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Hitting new heights

Published:  23 July, 2008

Israel is a New World' wine producer in one of the oldest wine regions on earth. In this country no bigger than Wales, there is a curious combination of the new, old and ancient worlds of winemaking.

It is also one of the smallest wine producers in the world, harvesting just 45,000 tonnes of grapes in 2005.

Ancient Israel, with roots going back deep into Biblical times, must have been one of the earliest wine-producing countries - at least 2,000 years before the Greeks and Romans took the vine to Europe.

But it took a Rothschild to renew the tradition and create a modern wine industry.

Baron Edmond de Rothschild, an owner of Chteau Lafite, founded Carmel Winery in 1882 and built two large wineries with deep underground cellars - at Rishon Le Zion, south of Tel Aviv, and Zichron Ya'acov, south of Haifa.

They remain the two largest wineries in Israel, and Carmel, which opened its subsidiary in London back in 1898, still has over 40% of the Israeli wine market.

However, something close to wine fever has gripped the country in recent years. The area of vineyards planted with noble varieties has doubled to nearly 4,000 hectares (ha), and there are now more than 150 wineries, many of them boutiques or garagistes that have sprung up in the past 10 years.

Although the initial advice and expertise was French, the quality revolution really began with the founding of the Golan Heights Winery in 1983.

The winery brought in expertise from California and showed the world and, more importantly, Israelis, that it was possible to make world-class wines in Israel.

The winemakers were graduates from the University of California at Davis and their Yarden wines began to be noticed.

Peter Hallgarten was the first person to recognise this potential: 'Their dedication to quality ideals not only changed the face of wine drinking in Israel, but also set an example to other wineries.'

In the 1990s, there was an explosion of small boutique and garagiste wineries. Some of their wines are grossly overpriced, but others are producing excellent wines at realistic prices.

The most famous of these is Domaine du Castel, situated in the mountains west of Jerusalem.

When Serena Sutcliffe MW tasted the Castel Grand Vin 1992, she wrote: 'The wine is a real tour de force, brilliantly made and very classic.'

It was a response to encourage Castel and inspire many other new small wineries.

Since then the large wineries have all reacted with investments of their own.

Carmel has built two small wineries, one in the Upper Galilee in the north, the other at Tel Arad in the south.

It has also completely renovated its Zichron Ya'acov Wine Cellars, allowing it to produce small quantities of single-vineyard wines.

Barkan built a large winery at Hulda, alongside the country's largest vineyard. Barkan was then bought by Tempo, Israel's largest brewery. And the Golan Heights Winery built a winery in the Upper Galilee, called Galil Mountain.

Pillars of industry

The Israeli wine industry is built on the pillars of three large wineries: Carmel, Barkan and Golan Heights - which together control 75% of the local market and of Israeli wine exports.

There are 25 commercial wineries in all. More than 50% of Israel's exports are to North America, and a further 30% to Western Europe, including the UK.

Most of the wineries are modern, and the major wineries all employ internationally trained winemakers with experience in major wine-producing countries.

Australia has replaced California as the main breeding ground for new Israeli winemakers.

The main grape varieties are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. Shiraz, or Syrah, is the new up-and-coming variety, and there are some interesting varietal Cabernet Francs too.

But there are no successful indigenous varieties in Israel.

Israel is famed for its agriculture. Drip-feed irrigation, which is used worldwide, was an Israeli invention that revolutionised the global agricultural industry.

The use of meteorological stations in the Golan vineyards and pioneering attempts to plant vineyards in the desert show that Israel's viticulturists are dynamic and up to date.

Israel is also not afraid to import expertise. Current winemaking consultants include Californian Zelma Long at the Golan Heights Winery; Peter Stern, ex-Mondavi and Gallo, at Carmel; and John Worontschak at Dalton. Viticultural guru Richard Smart has also been spotted in Israel.

Daniel Rogov, author of Rogov's Guide to Israeli Wines says, 'There has been amazing progress during the past 15 years.

'Today the finest Israeli wines comfortably compete with many of the better international wines.'

Israel is an eastern Mediterranean country, so it is no surprise that the climate is mainly Mediterranean.

However, in the higher-altitude vineyards of the Upper Galilee, the Golan Heights and Judean Hills, the climate is cooler and there is likely to be snow during the winter months.

As in many long, narrow countries there are a surprising variety of different mesoclimates in so small an area - it is possible to ski on Mount Hermon in the north in the morning and go scuba diving to see the beautiful coral reef in the Red Sea resort of Eilat in the afternoon.

The wine regions

The country is divided into five wine regions: Galilee, Shomron, Samson, Judean Hills and the Negev.

The best wine-growing region is the Galilee, in the north of the country, and the areas of the finest vineyards are the Upper Galilee and Golan Heights.

The Golan Heights in the northeast of the country, bordering on Syria and overlooking the Sea of Galilee, is a volcanic plateau rising to 1,200 metres above sea level.

The Golan Heights Winery is the main winery here, and is also the country's pioneering winery.

UC Davis-trained Victor Schoenfeld is chief winemaker, and its Yarden and Gamla wines continue to win awards in all the major wine competitions.

