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Israeli wines hit the big time

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OCCIDENTAL, Calif., June 19 (JTA) — For decades, wine culture in Israel was synonymous with the cloying treacle sipped during Pesach: Children loved the stuff, connoisseurs winced.

But in recent years, dozens of new vineyards have emerged, restaurants are serving a wider range of wines and wine-tasting classes are all the rage.

While average Israelis still may not be able to distinguish between a Merlot and a Cabernet Sauvignon, at least they have learned that red wines accompany beef, whites suit fish, and poultry dishes and Manischewitz goes with absolutely nothing but the seder dinner.

The numbers tell the story of Israel’s growing fondness for wine.

Between 1958 and 1995, Israelis consumed an average of 3.9 liters of wine per capita each year. Last year, consumption increased to about 8 liters — reds still outsell whites — though it’s still well below the U.S. average of about 15 liters.

Wine in Israel has deep roots. The Bible is full of references to vineyards — the earliest is about Noah planting a vineyard and getting drunk — and the use of wine in religious rituals.

Many Hebrew place names refer to grape growing and wine making. Wine played an essential part in the trade between Israel and its neighbors, and the Gamay grape was introduced into Europe by Crusaders returning from the Holy Land.

In the early 1880s, the renowned Baron Edmond De Rothschild helped Eastern European settlers plant French rootstock near Rishon Le Zion, and later in Zichron Ya’acov, south of Haifa.

In 1896, their first wines were presented at the International Exhibition in Berlin under the trade name of Carmel. Four years later, Carmel won a gold medal at the 1900 Paris World’s Fair.

In 1906, the baron deeded the vineyards and wineries to the growers, who formed the Societe Cooperative Vigneronne des Grandes Caves to market Carmel wines.

Through the early decades of the 20th century, the local wine business boomed, particularly during World War I when Allied troops passed through Palestine.

Business fell sharply after the war, however: Palestine’s principal markets in Russia were lost after the 1917 Revolution, the United States went dry during Prohibition and the Middle East was consumed by rising Arab nationalism. Many vineyards were uprooted and replanted with citrus trees.

The industry rebounded as waves of immigrants reached Israel during World War II, and Carmel focused on sweet sacramental wines. In 1971, the first full range of varietal wines was produced.

The wine industry fell on hard times in the early 1980s until the fledgling Golan Heights Winery introduced new varieties, updated production techniques and made superb kosher wines.

“There can be no question that the wine that put Israel firmly and squarely on the international wine agenda was the 1983 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon,” wrote Daniel Rogov, restaurant and food critic for the Israeli daily Ha’aretz and French newspaper Le Monde.

“When that wine was first released, most people could not believe it was Israeli. It was simply too good,” Rogov wrote. “To the Golan winery goes credit for two major advances — first, for demonstrating that Israel was definitely a part of the new world wine phenomenon, and second, that there is no inherent contradiction to producing good wine that was also kosher.”

Sarah Jane English, an author of four books on food and wine who recently visited Israel, particularly enjoyed the Golan Heights Winery’s Yarden 1997 Cabernet Sauvignon and the Carmel 1998 Riesling.

Carmel Winery, which produced about 25 million bottles of wine, brandy and grape juice in 2000, now has 55 percent of the Israeli market, along with about 70 percent of the export market to some 37 countries.

Last year, Carmel’s Emerald Riesling Private Collection won a Gold Monde Selection in the Concours Mondial, as did its Muscat Private Collection. The vineyard’s muscat won the Gold Medal at the Concor SP Competition in Belgium.

About 70 Israeli boutique wineries, most of them small family operations, have raised the stakes even further.

The Tishbi family’s romance with wine began about 120 years ago when Michael Tishbi, a Russian immigrant who settled in Shfeya near Zichron Ya’acov, helped Baron Rothschild plant vineyards.

Four generations later, his great-great grandchildren personally supervise the growing and bottling processes, tasting and evaluating each vineyard lot before creating the final blend.

The Tishbi Estate produces four series of wines, each offering value and style within its class. The Estate Merlot, with its tobacco leaf and cherry aromas, along with a silky texture and elegant balance, has won several awards at international competitions.

Tishbi produces about 1 million bottles a year and exports 15 percent, mostly to the United States and France. El Al serves Tishbi’s finer wines to business and first class flyers.

Margolit, near Caesarea, and Castel, in the Judean Hills, produce about 30,000 bottles a year and are considered by many to operate the best nonkosher boutiques in Israel.

The evolution has come about for two reasons, Rogov says: “Better wine is being produced. And as Israelis have traveled more abroad, they’ve been exposed to the finer elements of culture, such as quality food and wine.”

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