Letter from Israel – Wine of Israel Pesach 5780

 Hi again from Israel,

Like many of you, the residents of Israel are under lockdown following the worldwide outbreak of the corona virus. I doubt there is much interest at this time in reading about the usual suspects – Israel`s economic situation, start up nation, the Israel-Arab issue, politics and the like. I was about to surrender to Cicero`s “O tempora”, “O, What times”, and not send a letter, when I came across an apocryphal letter from the famous author F. Scott Fitzgerald on his supposed quarantine during the Spanish flu virus: “The officials have alerted us to ensure we have a month’s worth of necessities. Zelda and I have stocked up on red wine, whiskey, rum, vermouth, absinthe, white wine, sherry, gin, and lord, if we need it, brandy. Please pray for us.”

I had my eureka moment. Some of us have stocked up on wine to give us comfort during the lockdown. But more relevant, Passover/Pesach is arriving soon. At the seder, we are commanded to drink four cups of wine. What better subject to cheer us up at this time of lockdown and celebration than wine. Please note I do not call this letter “wines” of Israel since I relate not so much to varieties of wine in Israel, but rather to the history of wine in Israel, stories, regions, development of wineries in Israel and even attempt to give an answer: Why four cups of wine at the seder. Let`s go!

But before we start our tour of Israel`s winelands, ancient and new, I wish those who are celebrating Pesach, Chag pesach kasher ve`sameach and to those celebrating Easter, a happy Easter.

May we all be safe, well and healthy,

Charles Abelsohn

The Four Cups of Wine

The usual explanation is that the four cups of wine represent the four expressions for redemption used in the Bible: “And I shall draw out”, “and I shall save”, “And I shall redeem” and “I will take”.

Other explanations are: the four mothers, the four generations raised in Egypt and the four corners of the world from which Israel will be gathered as it is written in Isaiah 1, 12: “and gather together the dispersed of Judah from the four corners of the earth”.

There are several additional explanations. One I would like to mention is that Israel was liberated from Pharaoh’s four evil decrees: a) Slavery. b) The ordered murder of all male progeny by the Hebrew midwives. c) The drowning of all Hebrew boys in the Nile by Egyptian thugs. d) The decree ordering the Israelites to collect their own straw for use in their brick production.

Wine in Biblical Times.

Sorry, France and the rest of Europe, Sorry California. Sorry South Africa, Australia and New Zealand. Wine originated in the Middle East & Eastern Mediterranean over 2,000 years before the vine reached Europe. Perhaps you owe Israel royalties?

Noah Plants a Vineyard

The art of winemaking is thought to have begun in the area between the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and the Sea of Galilee. The biblical Noah was the first recorded viticulturist. According to the book of Genesis, the first thing Noah did, after disembarking from the ark, was to plant a vineyard. Gen: 20-21, “And Noah began to be a husbandman, and he planted a vineyard: And he drank of the wine, and was drunken; and he was uncovered within his tent.” As the Book of Genesis relates, he was also the first recorded person to suffer from drinking too much. The vine then travelled south, through Phoenicia and Canaan to Egypt, the world’s first great wine culture.

Moses’ Cluster of Grapes

In the Book of Numbers, the story is told of how Moses sent spies to check out the Promised Land. They returned with a cluster of grapes so large, that it had to be suspended from a pole and carried by two men. The grapes were chosen to symbolize how the land flowed with

milk and honey. The vine was one of the blessings of the Promised Land promised to the children of Israel. “Numbers 13: 23 When they arrived at the Eshcol Valley they cut off a branch with a single cluster of grapes – it took two men to carry it – slung on a pole. They also picked some pomegranates and figs. 24 They named the place Eshcol Valley (Grape-Cluster-Valley) because of the huge cluster of grapes they had cut down there.”

The Second Passage of the Shema – Hear O Israel

Here is an extract from the second passage of the Shema, Hear O Israel, prayer which we read twice daily, Deuteronomy 11:13-14: “It shall come about, if you listen obediently to my commandments which I am commanding you today, to love the LORD your God and to serve Him with all your heart and all your soul, that He will give the rain for your land in its season, the early and late rain, that you may gather in your grain and your new wine and your oil.”

Basically, it says that if you behave nicely, you will be rewarded with wine. Sounds good to me. In recent years, excavations have uncovered ancient presses and storage vessels that indicate a well-developed and successful wine industry existed in the area from Mount Hermon in the north to the Negev in the south. Grapes, grape clusters and vines were frequent motifs on coins and jars found from ancient times.

Israel`s First Export: Wine to Italy

Viticulture has existed in the land of Israel since biblical times. In the book of Deuteronomy, the fruit of the vine was listed as one of the seven blessed species of fruit found in the land of Israel (Deut. 8:8). The location of Israel along a historic wine trading route between Mesopotamia and Egypt brought winemaking knowledge and influence to the area. Many wine presses and storage cisterns have been found from Mount Hermon to the Negev. Wine played a significant role in the religion of the early Israelites with images of grape growing, harvesting and winemaking often being used to illustrate religious ideals.  

In Roman times, wine from Israel was exported to Rome with the most sought after wines being vintage, dated and with the name of the winemaker inscribed on the container. In The Fruit of the Vine: Viticulture in Ancient Israel, Carey Ellen Walsh writes, “Viticulture was practiced throughout Israelite history quite simply because it both thrived in the environment and offered worthwhile social and economic benefits to the society.”

