Getting to Know Israel's Wine Country

With more than 200 wineries, five wine regions and a new focus on quality, Israel has plenty to explore. Learn more from three of its leading winemakers
Sep 3, 2010

From cosmopolitan beach towns to ancient archeological and historic sites, from desert landscapes to the lowest point on earth at the Dead Sea, Israel has much to attract travelers. Set among all of this is a rapidly expanding and improving wine industry that combines exciting new boutique estates with producers more than 100 years old, making the country’s wine regions well worth a visit for wine and food lovers.

“Wine is a product of place; we are making wine in a place where it has been made for 5,000 years, in an area where wine culture was created,” said Lior Lacser, winemaker at Carmel Winery. “Israel is a great place to make wine.”

Grapegrowing spans much of the country, from the rolling hillsides and mountains in the north to the desert and forest in the south, divided into five official regions: Galilee, Shomron, Samson, Judean Hills and Negev. With its variety of microclimates, soils and temperatures, Israel can grow numerous different grape varieties, including Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache and Chardonnay.

Today, Israel has more than 200 wineries, more than 10 times the number of table-wine producers just 10 years ago, and the largest 17 are all kosher. But gone are the days when the country produced mainly sweet sacramental wines and inexpensive bottles for local consumption. And the term “kosher wine” is no longer equated with mediocrity, in part thanks to flash pasteurization techniques that allow producers to make mevushal wines without actually tasting as if they've been boiled. “The kosher aspect doesn’t make a difference in the quality,” says Domaine du Castel winemaker Eli Ben Zaken.

Large wineries, such as Carmel and Golan Heights, are producing dry reds and whites that are widely exported, while new boutique wineries (both kosher and non-kosher) have helped push Israel’s wine industry to new heights with their experimentation. More of the country’s wines are earning “very good” ratings, sometimes even “outstanding.”

At the same time, Israelis have been adopting a wine culture. Tel Aviv, Jerusalem and Haifa all feature wine bars and restaurants with serious wine lists stocked with Israeli and international wines. Ben Zaken says, “In the 1980s, we couldn’t even have a [restaurant] wine list of good Israeli wine and, today, you can find really fantastic wine lists of only Israeli wines. Things have changed completely.”

Wine Spectator talked with three winemakers, each located in a different region. From spilled Mouton to kosher quality to farming in California, here is what they had to say about winemaking passion, techniques and culture in Israel.

Lior Lacser, Carmel Winery

The largest wine producer in Israel, Carmel Winery has vineyards all over the country, but the biggest is on the slopes of Mt. Carmel, south of Haifa, at Zichron Ya’acov. Though the historic winery there dates back nearly 120 years, Carmel also features state-of-the-art equipment and tourist attractions such as a restaurant and an education center with a library, film theater and private tasting seminars. From its hand-dug underground cellar to its experimental micro-winery, Carmel’s story represents the timeline of Israeli wine.

Carmel was founded with the help of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, a member of the famed Rothschild family. After visiting the Shomron area in 1887, Baron Edmond de Rothschild saw winemaking potential. He purchased the property, changing the name from Zamarin to Zichron Ya’acov, which means “in memory of Jacob,” after his father, Baron James Jacob de Rothschild who had acquired Bordeaux’s famous Château Lafite.

Today, Carmel Winery produces 1.25 million cases at four wineries under five collections: Limited Edition, Single Vineyard, Appellation, Private Collection and Selected. Winemaker Lior Lacser, who joined Carmel in 2003 and became head winemaker in 2005, leads a team of eight winemakers at the different locations. A former attorney, he trained as a winemaker in Burgundy, Bordeaux and Australia; smiling, he quips, “I threw the law book away, and I studied in Beaune.”

Lacser is working to shift Carmel from mass-market wines toward more high-quality production. Although he has previously made non-kosher wine, at Carmel all the wine is kosher. “I am proud to make the best wine I can, that just happens to also be kosher,” he said. “Israel is the world’s expert on kosher wine, in the same way Champagne makes the best sparkling wine. Nothing wrong in making wine that all Jewish people can drink.”

Lacser is continuously experimenting, especially with the Appellation series, which focuses on single varieties and simple blends, such as Viognier and a Cabernet Sauvignon-Shiraz. “We are currently checking out Grenache and Mourvèdre, which could be ideal for the climate,” Lacser said. “We are on a journey. No one is saying we have arrived, but we are aiming high and having a lot of fun.”

