide its essential character," says Gil Shatsberg, winemaker at Recanati Winery, which was founded in 2000. Like many other Israeli winemakers, Shatsberg is well educated and well traveled; he studied at the University of California, Davis, and worked at two Golden State wineries, Trefethen and Jordan, before launching a career in his native country. He typifies the cross-cultural influence that is driving Israeli wine quality.

Israel straddles two winemaking worlds, the old and the new. While the region was renowned for the quality of its wines during the period of Roman rule—when top amphorae were vintage-dated and ascribed to a given winemaker—centuries of Islamic domination extinguished winemaking traditions and native wine-grape varieties. All of today's Israeli wines are traced to French varieties, the first of which were imported in the 19th century, that have gained currency throughout the world—Chardonnay, Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc and, increasingly, Syrah. The vineyards of Israel cover just about 10,000 acres (about one-quarter of the total grape acreage in California's Napa Valley) in a nation about the size of New Jersey.

Israel is also a Mediterranean land—at the edge of the desert. From Jerusalem (which is at nearly the same latitude as San Diego) north, the land takes on a green cast with the winter rains, while higher altitudes, especially in the Golan Heights, are white with snow. Vineyards stand beside orchards, and eucalyptus trees and scrub oaks are common—all squeezed between fast-growing cities and towns. Sea breezes help keep vineyards from baking under the blazing summer sun, but most of Israel's best grape sources are located in higher (and thus cooler) terrains.

The top three regions are the uplands of the Galilee and the nearby Golan Heights in the north, and the Judean Hills region on the approaches to Jerusalem. Other winegrowing regions include the coastal plain between Haifa and Tel Aviv, and the Negev desert.

Like everything else in the Middle East, Israel's wine culture is complicated, subject to the vagaries of recent history. One of the high points of my 1998 trip was a visit to the Jaffa district of Tel Aviv to dine at Keren restaurant. It closed in 2003, a victim of the violence of the second intifada. And rockets rained down on northern vineyards in the 2006 war with the Hezbollah in Lebanon. While the Middle East crisis continues, Israel's budding wine culture may yet become collateral damage of the conflict. The future of the Golan Heights seems especially fraught, given that Syria has never recognized Israel's annexation of the region.

Israel's modern winemaking era began with the first Jewish settlements of the late 19th century. Indeed, one of the earliest and strongest supporters of Israel was Edmond de Rothschild of the famous banking and winemaking family. He was instrumental in building Israel's most historic winery, Carmel, and helped develop many of its original vineyard plantings.

Carmel is an apt reflection of the changes sweeping the Israeli wine scene. Ten years ago, it accounted for almost 60 percent of the nation's wine production. Today, that has shrunk to about 30 percent as the company has downscaled and refocused its efforts on quality wine, trying to shed its image as a producer of pedestrian kosher wines.

"For 100 years, Carmel made wines that I called liquid religion, but then it decided to join the [winemaking] revolution," says Carmel spokesman Adam Montefiore. Carmel winemaker Lior Laxer, who studied winemaking in Burgundy and has worked at wineries in Bordeaux, Burgundy and Australia, exudes the enthusiasm and vitality of the burgeoning Israeli wine industry itself. "One of the most fascinating things is that we are a new territory that is in a learning process."

Carmel is slowly centralizing its winemaking, and is in the process of leaving an aging industrial facility outside Tel Aviv to focus its efforts within the historic cellar built with Rothschild financing, located in Zichron Yaacov. Carmel's wines today are noticeably fresher and fruitier, reflecting trends in Israel as whole.

Many Israeli vintners cite the emergence of the small wineries as leading the way to higher quality and pushing larger wineries such as Carmel to upgrade. One of those voices is Yair Margalit, who, in 1989, founded the first boutique-style operation in Israel. He is also a seminal author of English-language books on wine chemistry and small winery operations.

"Israel has excellent terroir for red varieties. I think we can succeed very much with these wines in the world market, and the future is in the small wineries," Margalit says. "Eighteen years ago, only the big wineries controlled the grapes. I worked underground to get the bottles and the corks I needed. I made wine in the backyard," he reminisces.

One of the founders of the small winery movement is Eli-Ben Zaken of Domaine du Castel near Jerusalem. "I think there is a lot of good energy. There is a lot of activity bubbling from the bigger companies to the garagistes," he says.

Besides Carmel, the bigger quality players of Israeli winemaking include Barkan, led by the experienced Ed Salzberg, and the Golan Heights winery, overseen by UC Davis-trained winemaker Victor Schoenfeld.

Israeli winemaking faces challenges besides geopolitics. The Jewish state was founded on quasi-collectivist precepts exemplified by the kibbutz. Production took precedence over quality, and even today there is little private land in Israel (nearly all property is controlled under long-term leases administered by the Israel Land Authority).