King David’s Cellar

The Kings of Judah were said to have owned vast vineyards and stores for wine. King David’s wine holdings were so substantial that his court included two special officials to manage them. One was in charge of the vineyards and the other in charge of the cellars. He/she may have been Israel’s first sommelier. At this time the Jewish devotion to wine was clearly shown in their developing literature, lifestyle and religious ritual. Indeed, anyone planting a new vineyard was exempt from military service, even in a national emergency. In about 1800 B.C.E. there was a communication which reported that Israel was “blessed with figs and with vineyards producing wine in greater quantity than water.”

Micha’s vision of peace on earth and harmony among men was illustrated with, “and every man will sit under his vine and under his fig tree and none shall make him afraid.”

The Peak and the End

Winemaking in Ancient Israel was at its peak during the period of the Second Temple. It was a major export and the economic mainstay of the era. The wine produced was not just for drinking but also

important for medical purposes, for cleaning out homes and dyeing cloth.

However, when the Romans destroyed the Temple, Jews were dispersed and the once proud industry forsaken. The Arab conquest from 600 C.E. and Mohammed’s prohibition of alcohol caused many remaining vineyards to be uprooted.

There is nothing new under the sun

From the Bible – no comment required:

Proverbs 23:20, 21: “Do not join those who drink too much wine or gorge themselves on meat, for drunkards and gluttons become poor, and drowsiness clothes them in rags.”

Isaiah 5:11: “Woe to those who rise early in the morning to run after their drinks, who stay up late at night till they are inflamed with wine.”

The Crusades

The Crusaders briefly revived the cultivation of grapes in the Holy Land and grapes were planted in places like Bethlehem and Nazareth. The revival was short lived, but the Crusaders did return to Europe with many noble grape varieties which had their origins in the Middle East. Varieties such as Chardonnay, Muscat (probably from Egypt and usually referred to as Muscat of Alexandria) and Shiraz are said to come from the region. The word Chardonnay is said to be derived from two Hebrew words meaning “gate of G-d.” On the founding of the Ottoman Empire, the Middle Eastern wine industry was finally obliterated.

Kosher Wine

Kosher wine is made in precisely the same way as ‘regular’ wine. The only difference is that there is rabbinical oversight during the process and that the wine is handled by Sabbath-observant Jews. It is so conforming to the accepted wine making process that nowadays nearly every wine producing country in the world produces kosher wine.

The kosher wine laws are the oldest wine laws in the world. France may boast about its Appellation Controllée system, which has roots that may go back hundreds of years, but the kosher wine laws are measured in thousands. One thing is for certain, not one of the kosher wine laws may be held as a reason for making poor wine.

There is nothing in the kosher wine making process which alters the basic way of making wine and traditional methods are followed throughout the process. As will be seen below, the technology for kosher wine making in Israel is advanced and the equipment state of the art. The winemaker will be internationally trained, just like his non-kosher winery counterpart. No difference between kosher and non-kosher. Kosher wine will be harvested, fermented, aged and bottled in exactly the same way as a none kosher wine. It is not good or bad because it is kosher.

A quality kosher wine can be compared with other quality wines. It has nothing at all in common with the sweet, sugary wine used as Altar or Communion wine by Christians or Kiddush wine by Jews. Awards, scores and critics reviews have provided international recognition of Israeli wines at the very highest level and destroyed forever the pre-conceived negative ideas about kosher wines.

Wineries, including but far from only, Carmel Winery, Barkan, Domaine du Castel, Golan Heights Winery, Clos de Gat and Yatir Winery all have wines which have received high ratings from recognized international wine experts, are proudly Israeli and their wines happen also to be Kosher. The Golan Heights Winery was adjudged the best winery at Vinitaly, one of the world’s leading wine exhibitions.

In short, the world’s leading wine experts have given Israeli kosher wines their approval.

Founders of the Wine Industry in Israel

British Sir Moses Montefiore, 1784 – 1885 born in Tuscany, Italy, was one of the most prominent Jewish philanthropists of the 19th century. One of his most passionate interests was sponsoring Jews living in then Ottoman controlled Jerusalem. He was the first and principal benefactor of agriculture for Jews to work outside the Old City (when there was little or no one at the time adventurous enough to work outside the safety of its walls). Moses Montefiore built a windmill that still bears his name as well as encouraged residents of Jerusalem to plant vines for wine and olive trees for their fruit and pressing oil, both staples of a Mediterranean diet and relatively profitable agricultural endeavours at a time when the industrial revolution was limited to only a few countries worldwide. Montefiore himself was said to drink a bottle of wine a day and lived to be over 100 years old.

The Mikveh Israel Agricultural School was set up in 1870 under French management. It was the first Jewish agricultural school in Israel. They planted vines, taught viticulture, and built a winery and one of the largest wine cellars of the day. They were the first to use European varieties in their own Mikveh Israel Winery, but also supplied cuttings for the first commercial vineyards in the country planted in the years 1882 to 1887. The main varieties were: Alicante, Carignan, Bourdales (aka Cinsault), Braquet (aka Brachetto), Esparte (aka Mourvedre) and Petit Bouschet. Their large underground wine cellar was subsequently used as a hiding place for weapons during the British Mandate.

