The Golan Heights: A Gourmet Destination On Higher Ground


You can sip Israel’s best whiskeys at a bar in Tel Aviv. High-end Israeli wines grace tables from London to Los Angeles. And olive oil pressed in biblical lands has been spotted on shelves at Whole Foods.

But there is one huge advantage to sampling these Golan Heights specialties in their native land: the view.

As the name implies, the Golan offers sweeping vistas. Lush green valleys and the Sea of Galilee are visible from arid plateaus and Israel’s highest peak, Mount Hermon. Do wine, whiskey and artisanal chocolate taste better in such glorious surroundings? Why not find out?

Skiers have long flocked to the snows of Mount Hermon, whose 6,000-foot slopes are Israel’s highest. Hikers explore trails through the adjacent Hermon Nature Reserve, at the Golan’s northern tip, and relax amid the verdant waterfalls of Gamla National Park further south.

Lately, however, this dramatic topography has fueled an explosion of culinary activity — and a fresh itinerary for Israel foodies. Communal agriculture has always been part of the Israeli DNA; now, a new generation of Golan Heights artisans has imported expertise and cultural influences from as far afield as California, New York and Argentina to transform the region into a full-fledged gourmet destination.

Wines remain the Heights’ calling card. In the 1980s, viticultural pioneers from local kibbutzes and moshavs established the Golan Heights Winery outside Katzrin, the regional hub. Today, visitors can choose from six tours exploring various perspectives on Israeli winemaking.

Foodies book a meal with drink pairings in the wine cellar; adventurers can hop a Jeep and tour the grounds, while farming enthusiasts might learn about the winery’s “precision agriculture” and expressions of terroir in the wine growers’ hut.

And what exactly is that terroir? The Golan may be less recognizable than Bordeaux, but locals point to the unique geography of volcanic basalt soil; hillsides that rise over 2,000 feet above sea level; and cooler nights and winters than are typical elsewhere in Israel — all conditions that make for excellent wine.

Lately, they also make for excellent whiskey. Single-malt enthusiasts got excited in 2014 when the Golan Distillery, also in Katzrin, began producing whiskeys, gin, absinthe and arak, the anise-perfumed Levantine firewater. Two-grain whiskeys are blended with maple and honey for liqueurs that reflect the distiller’s Canadian roots.

Nearby in Katzrin is the spirited brainchild of yet another North American. Montreal-bred Yechiel Luterman recently opened Edre’i Distillery to realize his dream of crafting single malt whiskey from indigenous Israeli barley, which grows wild on the Golan Heights plateau.

Whiskey is also brewing in Kibbutz Ein Zivan, another (increasingly touristic) hive of gourmet artisans, near the Syrian border in the northeastern Golan.

In the shadow of volcanic Mt. Avital, the Pelter family — with roots in America, and winemaking expertise from Australia — recently added a boutique distillery to its existing wineries, Pelter and Matar (a kosher label). Visitors can sample not only sauvignons and arak, but also tasty homemade cheeses.

Indeed, agritourism, while young, is flowering across the Heights as artisans find creative ways to share not only their wares, but also their passion for this less-traveled corner of Israel.

At the Chocolatier De Karina, kids don paper hats for chocolate making workshops, while kosher chocoholics can skip right to dessert at the Chocolate Cafe. Karina Chaplinsky, a third-generation chocolatier from Argentina, oversees a cacao empire that combines her European grandfather’s Old World techniques with local Israeli ingredients.

Gourmet producers encourage guests to linger for a tour and tasting, but the Kedem family takes hospitality one step further — inviting couples to spend the night at the wine village they have built around their Assaf Winery, a few miles north of Katzrin.

Rustic, wood-beam cabins are surrounded by flowering vines and the aroma of herb gardens. Adi Kedem Alon, who studied cooking in New York, oversees the café and specializes in artisan pastries; the winery’s chenin blanc and pinot gris complement other Heights-grown specialties.

And what of the region’s fabled olive groves, cultivated since ancient times? Olea Essence, headquartered in Katzrin, harvests the fruit on farms around the Sea of Galilee — and turns them into popular skin, hair and kitchen products that are sold around the world.

Visitors to the Katzrin facility can see a 1,000-year-old olive tree, taste kosher extra-virgin oils, watch experts demonstrate the olive press, and linger for a vegetable lunch in a romantic, vine-covered courtyard. If you’ve ever wondered how olive oil could be an all-afternoon activity, this setting will likely convince you.