The Upper Galilee is a beautiful area of forests, rising peaks and stony ridges bordering on Lebanon - less than 50 miles from the Bekaa Valley, where Chateau Musar's grapes come from.

The soils are heavy and gravelly, but well drained. Many of Israel's finest wineries have invested in new vineyards here.

Both Carmel and the Golan Heights Winery have recently built wineries in the Upper Galilee. The main established winery is Dalton, owned by the Haruni family, originally from England.

The winery was founded in 1993 and has grown gradually to produce more than 50,000 cases a year, maintaining the same attention to detail as it did when it opened.

The Shomron region is on the coast, around the winery towns of Binyamina and Zichron Ya'acov. The area benefits from breezes from the Mediterranean Sea. Carmel's Zichron Ya'acov Wine Cellars is situated on Mount Carmel.

The winery, named after Edmond's father, Baron James Rothschild, who bought Chteau Lafite in 1868, has been refurbished with the latest winemaking equipment.

A small facility for making handcrafted wines from small vineyard lots has been added, and the new wines have received rave reviews.

The rejuvenation of Carmel reflects the dramatic upswing in Israeli wine - a journey from sacramental to single-vineyard wines.

Carmel's new chief winemaker, Lior Laxer, studied in Beaune and has worked in Burgundy, Bordeaux and Australia. He has also worked with Michel Rolland.

The Samson region comprises the central coastal plain, southeast of Tel Aviv. This is an area that has hot, humid summers and warm, mild winters.

Barkan Winery is a big player here, having built a magnificent new winery close to its large area of vineyards nearby.

The Samson region also comprises the Judean lowlands and foothills on the way to Jerusalem. Here lies Clos de Gat - a small estate winery producing wines of real quality, including one of the country's best Chardonnays.

The word 'Gat' is Hebrew for an ancient wine press - and there is one situated in the heart of their vineyards.

The Judean Hills run down the spine of the country. The central Judean Hills, west of Jerusalem, is where Domaine du Castel is situated.

This is a family winery producing wine of immense interest to connoisseurs the world over. Its Grand Vin, Petit Castel and 'C' Blanc du Castel are wines of elegance and finesse, showing a pronounced French influence.

Eli Ben Zaken, owner of Castel, says: 'In Israel, we are in the middle of a revolution, which is only just beginning to be recognised abroad.'

The final region is the Negev desert in the south. In the semi-arid region in the northeast Negev, lies Yatir Winery.

Yatir wines, produced by Australian-trained Eran Goldwasser from vineyards within Yatir Forest at an altitude of 900m, have won prizes and international recognition since their launch in 2004. They are already regarded as being among the best in Israel.

Other wineries to look out for include Chateau Golan and Bazelet ha Golan from the Golan Heights, Galil Mountain and Tabor from the Galilee, Amphorae from the Shomron coast and Ella Valley Vineyards from the Samson region.

Canadian-born Sam Soroka is a winemaker with an international perspective and the demanding standards you would expect from someone who has worked at Hardys and Wynns.

He has gained winemaking experience in Australia, California, France and Canada, and now finds himself making wine at Carmel.

'Historically, Israel did not push the quality envelope. I have come here, found all the technology I need, a wonderful climate and some excellent sites, particularly in the Upper Galilee, where I believe it is really possible to make world-class wines.'

Most of the larger wineries produce wines that are kosher, but it is a mistake to assume that all Israeli wines are kosher - most of the smaller Israeli wineries, like Clos de Gat, produce non-kosher wine.

The word 'kosher' should not be confused with the sweet, sacramental kosher wines, which have given all wines that are kosher a bad name.

Quality Israeli wines that happen to be kosher are harvested, fermented and matured in exactly the same way as a non-kosher wine.

They win prizes at Vinexpo and the IWSC - the fact they are kosher is incidental. Kosher, which means pure, does not have to be a harmful designation. Carmel's wines, for instance, are approved for consumption by vegetarians and vegans.

Israel's place in the UK is mainly in the ethnic market. Carmel is the biggest presence, followed by Golan and Barkan.

All three are listed by the major supermarket chains, and Castel, Yarden, Yatir and Carmel's single-vineyard wines have restaurant listings.

Mario Penge, managing director of Vini Italia, and an Israel specialist, says: 'There is great interest from quality restaurants and wine shops for the better Israeli wines, which are seen as exotic, something new and representative of the eastern Mediterranean, which is a whole new region.'

The Greek paradox

The paradox of Israeli wines is similar to that experienced by Greek wines, but on a far smaller scale.

The Greek wine industry has been transformed in the past 15 years, but its major battle is still against the presumption that all Greek wine is like Retsina, only to be found on the bottom shelf in kebab restaurants.

Israel's main challenge is to banish the preconceived idea that all Israeli wines are sweet, sacramental wines or that they are produced only for an undiscerning Jewish public.

Certainly today, Israel is producing some of the most interesting wines in the eastern Mediterranean.

As a sign of the coming of age of the Israeli wine industry, IsraWineExpo - the country's first international wine exhibition - will take place from 13 to 15 June, with many Israeli wineries and importers exhibiting.

Visitors to the exhibition could be in for a pleasant surprise.