Baron Edmond (Benjamin) de Rothschild (1845-1934) played an important role in the history and development of Israel. He was known by David Ben Gurion as the ‘Father of the Yishuv’. He purchased and reclaimed land, supported thirty new villages and sponsored new agricultural settlements. In 1882 he began his involvement in Israel by supporting the new farming villages of Rishon Le Zion and Zichron Ya’acov. He sent his own viticulturists to plant vineyards, which quickly became the dominant form of agriculture in Israel. He built the large wineries at Rishon Le Zion in 1890 and Zichron Ya’acov in 1892. He was one of the founders of the world famous Carmel Winery.

As there was not then a market for a quality Israeli wine such as Cabernet Sauvignon, the Israeli market became focused on the more inexpensive, value side of the market. This really meant cheap bulk wines and sweet sacramental wines such as Carignan and Grenache. These two varieties dominated Israeli winemaking for most of the 20th century. The main white wine grape was Semillon. The grape for sweet wines was Muscat of Alexandria.

Today he is remembered as one of the founding fathers of Israel.

Tishbi, the First Modern Vineyard In 1882, Michael and Malka Chamiletzki first set foot upon the land of Zichron Yaacov, after emigrating from Lithuania. He was chosen by Baron Edmund de Rothschild to plant and develop the first modern vineyard in Israel. The family settled in nearby Shefeya. The famous poet, Chaim Nachman Bialik proposed a new, Hebrew family name: “Tishbi” –Hebrew for “a resident of Shefeya in Israel”. Later a winery was established. In honor of the Baron Edmond, the winery was registered as Baron Wine Cellars Ltd. Only later was the name changed to Tishbi Estate Winery. Today the Tishbi Winery, still owned by the Tishbi family, located in Binyamina, is Israel’s sixth largest with production of about 1 million bottles of wine annually with vineyards in the Golan Heights, Judean Hills and Sde Boker in the Negev desert. Its wines are sold in 25 countries. Tishbi`s brandy has received numerous awards including the Best Brandy title at the International Wine & Spirit Competition held in London.

The First Israeli Winery

The Shor family, which opened their winery back in 1847-48, is still making wine today. This is Israel’s first and oldest existing wine-making family. As a comparison, the first commercial winery was established in California`s Napa Valley by Charles Krug only in 1861. No one today would refer to Charles Krug as a settler or a colonist. The book, Under the Vine and the Fig Tree — The Jews of the Napa Valley, lists Charles Krug, a Prussian immigrant, as being Jewish.

Initially the winery was called the Shor Winery, then it became AM Shor Bros and over time, as the family grew, it split into four different wineries: Arza, Hacormim, Shimshon and Zion. Shimshon Winery was eventually sold and is today known as the Jerusalem Vineyard Winery, being the seventh largest winery in Israel. The surviving Shor wineries continue to be owned and managed by the family.

It is an extraordinary story. It began when Rabbi Mordechai Avraham Galin arrived from Ukraine in 1835 and settled in Safed. The family moved to the Old City of Jerusalem, where he became head of the Tiferet Yisrael Yeshiva. His son, Yitzhak Galin, chose wine as a profession. His sister had married Baruch Shor, who by chance happened to have a rare license given to him by the Ottoman Turks for trading in alcohol. So, the family changed their name to Shor, used Baruch’s license and opened a winery in 1848 in the Old City of Jerusalem. It was a domestic winery, in the Muslim quarter, adjacent to the Kotel Hakatan (Little Western Wall). In those days there was no bottled wine, no labels, no brands and no kashrut certificate. Wine was sold in barrels or small casks.

Grapes came from Hebron, with the vineyards owned by Arabs. Payment was made in advance to reserve the crop. Wine was categorized as sweet or sour, but over 95% was sweet. Grapes were delivered to the winery on a drove of donkeys traveling from Hebron.

The third generation was Shmuel and the legendary Rosa Shor. She was a formidable woman. She opened a wine store called Khamra Rosa on Hagai Street, near the cotton market. It probably was not the first shop selling wine and spirits, but because of Rosa’s character, it was the most famous.

In 1925, the Shor Winery had to move from the Old City at the request of the British Mandate. They had prepared for this by purchasing property in Beit Yisrael. Alicante became the main variety. Early labels were strictly informative with basic typed information on a white background and were later used for marketing purposes.

In 1944, the British Mandate ruled that companies could not be named after families, so the name was changed from AM Shor Bros to Zion Winery. After the founding of the State of Israel, the business was owned by the two brothers, Avraham Meir Shor and Moshe Shalom Shor. There was a long period when the Shor family owned five or six wineries with different names at a time when there were not many wineries in Israel. The Arza, Hacormim and Shimshon wineries were founded in the 1950s by Moshe Shalom’s children.

The next generation dealt with the growth of the wineries. Arza Winery has grown to become the fifth largest in the land. It is managed by the sixth and seventh generations: Motti Shor, and his son Elchanan. Their winery is devoted to quality table wines and is called Hayotzer (Hebrew for “creator”). Hayotzer wines have achieved high scores internationally and have won many gold medals in international competitions.

Zion Winery became the sixth largest in Israel. Here, the CEO is Moshe Shor, sixth generation. His son, Yossi, founded a boutique winery called 1848 devoted to quality, which is run separately and independently. Their wines have won many gold medals in international competitions.

