Israeli wines come of age

Eli Ben Zaken sniffs a wine in one of the cellars of his Castel du Domaine, near Jerusalem, on Sept. 8, 2008. (Brian Hendler)

Eli Ben Zaken sniffs a wine in one of the cellars of his Castel du Domaine, near Jerusalem, on Sept. 8, 2008. (Brian Hendler)

RAMAT RAZIEL, Israel (JTA) – It’s harvest time at the Domaine Du Castel winery and crates full of small, plump grapes the color of blueberries are being loaded into a machine that removes them from their stems and pumps them through plastic piping into a towering, silver-colored vat.

This is how the two-year process of wine making begins in a terra cotta-colored building that originally was a chicken coop and is now considered the producer of some of Israel’s finest wines.

This year the winery was awarded the much-coveted four-star rating in one of the world’s premier wine guides, Hugh Johnson’s “Pocket Wine Book 2008.”

In Israel, “there is a wine revolution going on when it comes to quality,” says the founder of Domaine Du Castel, Eli Ben Zaken, a mild-mannered man with thick, wavy hair and a beard.

A former restaurateur, he began making wine as a hobby until the top wine taster at Sotheby’s in London came across one of his bottles and, much to his surprise, declared it “an outstanding” find, Ben Zaken said.

Wines have been produced in these Judean hills, not far from Jerusalem, since biblical times. The remains of a wine press from the Second Temple period was unearthed near where Domaine Du Castel’s grapes are grown.

But only in the last 25 years or so have Israel’s wines begun to take off around the world, transforming the reputation of kosher wine from the syrupy kosher kiddush variety to world-class vintages.

“International expertise, modern technology and dynamic wineries have ensured continued advances in quality,” Johnson wrote of Israeli wines in his book.

A key turning point in the “coming out” of Israel’s wines came just last year when Robert Parker, a leading American wine critic, tasted more than 40 Israeli wines for the first time. He awarded 14 wines scores higher than 90 on a 100-point scale. A major achievement for any winery, the scores signified an exceptional world-class product.

A list of some of Parker’s favorite Israeli wines was published in Business Week.

The highest score, 93, went to a pair of Israeli red wines: the 2003 Yatir Forest wine from the Yatir Winery and the 2005 Gewurztraminer Heights Wine Yarden, a desert wine from the Golan Heights Winery.

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Israel’s wines began their metamorphosis in the 1980s. Israelis started traveling abroad in increasing numbers and returned with an appetite for better food and, with it, better wine, according to the restaurant and wine critic for Israel’s daily Ha’aretz, Daniel Rogov.

Some Israelis began studying winemaking in places such as France and California, returning home with the expertise not just on how to make wine but where to make wine. They began planting fewer vineyards in Israel’s low-lying coastal areas and more in higher-altitude regions like the Golan Heights, the Upper Galilee and the Judean Hills, where the climate has proved better for growing quality grapes.

The Golan Heights Winery, established in 1984, played an important role in the quality revolution of Israeli wines, bringing in expertise from California and raising the bar for other wine makers here, said the director of wine development at the Carmel Winery, Adam Montefiore, who also has worked at the Golan Heights Winery.

“The planting had been going on in the wrong places of the coastal plane, where the soil was not right and with grapes that were not the right varieties,” Rogov said. “In the Golan Heights, the primarily volcanic soil is excellent for grapes and the chalky, volcanic red clay of the Upper Galilee is also very good.”

When he came to Israel 25 years ago, the country was a “wine desert,” said Rogov, who runs an online forum on Israeli wines and is the author of “Rogov’s Guide to Israeli Wines.”

“If people told me then that Israel would be producing the wines they are producing today, I would have laughed in their faces,” Rogov said.

The return of modern winemaking to the region began in 1882 with the investment in wineries in Zichron Yaakov and Rishon Le-Zion by philanthropist Baron Edmond de Rothschild. The baron, who in France owned Chateaux Lafite, arguably the world’s most famous winery, hoped a wine industry would help support Jewish settlement in what was then Ottoman-ruled Palestine.

Rothschild’s wineries eventually morphed into the Carmel Winery, still Israel’s largest. But for decades it was Carmel that was synonymous with the thick, sweet kosher wine that Jews around the world used for kiddush on Shabbat and holidays.

“Liquid religion,” Montefiore, who works for Carmel, calls it. “Probably the most famous Jewish brand name in the world.”

In the past eight years, Carmel has worked hard at a transformation of its own, and it’s now recognized for a collection of top-quality wines. It’s a shift that, according to Montefiore, is part of a larger revolution in which up-and-coming boutique wineries have pressured Israel’s older, more established wineries to react by creating top-quality wines. 

“It’s been fun to be part of building an image rather than holding on to an image,” said Montefiore, whose great-great-grandfather was the heir and nephew of Sir Moses Montefiore, the famous Jewish philanthropist from London who invested heavily in the Jewish community in Palestine in the late 19th century.

Israel today has about eight major wineries, 10 medium-sized ones and nearly 180 boutique wineries. They range from the high-end Margalit and Yatir wineries to the innovative and organic Neot Semadar Winery, the southernmost winery in the country, located deep in the Negev Desert.

At Ramat Raziel, a moshav in the forested hills outside Jerusalem, Ben Zaken has spent the last few weeks walking through his vineyards testing the grapes until they were ripe for harvest. An Egyptian-born immigrant from Italy, Ben Zaken says the process of working the land makes him feel especially rooted here.

He says he also sees a role for Israeli wine beyond the pleasure of its taste.

“Here you can show the world that Israel is not only about wars and violence,” he said. “And their image of Israel changes.”

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