A millennium and a half ago, the land that is modern-day Israel was renowned for its wine. The numerous ancient wine presses still being discovered today demonstrate how great the demand was for wine from this part of the world.
In modern times, Israel has struggled to establish itself as a wine destination. Although the wine industry was revived in the 19th century under the initiative of Edmond de Rothschild, quality for many years was lackluster as nation-building took precedence over vinous pleasures. As a result, wine tourism in Israel remained stunted. Visiting vineyards and wineries? This is the Middle East, not Europe.
However, since the turn of the century, Israel's wine culture has been rapidly evolving. In the mid-1980s, there were only about 15 active wineries in the country; today, there are some 250. Tel Aviv, the largest city, has become a culinary capital that helps bring focus to the emerging Israeli wine culture.
And the local wines have never tasted better. A generation of young winemakers have studied and apprenticed in famous wine regions all over the world, and they, along with renowned consultants such as Jean-Claude Berrouet and Michel Rolland from France, have elevated professionalism in the industry. Touring Israel's wineries today provides a uniquely compelling peek into a nascent industry.
Israel is a small country, spanning only 350 miles from north to south, and can be explored in just a few days. There are two good strategies for planning your itinerary. The first is to make Tel Aviv your base. Centrally located, the city allows for easy day trips to the various regions. It's about an hour to the Judean Hills, and about two and a half hours to the Golan Heights in the far north.
The second approach is to travel around and spend a night or two in each of the main wine regions. For access to the Judean Hills, the most reasonable option is Jerusalem. In Galilee and the Golan Heights, you can opt to stay in one of the thousands of cabins (zimmers) on offer in the area, though lodging in one of the larger cities, such as Akko or Nazareth, offers cultural rewards beyond wine.
Either way, be prepared to test your navigation skills. Israeli land-use regulations mean that many wineries are located in industrial parks, far from the vineyards; others are hidden among kibbutzim and agricultural settlements, and thus are not easily visible. Use a navigation device or app, or call ahead for directions.
Some Israeli wineries offer free tastings, while others can charge up to $40. Be sure to verify visiting policies beforehand and to book any tours in advance. Additionally, kosher wineries are closed for most of the weekend.
Note: When calling the following establishments from North America, dial 011 and then the telephone number. Prices in this story have been converted to U.S. dollars using the exchange rate at press time ($1 equals 3.84 ILS) and rounded to the nearest dollar.
WHERE TO TASTE
Makura Ranch, Kerem-Maharal
Open Daily, by appointment only, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Cost $32; includes a light meal and instructional tour
Situated in the foothills of Mount Carmel, south of Haifa, Amphorae is one of Israel's most beautiful wineries. Owner Vladimir Dubov has invested heavily in the project over the past few years, transforming it into a leading producer. France-based consultant Michel Rolland joins respected winemaker Arkady Papikian yearly for the blending process, and together they've created a line of wines based primarily on Bordeaux varieties. Tastings, held around a communal table in the courtyard, provide an inviting Israeli wine experience. (Amphorae wines are sold as Makura Estate in the U.S.)
The Winery Road, Zikhron Ya'akov 2
Open Sunday to Thursday, 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Cost $12; includes a workshop
Carmel is the oldest active winery in Israel, founded in 1882. In recent years, winemaker Lior Laxer has drastically improved the quality of the wines, particularly the premium collections. A visit to the tasting room, located on the promenade of the charming town of Zikhron Ya'akov, also provides guests a chance to familiarize themselves with the philanthropic work of Edmond de Rothschild and his integral role in the formation of Israel.
DOMAINE DU CASTEL
Open Sunday to Thursday, by appointment only
Cost $35; includes a cheese platter and winery tour
Domaine du Castel is perhaps the country's most recognized boutique winery. In 1988, Eli Ben Zaken, a Jerusalem-based restaurateur, planted a vineyard in his yard in Ramat Raziel near the holy city. Since then, he has succeeded with Bordeaux-style reds and powerful Chardonnays. Over the past year, in a step that attests to the winery's ambition, operations moved to impressive new facilities in Yad Hashmona, overlooking the Jerusalem Hills. The tasting room and deck offer breathtaking views of the surrounding countryside.
Open Sunday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday, 9 a.m. to 2 p.m.
Flam Winery, located in the Judean Hills, is a full-fledged family business: Each of the five family members is responsible for a different part of the winery's operation. Unusual for an Israeli winery, Flam is situated in the heart of a vineyard, and views from the tasting room show off some of the most inviting vistas in the area. In charge of production is winemaker Golan Flam, who makes high quality reds from Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah that showcase the modern face of the Israeli wine industry.
GOLAN HEIGHTS WINERY
Open Sunday, 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.; Monday to Thursday, 8:30 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; Friday, 8:30 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.
Cost $5 tour, $40 per person for VIP visit
The Golan Heights Winery was established in 1983, and its subsequent success helped set off the quality revolution that continues to shape Israel's modern wine scene. The winery is committed to ongoing progress in the region, and its wines are widely regarded as the local benchmark. Chief winemaker Victor Schoenfeld focuses primarily on Bordeaux varieties, as well as Chardonnay, Viognier and Pinot Gris. A variety of tours are offered, from a one-hour guided visit and tasting to a vineyard itinerary lasting three and a half hours.
Sarona Commercial Center, 36 Kaplan St., Tel-Aviv
Open Saturday to Thursday, 5 p.m. until last customer leaves; Friday, 12 p.m. until last customer leaves
Cost Varies; expect $20-$50 for a full experience
If you arrive in Israel for a quick visit and want a small sample of the country's wines, the Tasting Room—opened in 2014 and located in the basement of one of the historic Templer buildings that make up the Sarona Promenade in central Tel Aviv—is a fine choice. There's an automated pouring system, and the wine list offers about 40 selections by the glass. Guests purchase a smart card that can be used at the pouring machines to select a small sample, half a glass or a full glass of wine. The bar also features bite-size dishes.
Open Sunday to Friday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., by appointment only
Tzora, one of the first wineries to be founded in the Judean Hills, was established in 1993 by the late Ronnie James, one of Israel's winemaking pioneers. Continuing James' legacy is Eran Pick, Israel's first—and so far only—Master of Wine. Pick relies exclusively on grapes from the winery's Shoresh Vineyard and emphasizes Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon for the reds. The whites are among Israel's best. The tasting room is located close to the winery, in Kibbutz Tzora, and visits, which must be booked ahead of time, can include a guided tour of the vineyards.
Kfar Vitkin, near the Turtle Bridge
Open Sunday to Thursday, 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Friday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m.
Vitkin Winery was among the first in Israel to move away from ubiquitous varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay and instead focus on less-heralded grapes such as Carignan, Petite Sirah and Grenache. The results, especially with Carignan, turned Vitkin into one of the most popular producers in the country. Recently, the winery moved to larger, state-of-the-art facilities 25 miles north of Tel Aviv, complete with a visitors center and tasting room.