Then there is Hacormim Winery managed by Eli Shor, of the seventh generation. It is not as big as the other two, but it is still a reasonably large winery.

Arza, Hacormim and Zion are historic wineries with deep roots in the Israeli wine story. As mentioned above, Arza is today the fifth largest and Zion the sixth largest winery in Israel. They are still mainly producers of grape juice and kiddush wine and inexpensive supermarket wines.

However, it is the Hayotzer and 1848 wineries that have brought the Shor family into the 21st century. Baroness Philippine de Rothschild once said “making wine is easy. It is just the first 200 years that is difficult.” Well, after 172 years, seven generations, and now with five wineries, the Shor family is nearly there!

The Second Israeli Winery

Several wineries were established in the Old City of Jerusalem even before Baron Rothschild got to work with his wineries. Two survived until today. Interestingly, both wineries remain in the ownership of the founding families. We discussed the Shor family above.

Teperberg 1870 Winery is a winery which is today located near kibbutz Tzora in the foothills of the Judean hills, Israel. Founded in 1870 by Avraham Teperberg and his son, Zeev Zaid Teperberg, it is Israel’s second oldest winery, as well as its fourth largest. It was first established in the Old City of Jerusalem. When Zeev Teperberg died in 1905, his son, Mordechai Shimon, took over the management. The Mandate government ruled that all “industries” had to leave the Old City of Jerusalem, so the winery moved outside the city walls to various locations. Teperberg is now one of Israel’s leading wineries, producing over 100 varieties of wine and grape juice. The company markets over four million bottles a year, locally and worldwide.

Teperberg`s most widely planted varieties include Cabernet Sauvignon, Chardonnay, Merlot and Sauvignon blanc. Emerging varieties that have recently been increasing in popularity include Cabernet Franc, Gewurztraminer, Muscat Canelli, Riesling and Syrah. Other varieties planted to some significant degree include Emerald Riesling and Muscat of Alexandria.

Modern Israeli wine may be classified into two periods: BG and AG. “BG” is “before Golan”. “AG” is “after Golan”. Let`s go visit the Golan Winery.

The Golan Heights Winery

Israel’s connection to the Golan is traced back to the Bible. The Golan is a town in the biblical Bashan. In Deuteronomy 4:43, it says, “Ramoth in Gilead, for the Gadites; and Golan in Bashan, for the Manassites.” Flavius Josephus writes: “Gideon also, the son of Joash, one of the principal persons of the tribe of Manasseh (my addition: who inhabited the Golan), brought his sheaves of corn privately, and thrashed them at the wine-press;”, an indication that grapes were grown and wine produced in the Golan in biblical times.

Israel’s wine history BG (“Before Golan”) was far from distinguished. At the time, a famous wine writer wrote about an Israeli Sauvignon Blanc, describing it as probably the nastiest wine he had ever tasted. Israel’s most famous wine export was Adom Atik.

When the Golan Heights came into Israel’s hands, the potential for a wine revolution was at hand, but Israel did not realise it. However, Prof. Cornelious Ough of the University of California at Davis did realize the potential. He saw the sprouting apple industry and thought wine grapes would also thrive.

Here in his own words Professor Ough describes his first recommendations for Israel`s wine industry which he gave to the Israeli government at its request in 1965: “I spent eight months advising them, and advising the wineries about what they ought to do in the way of varieties, maturity studies–the whole gamut of grape and wine problems. In fact, I was very frustrated when I went back ten years later and they hadn’t done a great deal of what I had advised them to do. That’s the way things are, I suppose.”

Here is Professor Ough describing how he came to give the advice that changed the face of Israel`s wine industry:  “But when on sabbatical leave in South Africa in ’82 (My intervention: Professor Ough spent his sabbaticals researching in South Africa at the Viticulture and Enology Research Institute of my alma mater, the University of Stellenbosch, near Cape Town), I came back by way of Israel to visit old friends and to give a few talks. When I was there, I met one of the government ministers of food, who was rather unhappy with the lack of success of the Israeli wine export business. It was mainly one winery, the biggest, that exported. It was a co-op, and they had been doing everything over the years that I had asked them not to do. The farmers ran the whole operation. They grew grapes in large volumes and low quality because it paid off to them better, the way they’d set their pay scales.

They had the Golan Heights from Syria by then, and I convinced the minister that they ought to invest in a winery there. It was a very good wine area, and they ought to plant high class varieties. As well as that, they ought to invest in a good California-like quality winery and get a consultant to come over and get it started for them. He went along with it, and loaned the money to a kibbutz to do this. It was a very, very big kibbutz, actually. It had lots of other interests and lots of good people who knew how to manage businesses. This winery did things right–first class–and they really grew.

They set the winery up, and they got Peter Stern, one of our former students, who is a consultant here in California, to help them run it. He went over there three or four times a year to make sure everything was running right, tasted the wine, and told them what they ought to do. In the meantime, they had sent several people over here to get educated and return to the winery. In fact, one just went back–Tally Sendvoski. They’ve been very successful; they’ve won lots of international prizes, and they sell more wines in the United States than they can make.”