Many vineyards are still owned by kibbutzim (communal farms) or moshavim (cooperative settlements of individual farms), which either grow grapes then sell them or lease land to wineries. Changing the philosophy of the kibbutzim to a more market-oriented approach has been a long process, spurred by the privatization that many have undergone as state support has been reduced. But the development of new vineyards can still be arduous, given all the interests involved. Winery construction is also complicated because of restrictive land use policies. Many smaller wineries are located in nondescript industrial facilities or converted agriculture outbuildings.

"In this country, we still don't have enough vineyards. The plots are small, it's expensive and we need capital—and the market is so small," says vintner Shuki Yashuv, the owner of Agur Winery in the Judean Hills. Yashuv reckons that the potential domestic market is only about 2 million out of a total population of 7.2 million, once the nondrinking Muslim and Jewish populations are taken out of the mix. "We have lands, especially in the Judean Hills, but it's a question of investment. We need to grow and export," he says. "We understand it's an extremely competitive wine world."

Reflecting its diverse cultural mix, the land of Israel offers varied terrain with the potential for several terroirs that are just beginning to be explored. An impressive constant in the core of the country surrounding Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, and extending down from the heights of the Palestinian territories of the West Bank, is the prevalence of limestone, whose warm amber tones dominate many of the new apartment buildings and houses.

Limestone is key to the success of many other fine winemaking regions around the world, such as Burgundy. Limestone forms the basis of many of the better vineyards of the Judean Hills and the coastal plain that stretches north to Haifa. Chalk deposits are also evident, especially in the Galilee. Besides limestone in the Judean Hills, many of the best vineyards are planted in the reddish and mineral-rich substrate known as terra rosa.

The most impressive geological feature in Israel is the extension of the Great Rift Valley of Africa, which defines the nation's eastern margins. Tectonic activity associated with it (including devastating earthquakes) has resulted in widespread volcanism; nearly all of the Golan Heights was formed by basaltic lava flows. One of the coolest and highest vineyards is located inside a dormant crater; by comparison, volcanic soils are associated with many of the best vineyards sites of the northern Napa Valley.

From the Judean Hills to the Golan, altitude is the name of the quality game. Many of the best vineyards are located at elevations ranging from 1,000 to 3,000 feet. Not only does this altitude provide a moderating effect on the warm climate (air temperature falls about 3.3 degrees Fahrenheit for every 1,000 feet in elevation), but precipitation rises as the air cools as well. That's key given that virtually no rain falls during the long, sun-drenched summer.

"Here in Israel you can quickly reach the overripe style. I avoid [that] by leaf-shading when necessary. I try to reach phenolic maturation without going over the edge," says winemaker Golan Flam of Flam Winery in the Judean Hills.

One of the most impressive vineyard sites in Israel is also one of its most isolated and austere. It is located in the Yatir Forest of the southern Judean Hills. There are four vineyard plots totaling 74 acres that are planted in contoured terraces mostly to red varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Shiraz. There is also a little Sauvignon Blanc and experimental plantings of Tempranillo. The grapes are used to make wines for the Yatir winery, which is owned by Carmel.

The large, modern winery is located in the shimmering white lowlands of the Negev Desert near the city of Arad. A steep road winds by an ancient fortress on the way to the mountainside vineyards, the highest of which are 3,000 feet above sea level. They are nestled amid groves of Jerusalem pine, and grapevines grow right up to the fence that separates Israel from Palestinian territory. The air is dry, crisp and cool on a late-winter's day, but the sun shines bright and intense.

Planting at the site began in 2000. "There is lower vigor in the young vines because of the dry climate," says winemaker Eran Goldwasser. "And the overall yield is naturally so low," about 1.5 tons per acre, he adds. Harvesting is done by machine at night to preserve the grapes' fresh flavors. "There are no tricks to my winemaking," Goldwasser says. "It's as clean and gentle as possible."

The winery currently makes 100,000 bottles a year, about one-third of its potential capacity. Goldwasser says the winery will grow slowly in the years ahead, and he has all the tools he needs, from state-of-the-art pneumatic presses to stainless tanks and French oak barrels.

The results are impressive. I gave his soon-to-be-released Yatir Forest 2005, a blend of 85 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 15 percent Shiraz, a non-blind score of 92 points, or outstanding. The wine features concentrated raspberry, cherry, berry and spice flavors, very fresh and well structured. "We have complete control over the vineyards and have people with the right technical know-how who trained overseas. The equipment is modern. We have no excuses now. We need to make good wine."

Goldwasser and many other Israeli winemakers appear to be on track to do just that.


