Should You Try an Israeli Wine?

Mar 5, 2008

After my travels through Israel’s major wine regions—the Golan Heights and neighboring Galilee region, the Judean Hills near Jerusalem, and the coastal region between Tel Aviv and Haifa—I can answer yes to that question, with some definite provisos.

First, it won’t be easy, given the hurdles of distribution in the United States and the small production of some of the wines. Second, there are still plenty of funky and bizarre bottlings to avoid. And third, there is the kosher vs. non-kosher divide—and whether it makes any difference or sense. More on that later.

But if a noteworthy wine region is defined by interesting terroirs, dedicated winemakers, distinctive flavors and a compelling cultural story, then Israel has a place in the international wine bazaar, where it definitely faces plenty of stiff competition. Despite the affections, or lack thereof, that the Jewish state engenders, when it comes to wine, Israel should be judged by worldwide standards of quality.

I say this because, before my recent visit, I was skeptical about recommending Israeli wines. This had mostly to do with the grapes from which the country's wines are made—international varietals such Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Syrah. In my other beats covering Old World regions such as Portugal, southern France and Greece, I've found the attempts by vintners to make wines from these varieties, rather than their native grapes, are usually disappointing and lackluster.

But Israel, while it qualifies historically as the oldest of the Old World, should be considered a New World region. Though there was a flourishing wine trade in Israel in Biblical times—with historical evidence including winemaker’s records and ancient presses—the rise of Islam in the Middle East extinguished all traces of that culture. Even the grapes that were used during those times are unknown, according to the experts I’ve talked to (but please let me know if you have heard or read otherwise).

So Israel's wine industry was planted on a tabula rasa more than a century ago, with a big boost given by the late Baron Edmond de Rothschild of Bordeaux. He helped start and build what would become the Carmel winery and also first imported many of the grape varieties that form the backbone of the Israeli wine industry today.

Now a new generation of Israeli winemakers—many trained in Australia, California or France—are helping to lead their nation out of its long winemaking wilderness.

While I’ll write more about some distinctive Israeli wines in coming posts, I’m wondering if any of you have tried some memorable or revelatory bottlings from Israel recently—and if you had to fight some preconceptions going into it.

Israel

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