In 1976, pioneering moshavim and kibbutzim first started to plant vines, selling their grapes to large coastal cooperatives. In 1982, some of the local winemakers who were experimenting created some great wines which showed them the potential they had in the Golan. What is special about the Golan Heights is its altitude and terroir. The combination of its elevation rising to 1,200 meters above sea level, volcanic soil for excellent drainage, a cool climate for a long growing season, gaining the potential for greater freshness and complexity in the wines and ready access to water for drip irrigation, similar to the wine growing areas of France, all allowed for great potential.

Founded in 1983, the Golan Heights Winery is an Israeli winery located in the small town of Katzrin, built on the site of an agricultural village from the Mishnaic period (about 70–200CE) in a beautiful area of the Golan Heights.

The first of their wines were launched in 1984 and were immediately recognized as Israel’s first world-class wines. It was a quality revolution which changed the nature of Israel`s wine industry forever, bringing back a golden age of Israeli wine for the first time since the Arab conquest 1400 years ago in 600 CE.

I do owe it to this pioneering winery to add some details. The Golan Heights Winery elevated the importance of the vineyard and of vineyard management. The decision- making process in the vineyard of how to prune and when to harvest passed for the first time from the grower to the winery. Previously, vineyards were not considered that important. The grower and wine maker both had jobs to do, but they would never meet. A wine maker would never be seen in a vineyard. Today it is understood one makes the wine in the vineyard.

Further, there was a substantial investment in technology. Everything was geared to quality: must chillers to reduce temperatures; gentle bladder presses’ computer-controlled stainless-steel tanks allowing absolute temperature control; and expensive small oak barrels.

The combination of favourable natural conditions, production strategy and investment in technology proved to be unbeatable. The modern Israeli wine industry was born (may I add, in one of Moses`s cities of refuge. Israel goes back a long way).

Since producing its first wines, the Golan Winery has won many awards at the major international wine exhibitions in competitions with other wines from around the world. The Golan Heights Winery brought Israeli wine to the world’s attention, and is keeping it there.

The chief wine maker, Victor Schoenfeld, is a native of Napa Valley and is thought of by many to be amongst the top wine makers in the World. Victor and his team work with more than 18 varieties of grapes. Everything from well-known varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Gewürztraminer, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc to some lesser known types like Nebiolo and Touriga National. These all grow in 26+ different vineyards on the Golan and Upper Galilee and produce wines with 6 different labels, including: Hermon, Golan, Gamla, Gamla Reserve, Yarden and Yarden Single Vineyard. These wines are exported to over 30 Countries around the world. It is Israel’s third largest winery. The Winery is responsible for 40% of all the Country’s Wine Exports.

There are several wines that represent the life of this pioneering winery. The first is the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon, the finest ambassador of Israeli wine. This was the wine that set standards for the country. It has been Israel’s most consistent award winner in international competitions. It spread the word about the new quality of Israeli wine abroad. Its 2004 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon was the first wine from Israel to be listed on the Wine Spectator Top 100. Other early medal winners are the 2012 Yarden Heights, the 2011 Yarden Merlot Kela Single Vineyard, the 2011 Yarden Syrah, 2011 Gamla Cabernet Sauvignon, 2008 Yarden Blanc de Blancs and the 2013 Yarden Chardonnay Odem organic vineyard.

Then there are their limited-edition prestige wines. They launched Yarden Katzrin 2014 ($200) and Yarden Rom 2014 ($180) – arguably the most expensive of all the prestige, de luxe and flagship wines in Israel.

In 1999 the Golan Heights Winery was the first Israeli winery to be invited to the New York Wine Experience, the most prestigious wine tasting event anywhere. It features the top 200 wineries in the world and participation is by invitation only.

The Golan Winery has been awarded best winery at several different wine competitions over the years. In 2012, Golan Heights Winery was named New World Winery of the Year by Wine Enthusiast Magazine.

Moses would have been proud.

Yarden Katzrin Red 2014, Israel`s most expensive wine, offered when available at $200. Winemaker Victor Schoenfeld only creates Katzrin in the most exceptional vintages, when the full potential of the vineyards can be expressed.

Let`s move on to the wines of Judea and Samaria. Let`s not get bogged down in definitions of these areas. The following will suffice for our purposes: The name Judea, when used in Judea and Samaria, refers to all of the region south and west of Jerusalem, including Gush Etzion, Har Hebron, the Yatir Forest, the Elah Valley and Beit Shemesh. The region of Samaria, on the other hand, refers to the area north of Jerusalem.

The Wine of Samaria

“Again you will plant vineyards, on the hills of Samaria; The planters will plant and will enjoy them”. Jeremiah 31:5

Samaria is Israel’s biblical heartland.

Samaria is where Abraham, Isaac and Jacob walked and probably comforted themselves with a local wine. Samaria`s location, hundreds of meters above sea level in a hilly region known for its ancient tradition of successful vine cultivation, is especially conducive to high-quality vines. In fact, hundreds of ancient wine presses have been found throughout this region attesting to the historic proliferation of wine production in the area. Approximately 60 ancient varieties of wine grapes have been identified that have been used since biblical times in Israel and particularly in Samaria.

These special conditions produce quality wines with distinctive character and flavour. Samaria is blessed with especially quality wine vineyards, and they win each year in national and international competitions. Today, there are nearly 30 vineyards speckled throughout the hills of Shomron.