Eli Ben Zaken, Domaine du Castel

Between Jersualem and Tel Aviv lies Israel’s most rapidly growing wine region, the Judean Hills. Cooler than the well-known Golan Heights and Galilee regions in northern Israel and just 25 miles from the Mediterranean Sea, this area had an ancient winemaking history. But in the modern era, Domaine du Castel was among the first small, family-run wineries to establish itself here. (For more wineries, read "Tasting in the Judean Hills".)

Founder Eli Ben Zaken owned a popular restaurant in Jerusalem, called Mamma Mia, before purchasing and planting the Castel property in 1988; his sons, Eytan and Ariel, put in the starter vineyard by hand. “Israeli wines were not really great at the time,” Eli explained. “I decided to make some myself. Everyone told me I was crazy, that I should go north. But this is where wine was made during biblical times.”

Completely self-taught as a winemaker, Eli nonetheless found success early on; his wines were received well by some international critics and the public from the first vintage, 1992. What began as a 50-case release has evolved into an annual production of more than 8,000 cases, and nearly half of that is exported. Eytan has taken over many of the winemaking responsibilities, while Ariel handles more of the business side.

“It’s an adventure to work with your family,” said Etyan. “When my father started, he was making good wine, but he didn’t know how he was doing it. So we had to look at it more closely. But it’s much more positive working with your father and brother. For us, it’s something we are proud of.”

The family produces three wines, two Bordeaux-style blends, Grand Vin and Petit Castel, and a Chardonnay, “C.” All the grapes are sourced from their 37.5 acres of vineyards or nearby properties under their supervision.

Eli has a soft spot for Bordeaux: He has a collection of 1,000 wines, mostly French. (Among them was a 1982 Château Mouton-Rothschild that slipped from his hands and onto the dusty, concrete floor, shattering on impact. “I got down on the floor and took a sip. It was the most memorable sip of wine I’ve ever had.”) Though he also drinks Burgundy, that won’t influence his plans for Castel. “Pinot Noir would be very difficult to make in Israel. I’m not even thinking about planting it.”

With the 2003 vintage, the Ben Zakens switched to making their wines all kosher. “Kosher is done by religious Jews,” Eli explained. “We had to adapt, like on Saturdays, you can’t work. We can’t get into the winery at all. With the holidays, that’s three days we can’t do anything. So that’s the biggest adaptation. But there’s no difference in quality between kosher and non-kosher wines. It was much easier than I thought.”

Victor Schoenfeld, Golan Heights Winery

Located in the north, Golan Heights Winery is one of the most recognizable names in the Israeli wine industry and one of the powerhouses of the Golan Heights wine region. Begun in 1984, the winery produces wine under three labels, Yarden, Gamla and Golan. One-fifth of its 380,000 cases are exported, to a total of 25 countries, making up almost 38 percent of Israel’s wine exports.

The winery is run by Victor Schoenfeld, who studied at the University of California, Davis, and leads a team of three associates all also educated in California. Schoenfeld, a native Californian, spent time in Israel before college and on a later trip in 1986, met winemakers at Golan Heights; he saw the region’s potential and decided he wanted to be a part of a developing wine area. “I wanted to combine my affection for Israel with my love of winemaking,” he says. “After close to 20 years, I have never looked back.”

Israel has one of the most southern Mediterranean climates in the northern hemisphere, Schoenfeld explained. “Being further south gives us an advantage of having shorter days during the hottest months and relatively long days as the weather cools, which is very good for high-quality ripening. Our high altitudes cool off our southern latitude. Our clay loam volcanic soils, which we have in the Golan Heights, combine good water holding capacity and good drainage. No other place on the planet has our unique combination of characters.”

But much is still unknown about the best grape varieties and viticultural methods for Israel's distinctive terroir, so Schoenfeld is constantly questioning. “I still feel like the Golan Heights has a huge amount of untapped potential,” he said. “My challenge is to study and understand our conditions so that we can better exploit that potential over time.”

Since 2002, he has worked with American winemaker Zelma Long on a technical project to improve quality in the vineyard and determine which grape varieties are best suited to their sites. Additionally, he uses satellite, ecological and landscape mapping systems to get a better understanding of the terroir, while a network of meteorological stations in the vineyards provides climate data. He even runs his own plant propagation project to study plant physiology, as the local representative of Entav, a technical association for viticultural improvement.

It may sound like a lot of work, but he finds it particularly rewarding, sharing a story from when he was just starting out at Golan Heights. “As a young winemaker, a friend and I went out to dinner at a very nice restaurant,” he said. “It just so happened that all the other tables around us were celebrating something, and coincidentally they were all drinking some wine that I’d made. It was a very special feeling to see something that I made help these people celebrate life. How many people make or do something that brings so much enjoyment to so many people?”

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