ISRAELI WINERIES TO WATCH
Note: The following scores and descriptions are based on non-blind tastings conducted in Israel. Regions are listed in north-to-south geographical order. The Buying Guide of this and upcoming issues will provide comprehensive notes and official scores of Israeli wines based on results of blind tastings conducted in Wine Spectator's New York office. Scores are based on Wine Spectator's 100-point scale.

UPPER GALILEE AND GOLAN HEIGHTS

CHATEAU GOLAN
Uri Hetz is the winemaker at this ambitious, art-filled, modern winery in the southern Golan Heights. He takes his inspiration from the Southern Rhône, using Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre in his plummy and peppery Geshem 2005 (88); the 2005 Cabernet Sauvignon-based Eliad is rich and dense, with dark plum flavors (90). Nonkosher.

DALTÔN
This large winery is set near some of the Galilee's top vineyards near the village of Kerem Ben Zimra. One of Israel's few female winemakers, Na'ama Mualem, is in charge of the cellar. The single-vineyard Meron Merlot 2005 is plush, minty and supple (88) and the Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon features juicy red cherry and plum flavors (90). Kosher.

GALIL MOUNTAIN
Showcase winery near the Lebanese border. Winemaker Micha Vaadia studied at UC, Davis, and has worked in the cellars of Cloudy Bay in New Zealand, Catena in Argentina and J Wine Co. in California. His most impressive effort is the red blend Yiron. The 2004 version is structured and very modern in style, with red fruit flavors and mineral notes (90). Kosher.

GOLAN HEIGHTS
This is the powerhouse of the region. It owns a majority interest in the Galil Mountain vineyard. At Golan Heights, California-born, UC Davis-trained Victor Schoenfeld oversees the large cellar. The Yarden series is the top of the line, and I was impressed by the Viognier 2006, with rich flavors of peach, smoke and apricot (90); the Merlot Ortal Vineyard 2004, with plum and dark cherry fruit flavors and touches of tobacco and anise (90); and the Cabernet Sauvignon 2004, showing plenty of fresh, well-integrated dark fruit flavors and chocolaty notes (89). Kosher.


LOWER GALILEE AND MOUNT CARMEL

CARMEL
Israel's biggest winery in terms of production, with many fresh, fruity bottlings made from grapes drawn from every corner of the country. Its best wines are made from grapes grown in Upper Galilee vineyards, and include the Cabernet Sauvignon Kayoumi 2004—very plummy and supple (88). The flagship is a Bordeaux blend called Limited Edition; the 2004 version is firm and structured (89). Kosher.

TULIP
This unique winery is located on a kibbutz that was established to help the developmentally disabled, some of whose residents work in Tulip's cellar. Winemaker Tamir Arzi makes impressive reds, including a rich, powerful Cabernet Reserve 2005 (90) and a silky, very rich, blueberry-infused Syrah Reserve 2005 (92). Nonkosher.

OTHER WINERIES
Amphorae, with its minerally Chardonnay 2006 (88); Binyamina, with its Special Reserve Chardonnay 2006 (88) and Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve 2005 (89); Tabor, which offers Cabernet Sauvignon-based Me'sha (88); and Tishbi, with its estate Cabernet Franc 2006 (89), one of the best versions of this increasingly popular red varietal in Israel.


CENTRAL COAST

MARGALIT
This pioneering winery makes powerful and distinctive reds. I especially liked the 2005 Cabernet Franc (89) with its minerally aroma, concentrated plum and smoke flavors, and restrained tannins. Nonkosher.

RECANATI
One of the most widely distributed Israeli wineries in the United States, with good quality whites as well as reds. The Chardonnay Reserve 2006 from the Kerem Ben Zimra vineyard (90) is very fresh and rich, while the Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2007 (88), from the same source, features ripe tropical fruit flavors. The Cabernet Franc Reserve 2004 (89) also impressed. Kosher.

OTHER WINERIES
Saslove, with its "Reserved" Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (89) made from organically grown grapes; Vitkin, with its 2005 Cabernet Franc that includes 12 percent Merlot (88).


JUDEAN HILLS AND PLAINS

AGUR
The affable Shuki Yashuv made a solid 2007 rosé called Rosa (87), filled with fresh melon, berry and spice flavors. Among the reds, the Cabernet Sauvignon-based Special Reserve 2006 is muscular and filled with black olive, kirsch and chocolate flavors (89). Transitioning to kosher.

BARKAN
This is one of Israel's largest and most modern wineries, headed by the veteran winemaker Ed Salzberg. It can draw on almost 1,500 acres of vineyards, and also makes wines under the Segal label. The best Barkan wines are red, including its top of the line Cabernet Sauvignon-based blend called Supérieur (89) from 2004, with dark plum flavors and lush spicy notes. I also liked the silky red called Altitude 720 (88) from the 2005 vintage. It is sourced from vineyards in the upper Galilee. Kosher.