Gvaot Winery is one such winery, located in the heart of Samaria, on the banks of Nahal Shiloh. Its 2016 Cabernet Sauvignon has won gold medals at international competitions. Gvaot Winery credits the superiority of its product through both the use of advanced technology, professional knowledge of wine production and a unique slow, cold fermentation that preserves the aromas and flavors of the grapes, but also, as mentioned above, its location

The Tura Winery, located in Rehelim to the south of Shechem (Nablus) in Samaria, has won medals in wine contests proving the quality of Samaria and Tura`s wines. The high altitude, 850 meters above sea level, and mountain terrain provide an optimal climate for growing superb wine grapes.

Tura Winery owns nearly 150 acres of wine vineyards from the varieties: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Shiraz, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir and Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, Gewurztraminer and Viognier.

The Psagot Winery was founded by Na’ama and Yaakov Berg, who started to plant vineyards in 1998. Berg, who immigrated to Israel from the Soviet Union, is the CEO.

While the first bottles of Psagot Wine were introduced in 2002, the winery makes use of facilities that date to antiquity. Psagot Wine is aged in a special cave containing winemaking implements that date to at least the time of the Second Temple. The winemaking facility and storage chamber, where over 600 barrels are aged each year, are housed inside a gorgeous stone structure overlooking Wadi Qelt and the mountains of Edom – all a short 15-minute drive north of Jerusalem.

This cave was used to make/store wine at least 2000 years ago. It is still being used for wine today.

The combination of ancient tradition and sophisticated technology adds to the allure and mystique of this boutique winemaker. All Psagot Wine labels bear the image of the ancient cave now used as the aging room, a reminder of the long tradition of wine making at this location.

The winery’s top wine is a Bordeaux blend named Edom. Regular varietal wines are produced in the Psagot series and there is also a Port-style wine. Currently the winery produces more than 350,000 bottles of 11 different varieties, 70 percent of which are exported to dozens of countries around the world. The Psagot Winery has begun exporting and marketing Israeli wine to the city of Guangzhou in southern China, with a population of over 13 million people. The winery’s wines have been awarded medals and international prizes annually in prestigious competitions. The World Finance Magazine recently chose Psagot as the best winery in Israel for 2018.

The Psagot Winery has single handedly challenged regulations of the European Union in the EU courts, based on the EU`s double standards. No doubt the subject may be googled but I have not checked.

The Wine of Judea

1 Kings 5:5: “So Judah and Israel lived in safety, every man under his vine and his fig tree, from Dan even to Beersheba, all the days of Solomon.”

In April 2019, Catherine Todd of Forbes magazine gushed about the Judean Hills as one of Israel’s up-and-coming wine regions.

“Old terraces carved into the rock and ancient limestone wine presses hint towards winemaking that goes back for thousands of years,” she wrote.

The area is indeed filled with archaeological evidence that wine was made here thousands of years ago. There’s even written proof: In the Bible, Jacob gifts his son Judah with this choice region for winemaking (Genesis 49: 11-12) – hence its name. “He will tie his donkey to the vine; to the vine branch his donkey`s foal; he will launder his garments in wine and his robe in the blood of grapes. Red-eyed from wine…”

However, modern winemaking in Judea is as new as the last 30 years or so. The task has been taken on by some 30 wineries that have popped up during that short time period, 20 of which are considered boutique. Experts say the Judean Hills region is the fastest-growing wine region in Israel.

The region’s rocky hills rise from 400 to 1,000 meters (1,312 to 3,280 feet) above sea level, punctuated by plentiful boulders, evergreen trees and shrubs. Along with mineral-rich red clay and tuff soils, it is most importantly the limestone bedrock that contributes to this region’s ability to produce high-quality white wines marked by a certain quality of minerality.

The Judean Hills Quartet is a group of four wineries in the Beit Shemesh area — Domaine du Castel, Flam, Sphera and Tzora. They joined forces in 2017 to promote the Judean Hills wine region to the international community of buyers and critics.

Domaine du Castel, whose Bordeaux-style winery had its initial 600-bottle run in 1995, is considered a visionary in the region.

Named for the nearby Crusader-era fortress that saw many battles in the 1948 War of Independence, Domaine du Castel wines were from the start considered the best in Israel, representing a turning point in the mid-1990s when attention was finally being paid to producing higher quality Israeli wines.

Flam Winery joined the boutique winemaking game in 1998 with similar hopes of elevating the Israeli wine market, operating as an Italian-style family estate.

At that point the family patriarch, Israel Flam, had already been in the business for over 30 years, having worked for decades as chief winemaker for Carmel Winery — one of Israel’s oldest and currently largest commercial winery.

The Flam family is considered an innovative force in the world of kosher wine, earning a coveted 4-star rating in Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book in 2017, an honor shared by only two other Israeli wineries, Domaine du Castel and Cos de Gat, all three wineries being located in the Judean Hills.

Tzora Vineyards was founded in 1993 by the late Ronnie James. It passed to Eran Pick in 2008, now the winery’s CEO. Tzora’s vineyards are certified sustainable.

Four Tzora wines received perfect scores of 93 from Wine Spectator in its groundbreaking October 2016 issue on the wines of Israel.

