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Business Israeli Winemakers Thirst for the French Market, but It’s Not Easy

July 6, 2004
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Jean-Paul Trouslard held the glass up to the light, pushed the wine around his palate and, with a flourish, spat it out into a nearby receptacle. Then he pronounced his opinion.

“It’s pleasantly surprising,” he said, hastening to refill his glass with a different white wine.

As chairman of the Paris Association of Oenologues — or wine experts — Trouslard was one of many figures from the French wine trade to attend a recent tasting held in Paris.

This time however, the event did not contain the usual Bordeaux, Burgundy and Champagne for which France is famous, but a range of quality wines from Israel.

Sponsored by the Israel Export and International Cooperation Institute, the event featured about 20 Israeli producers all eager to enlighten the French experts with wine from the Jewish state.

For the most part, the response was positive. Trouslard said he was particularly impressed with one of the Chardonnays.

“It’s! just like a Cote du Blanc from the Champagne region,” he said.

Marc Duverneuil, chief wine steward at Paris’s Intercontinental Hotel, was also smitten by the quality of the wines, paying perhaps the ultimate tribute to an Israeli red wine produced in the Judean hills near Jerusalem.

“This is very close to Bordeaux and could very well compete,” he said. The wine, Duverneuil said, had “good body” and was “well balanced” — “even if the price isn’t.”

Like Trouslard, Duverneuil also used the words “pleasantly surprised” — a theme that made it seem that some of those attending had expected a far lower standard.

Others were less diplomatic.

“The grapes are grown in a hot climate, so the wines are often full and rich but they’re quite far removed from French standards,” said Sebastien Durand-Viel, author of “Foreign Wines in France.”

Durand-Viel was sharply critical of the tendency of Israeli growers to concentrate on grape varieties that didn’t adapt well! to the climate of the Middle East.

He also suggested that the Isr aelis adapt to using rarer varieties such as those found in Sicily or in the New World, as countries outside Europe are referred to in the wine business.

“Many of the whites I found greasy, thin and without freshness,” he said.

Until recently, Israel had not produced quality wine, said Eli Ben-Zaken, who owns a small private winery near Jerusalem.

Ben-Zaken said that Israeli wine largely had been produced by national cooperatives that mass produced wine while not always adapting grape varieties to particular soil and climactic conditions.

“We always want to do everything when we don’t yet know what works and in what soils,” Ben-Zaken said. “Ultimately, many of the varieties we grow today will disappear and maybe we’ll even find our own variety of grape.”

Similar criticism of the factory-style production of wines — almost unknown in France — came from Ricardo Cohen, a French importer of Israeli wines.

“When you produce millions of bottles, it’s like ma! king Coca-Cola,” he said.

While the Israeli producers were trying to push their wine to the non-Jewish trade, Cohen said the battle would always be difficult.

“We have to face it, whether we like it or not, that the Jews are the natural market. I don’t believe that suddenly, overnight, the French are going to be gasping for Israeli wine,” Cohen said.

Figures on French wine consumption seem to bear out the difficulty of the task. About 98 percent of wine consumed in France is produced within the country. Even the small niche market of foreign wines is highly competitive, with a vast array of Italian, Spanish and Portuguese wines available.

But while the French are drinking far less wine than they used to, there appears to be a new willingness to try out wines from around the world, Trouslard said.

Josephine and Martin Prieur produce wines in Burgundy but have long been admirers of Israeli wine.

“You’d think that with such a warm climate they would pro! duce a heavy wine without freshness, but it has great minerality and f ruitiness,” Josephine Prieur said.

As a French believer in the quality of international wines, Prieur pointed out that some of the best wines come from the New World.

“There’s definitely a place for Israeli wines today among the Californian, South American and South African wines,” she said.

On that point, there was tacit agreement from the Israelis — even if they would prefer to compete with the finest of France’s wines.

According to Adi Adiri, the general manager of Yarden Wines, one of Israel’s largest producers, the non-Jewish market should be targeted in terms of world wines, not just in terms of quality.

“After all, when it comes to France, we’re dealing here with the No. 1 world power in wine,” he said.

Adiri’s company produces about 5 million bottles per year and almost all of it is sold to Jews. Some 20 percent of the production is exported from Israel. But even in France, where Adiri is keen to expand the market, around 95 percent of the win! e goes to Europe’s largest Jewish community.

However, that fact also meant quality was still an important factor, as wine importer Ricardo Cohen pointed out.

“Let’s not forget that French Jews are also French. Israeli wine is still the best quality kosher wine. They appreciate that,” he said.

Moreover, time is on the side of Israeli wine, wine critic Durand-Viel said.

“People here look for older red wines and naturally, the Israeli wines haven’t reached that stage yet. But some of the bouquets have great potential. They could have great wines in 10 years time,” he said.

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