CASTEL
Francophile Eli-Ben Zaken is one of Israel's boutique-winery pioneers, and he excels with both whites and reds. Their grapes are drawn from ridgetop vineyards in the beautiful hills east of Jerusalem. The 2006 Blanc du Castel, made from Chardonnay, is honeyed and rich (90). Zaken is reducing the time his reds spend in wood, and the results are noticeable in the Grand Vin 2005 (89), with its fresh red fruit flavors. Kosher.

CLOS DE GAT
A true estate operation, which is a rarity in Israel, that is producing eye-opening quality. Gat means "wine press" in Hebrew. I scored three of Clos de Gat's wines in the outstanding range (90 to 94 points): the Chardonnay 2006 (91), which was aged on the lees for 12 months; the Ayalon Valley 2004 (91), a Cabernet Sauvignon blend featuring lush dark fruit flavors and olive notes; and the Sycra 2004 (92), a dark and smoky Syrah with a long cocoa-filled finish. Nonkosher.

FLAM
Set in a forested valley, this winery is well-designed, modern and very Italianate. The best releases are red, including the very rich and red fruit filled Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 (89) and an elegant 2005 Merlot (88). Nonkosher.

YATIR FOREST With vineyards high in the Judean Hills at the edge of the Negev Desert, this winery is making some of Israel's most distinctive reds (see above). Future plans include more Syrah production. Owned by Carmel. Kosher.

OTHER WINERIES
Ben Hanna, a true bootstrap operation owned by self-taught winemaker Shlomi Zadok, who made a Petit Verdot-based blend in 2005 called La Mariee (87); Bravdo, founded by leading Israeli grape researcher Ben Ami Bravdo who champions unfiltered bottlings, including a juicy 2006 Chardonnay (88) featuring fig, almond and vanilla flavors; and Ella Valley Vineyards, which makes very pure, balanced and clean-tasting whites and reds, including the Chardonnay VC 2005 (89) and the Cabernet Sauvignon VC (88).

Kim Marcus is Wine Spectator's managing editor.


THE QUESTION OF KOSHER QUALITY

The image of kosher wines is problematic, both inside and outside Jewish culture. This stems mostly from the sickly sweet wines served (especially in the United States) during holiday celebrations.

But a kosher wine in the simplest sense is a wine made according to dietary laws (which, for example, proscribe the use of animal products, such as egg whites in fining) and certified by rabbinical authorities. As such, making wines kosher does not necessarily entail methods that inherently limit or damage wine quality. In my tastings, kosher and nonkosher wines showed commensurate quality.

Only observant Orthodox Jews can handle wine destined to be kosher. Since the vast majority of Israeli winemakers do not qualify, they must rely on Orthodox workers to handle such tasks as racking and drawing samples from barrels; if a non-Orthodox touches a barrel or tank, its contents cannot be labeled kosher.

That's a sore point for some nonkosher winemakers. One likened it to racism, while others, such as Eyal Rotem of Clos de Gat in the Judean Hills, focuses on winemaking philosophy. "You can't tell anything from the smell of a glass that's brought to you," Rotem says. "I have to smell the wine from the barrel and go up to the vats. If I had to make kosher wine, I wouldn't." Yet Rotem, who is a native of Jerusalem and made a fortune in various business ventures before turning to wine, notes that many small wineries must be kosher to survive financially within Israel.

Kosher marketing outside Israel presents a paradox for the image of Israeli wines overall, according to Clos du Gat sales manager William White. "If I have a wine from Israel in the kosher-wine section, you're never going to get it sold as an Israeli wine. It's a tough world, a really tough world. It's easy to sell kosher wine to the Jews, but that is a finite market," White says. "To stand alone as an Israeli wine—not kosher—you stand alone on the quality of the wine."

Shuki Yashuv of Agur is currently switching to kosher production to spur sales and visitation. Yashuv is fortunate because his longtime cellar assistant is Orthodox. "As a humanistic person, I think [kosher regulations] are absolutely ridiculous. But I'm not a theologian. I make wine for people to drink—Buddhists, Protestants, Americans and Orthodox," he says.

"Wine is connected to the land, and nothing gives me more pride than for the local people to come up to me and drink my wine. Kosher is part of it, but it's difficult for me in the transition. I want to understand [the Orthodox] point of view, but these are laws they have imposed upon themselves and not me. I wouldn't have compromised over quality in going kosher. There's been no change in the winemaking. I wouldn't have allowed it."

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