Israeli Wine Goes Native


It was some years ago, on my first trip to Israel as a wine writer, that I visited the Yatir Winery. Eran Goldwasser, its head winemaker, drove me into the Yatir Forest to show me the ruins of a Second Temple-era community that included an ancient wine press next to a giant stone vat. It was the first time I had seen one of those millennia-old stone wine presses, but in the years since, on subsequent trips to Israel, I’ve  have been shown similar ones.

Indeed, the ruins of ancient wineries can be found all over countryside from the Golan to the Negev, providing one just a sense of how big the wine industry was in ancient Israel.

Wines from the land that is now Israel were highly prized, particularly in ancient Rome, and for centuries wines from Judea were shipped to Roman legions throughout the Mediterranean as well as brought back to Europe by Christian pilgrims. This flourishing industry came to an end with the Islamic conquest of the seventh century. Muslim rulers forbade alcohol consumption (except for sacramental purposes), and for the next 1,200-odd years, until the founding of the modern Israeli wine industry, the only viticulture that continued was for the production of table grapes.

When the modern wine industry started in Israel during the mid-19th century, it did not try to establish new vineyards using the surviving native grape varietals, but looked to establish vineyards of French transplants. Baron Edmund de Rothschild, who planted Israel’s first modern vineyards, in Rishon Letzion, in 1882, planted semillon, carignan and grenache among other French varietals, many of which have come to dominate the Israeli wine industry. While European varietals will almost surely continue to be the focus of Israel’s wine industry, there are a handful of winemakers and vintners who are trying to rediscover and recreate some of Israel’s ancient wines.

“It all starts with Shibi,” explains Gil Shatsberg, head winemaker for Recanati, who produced the first kosher wine made from native grapes in 2014. “Shibi” is Shibi Drori, a researcher at Ariel University and the founder of Gvaot Winery. In 2011, Drori and a team of researchers funded in large part by a grant from the Jewish National Fund started searching for Israel’s native grapes. Taking cuttings from wild grapevines from all over Israel and comparing their DNA to the large database of grape DNA at the University of Milan, they have discovered 120 unique varietals, 20 of which are potentially suitable for making wine.

In 2014, Recanati partnered with Drori to start producing wine from one of these native grapes. They were able to identify a Palestinian-owned vineyard near Bethlehem that was cultivating marawi, one of the more promising native grapes varietals, as a table grape. The vineyard’s owner, while insisting that the name of the vineyard be kept secret (no doubt in fear of boycott for working with the Israelis), was willing to give Recanati’s team access to harvest the grapes. The vineyard was planted too densely for tractors, so harvesting was done with the assistance of donkeys.

The following year, when this first vintage of marawi (a total run of 3,000 bottles) was released, the wine world was fascinated. “The professional wine world is interested in the research of older varieties and the revival of those with potential, whether it is in Greece, Cyprus or Lebanon; it is certainly exciting for us in the wine trade,” explains Adam Montefiore, a veteran Israeli wine industry insider turned Jerusalem Post columnist. He also noted, “The marawi [is a] Holy Land varietal grown by a Palestinian Muslim, and the wine is made by an Israeli, Jewish winemaker. It is a beautiful collaboration.”

In 2016, working with the same Palestinian vintner, Recanati started to produce a red wine made from the native bittuni grape. Shatsberg says that bittuni produces “a light, fruity and spicy wine that tastes something like a cross between grenache and pinot noir.”

In 2016, two other kosher wineries started to produce wine made from native grapes: Drori’s Gvaot Winery began making wine from a varietal called jandali (Drori did not respond to The Jewish Week’s request for an interview); and the Jezreel Valley Winery is producing a sparkling wine from dabuki, a popular Israeli table grape.

The Jezreel Valley Winery, which began to export wine to the United States last year, is a small winery that focuses on “making wines that are truly connected to the place where we grow them — Israel. We chose varietals — syrah, cariginan and argaman [an Israeli varietal created by crossing of souzão and carignan] — that are very suitable for Israel’s hot climate,” says Yehuda Nahar, Jezreel’s co-founder and winemaker. “We also make wines in a lighter, more elegant style. … They are wines that are all very suitable for Mediterranean food, Israeli food.”

Nahar, who was fascinated by the thought of making wine from Israeli native grapes, says that he chose to work with dabuki because “while it is fermenting, it has the flavors of ripe melons. And that for me, as an Israeli, is a very local taste.” While dabuki, unlike mawari or jandali, is widely cultivated in Israel, Nahar explained that, “The vineyards producing dabuki are growing it for food, so it was a three-year process to take a plot, and make it acceptable for wine by reducing the yield and irrigation.”

Nahar produces his dabuki wine using spontaneous fermentation, and makes it lightly sparkling by using the pétillant-naturel (“Pet-Nat” for short) method of bottling the wine before the primary fermentation has ended, without the addition of secondary yeasts or sugars.

While the native grape wines that these three kosher wineries are producing (two non-kosher wineries, the Cremisan Monastery Winery and Feldstein Winery, are also using native grapes) are both interesting and unique, will grapes like dabuki change the definition of “Israeli wine”? “No, certainly not,” answers Montefiore. “Argaman hasn’t, nor will dabuki. To paraphrase [British wine critic] Jancis Robinson, being interesting and rare is not the same as quality.”

Shatsberg agrees that “marawi is not going to replace chardonnay or sauvignon blanc, but it is going to be something unique that Israel can produce and that Israel can show for its heritage, which is naturally adapted to its climate and soil.”

Nor, on a practical level, are such wines viable for mass commercial production. “It is very difficult to sell Mediterranean varietal wines in [for instance] Paris,” says Nahar. “And [it would be] a hundred times more so with ancient varietals with flavors that are not familiar to anybody.”

After more than a millennium-long interruption in wine production, it seems unlikely, even with modern DNA technology, that Israel will ever be able to truly recreate the wines that were so treasured in the ancient world. However, these new native grape wines are, as Shatsberg put it, “something unique, something you can be proud of … and something you can put in a bottle.”

Due to the limited production nature of these wines, most are not exported to the U.S. Recanati will soon be releasing its 2016 marawi in the U.S., and Jazreel may export a small amount of its 2017 dabuki to the U.S. later this year.

Tasting Notes

Recanati, Mawari, Judean Hills, 2016: Light straw in color, with a light-to-medium body, this crisp and refreshing wine has an intriguing nose of lemons, quince and wildflowers, all on an earthy background.  Look for flavors of lemons, apples, kiwi, hay and, intriguingly, squash. Well-structured, with a nice level of mineral extraction, this wine is ready to drink now, but I am far too unfamiliar with this varietal to even hazard a guess as to its  drinking window.

Score B+ ($35. To be released soon in the U.S.)

Jezreel Valley Winery, Pet-Nat, Dabuki, 2016: I have never tasted a wine remotely like this. This tawny-straw-colored wine has a light body and a mousse of tiny bubbles with a mouthfeel more reminiscent of a cask-conditioned ale than of a Champagne. The nose is dominated by a sauerkraut-like funkiness (and you’ll want to let it breathe for a while), but as it opens up look for flavors and aromas of apples, lemons, honeydew, mushrooms, mandarins, cabbage and blue cheese. Well-structured, with good acidity, this wine is both enjoyable and truly intriguing. Drink soon.

Score B/B+ (Available only in Israel.)

Please note: Wines are scored on an ‘A’-‘F’ scale where ‘A’ is excellent, ‘B’ is good, ‘C’ is flawed, ‘D’ is very flawed and ‘F’ is undrinkable. 

Gamliel Kronemer writes the “Fruit of the Vine” kosher wine column for the paper.