Sphera is the quartet’s only non-kosher winery. Winemaker Doron Rav Hon and his wife, Sima Rav Hon, opened Sphera in 2013. They proved their seriousness with their first vintage, winning top accolades from British wine critic Stuart Pigott that year as one of the top five Rieslings in the world alongside wines from the Rhine region in Germany and the Finger Lakes in New York.

Clos de Gat is another winery situated in the foothills of the Judean Mountains, bordering Israel’s biblical Ayalon Valley, where Joshua defeated the Five Kings. An ancient “Gat” (Hebrew for wine press), pre-dating the Roman period by a thousand years, is located by the house set in the heart of the vineyards. The region’s rolling hills and valleys have supported grapevine cultivation for thousands of years. The combination of a thin layer of topsoil atop a bed-rock of limestone, together with a unique micro-climate, make it possible to grow grapes of outstanding quality. Clos de Gat is particularly well known for its Syrah, Merlot and Chardonnay. Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate and Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book in 2017 both awarded Clos de Gat their highest score for an Israeli winery.

The winery building was used as Yitzhak Rabin’s headquarters in the War of Independence when he commanded the Harel Brigades, a reminder of Israel’s modern history. The Judean Hills is proving to be an excellent region for Chardonnay. Castel, Clos de Gat, Tzora, Ella Valley & Mony each produce high quality wines from this variety. This may even be the wine region producing the best Chardonnays in the country. It is also particularly good region for Syrah/ Shiraz and Petite Sirah.

In this biblically significant area, the battle between David and Goliath is believed to have taken place. Unique but traditional, modern, and yet tied to a biblical landscape, the Judean Hills is an important and significant region in Israeli winemaking, worthy of world attention.

The Prophet, Amos, (9:13, 14) had his own description of the Judean Hills: “And the treader of grapes him that soweth seed; and the mountains shall drip sweet wine and all the hills shall flow with it. And they shall plant vineyards and drink the wine thereof.”

Let`s finish our story of the Wine of Israel by visiting three more wineries, two in Israel`s coastal plain and one, where else but in the Negev, Israel`s desert region.

Carmel Winery was founded in 1882 by Edmond James de Rothschild. It is the largest winery in Israel, with a local market share of almost 50% and one of the largest wine producers in the Eastern Mediterranean. Carmel Winery manufactures mainly wine, brandy and grape juice. It is the first and oldest exporter of wine, brandy and grape juice in the country, and also the largest producer of kosher wine in the world. Today, its products are exported to over 40 countries.

Many of Israel’s historical figures worked in the vineyards and in the wineries. Perhaps the two most famous were the first Prime Minister of Israel, David Ben-Gurion and his successor, Levi Eshkol

The Carmel Winery owns numerous vineyards encompassing a wide diversity of vineyards and grape varieties throughout the country. This allows for the winery to choose grapes from every region – from the Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights in the north, Samaria and the Jerusalem Hills, and to the Negev in the south. On average, Carmel harvests annually about 25,000 tonnes of grapes, which is approximately 50% of Israel’s total harvest.

Barkan Winery. In 1899, Shlomo Friedman established the Friedman Winery in Petah Tikva to produce sweet Kiddush wine and brandy for the Jewish community in Palestine. In 1990, two of the wineries major grape growers purchased the company and renamed it Barkan Wine Cellars. In 1990, a new facility opened at Kibbutz Hulda. The Hulda vineyard, covering over 1,200 dunams, is the largest single vineyard in Israel. After acquiring the Segal Winery in 2001, Barkan became Israel’s second largest winery producing 12-14 million bottles a year.

The main building of the winery is located at Kibbutz Hulda, east of Tel Aviv. Barkan receives grapes from its own 11 vineyards throughout Israel, in the Golan Heights, Upper Galilee, Lower Galilee, Mount Tabor region, the Jerusalem Mountains and Mitzpe Ramon in the Negev. Let`s visit three vineyards.

Jerusalem Mountains Vineyards. High 700-800m, cool and dry – a mountain range which abounds with limestone soil and where water percolation roots is good. Grape Strains: Red – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Franc, Marselan, Pinot Noir, White – Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc.

Yehuda Plains Vineyards. Although it is one of the hottest growth areas, there is still “a temperature fall” between day and night, allowing good ripening. Lots of sun and high temperatures allow for a lot of fruit aromas in grapes. Altitude: 100m – 200m. Grape Strains: Red – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Petit Verdot, Krinain, Argaman. White – Chardonnay, Emerald Riesling, Sauvignon Blanc.

Negev Vineyard. One of the advantages of this region is its sheer size. There is a lot of free soil here, so using the correct cultivation method, there is a chance not only to produce some good wine, but also to fertilize the desert. Altitude: 550m – 800m. Grape Strains: Red – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Pinot Noir.

Barkan Vineyards wines have won considerable recognition in competitions in both Israel and abroad. To date the vineyard has won more than 200 medals. The company wines include Village, La Tavola, Barkan Classic, Reserve, Signature, Superior and Altitude. Barkan claims to be the single biggest exporter of Israeli wine to the United States.

Yatir Winery. We have visited wineries established in the Golan Heights, Samaria, Judea and the central area. The south of Israel is the Negev, desert. When Ben Gurion, who knew his bible, was told

by experts that forests could not be planted in the Tel Arad area, Ben Gurion`s answer was simple: Change the experts! The result: today, in Israel, even quality wines are produced in desert conditions.

The Yatir region, located in the southern tip of the Judean Hills, has a rich and fascinating history of wine production. The impressive wine press on view is a testament to a developed wine industry over 2500 years ago, dating back to the first reign of the kings of Judah. On the grounds of the winery, no less than 180 ancient wine presses have been discovered.

The area is named after the Levite biblical city of Yatir. The Yatir Winery was built at the foot of the Israelite Tel Arad Fort. This small and exclusive winery was founded in 2000 as a joint venture between local vine-growers and the Carmel Winery, who recognized the extraordinary potential of the Yatir region. These days the winery produces 150,000 bottles annually. Over the years, this southern winery, located in the heart of the desert, has turned into a symbol of the region. Its wines, which have been repeatedly awarded with high scores, exceptional recognition and medals, have been rated in recent years among Israel’s top wines by local as well as international wine critics.

The well-tended vineyards of the Yatir Winery are planted at an altitude of up to 900 meters above sea level and are scattered across various locations in the forest. The plots in these vineyards have varying soil compositions, with different slants and angles. The unique climate is characterized by cool, breezy mornings, dry, sundrenched days, cold nights (also at the peak of summer) and snowy winters. These are ideal conditions for growing quality red grape varieties. In 2004, Yatir introduced a Sauvignon Blanc wine and the following year a single-varietal Cabernet Sauvignon and Shiraz. In 2006, it came out with a varietal Viognier.

Yatir’s wine has received accolades from international critics. Its wines, which have been repeatedly awarded with high scores, exceptional recognition and medals, have been rated in recent years among Israel’s top wines by local as well as international wine critics.

Indigenous Wine in Israel. Israel is home to numerous indigenous grape varieties. There are about 120 known local grapes, twenty of which show the potential to produce world-class wine. Some of the better known are Hevroni, Dabouki, Marawi, Halbani, Sharwishi, Hamdani and Jandali amongst the whites and Zeitani, Karkashani, Razaki, Karashi and Baladi amongst the reds, grown primarily by Arabs in the Bethlehem and Hebron areas. The Cremisan Monastery, founded in the late 19th century in a Christian-Arab village near Bethlehem, is one of the notable pioneers of indigenous Israeli grapes like Hamdani and Jandali.

There is a thought that Mediterranean varieties may be more suitable for Israel in the longer term. There is ongoing research and experimentation with local varieties but a quality wine is a long way away.

EL AL and Airline Competition Wines. Let`s end our wine tour of Israel with a flight abroad. There is an annual airline blind wine tasting competition in New York for best wines being served in first and business class. Airlines offer their passengers what are considered to be some of the best wines in the world, not necessarily from their home country. As an example, the Russian airline Aeroflot won a best wine award for offering La Capra Chenin Blanc 2016 from South Africa and United Airline won an award for offering its passengers Les Graviéres du Roy Sauvion 2016 from France. EL AL Israel Airlines, competing against the very best French, Californian and the like wines, offers its passengers only Israeli wines. These Israeli kosher wines are competing against some of the best wines in the world.

Even if you can`t afford to fly first class, you can still enjoy a first class wine. EL AL`s Israeli wines have consistently been rated among the best airline wines with the following wines winning awards:

Yatir Winery Viognier 2015

Shoresh 2016

Ela, Galil Mountain Vineyard 2012

Golan Heights Winery Best Dessert Wine HeightsWine (vintage 2011)

Golan Heights Winery Viognier

Recanati Wines Upper Galilee Chardonnay

Yatir Winery Merlot Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon

Israeli Wines Come of Age. We have seen how Israel exported wine first to Egypt, then to the Romans (Italy) and today to over 40 countries. Israeli wine is consistently receiving awards in competitions and its wineries are being recognized as among the best. The most modern technology has been harvested to the oldest of wine growing areas. There are presently more than 350 wineries in the country producing 65 million bottles a year. There are 35 commercial wineries in Israel, and over 300 boutique wineries. Important and successful wineries not mentioned by me but producing award winning wines include Binyamina Wine Cellar, Galil Mountain, Tabor, Recanati and Dalton Winery.

To comfort us during the lockdown, we are spoilt for choice. Whatever varietal wine we enjoy, there is an Israeli winery offering a quality world class wine from different regions, altitudes and climates. Let me end by reminding you of the varieties which you may enjoy.

The three most heavily planted red wine varieties are in Israel today are Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Merlot followed by Shiraz, Argaman and Petite Sirah. Most of the best red wines are either Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Shiraz varietals or Bordeaux blends based primarily on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.

The main white varieties for the finest white wines are Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. There are also White Rieslings, Gewurztraminers and Viogniers. The main varieties in numbers of hectares are Colombard and Emerald Riesling followed by Muscat of Alexandria, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.

Israel has undoubtedly achieved success in many fields. Israel is often referred to as the start-up nation. But on a day to day basis, and on a person to person basis, Israel`s outstanding wines may well be the best ambassador for the entire State of Israel.

Let`s conclude our tour of wine in Israel from the Bible to the Baron with a quote from an international expert: “The corner has clearly been turned qualitatively. Israel has a real wine industry that deserves consumer attention. There are attractive wines with typicity and some distinction. Many are classic and charming and the best will impress anyone.” Mark Squires, Wine Advocate.

Le`Chaim! To Life!

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