The dramatic growth in size and quality of Israel’s wine industry over the past 25 years is an exciting story. In this tiny country there are now more than 300 active wineries, producing close to 40 million bottles of wine a year! Five and a half thousand hectares (55,000 dunam) of land are currently under grape cultivation as vineyards, mainly in the Galilee, Golan and Judean mountains, but also in Samaria and the Negev.
Wine production, drinking and collecting are on the rise not only because it is cultural and pleasurable. There are also Biblical echoes that resonate in every glass of quality Israeli wine. “But you, mountains of Israel, you shall shoot forth your branches, and yield your fruit to My people Israel; for they will soon come,” prophesized Ezekiel (36:8). And in the heyday of King Solomon’s rule, we’re told that “Judah and Israel dwelt safely, every man under his vine and under his fig tree, from Dan to Beersheba” (Kings I 5:5). In our day too, through wine production, the Land of Israel is coming alive after 2,000 years of desolation and neglect!
The spies that Moses sent to scout the land returned with miraculously giant grapes. In every part of Israel, archaeologists have found ancient wine presses and wine storage amphorae from the First and Second Temple periods. Wine played a central role in Temple libations and celebrations, as it does in Jewish traditions ever since, from kiddush to weddings. But the Moslem conquest of the Holy Land in the seventh century put an end to wine production. The conquerors literally ripped all grape vines out of the ground.
The Jewish People’s return to Israel in the late 19th century included the reintroduction of vineyards, led by Sir Moses Montefiore and Baron Edmond de Rothschild. But it wasn’t until the Golan Heights Winery led a quality revolution in the 1980s that the modern Israeli wine industry earned a reputable level of sophistication.
Over the past five years, Carmel, Castel, Golan and Yatir have garnered top-flight international awards for their wines. The Carmel 2006 Shiraz won the International Trophy at the Decanter World Wine Awards. The Golan Heights Winery received the Gran Vinitaly Special Award as the best global producer of wine. These are unprecedented awards for Israeli wine in two of the world’s most stringent wine competitions. The Yatir Forest and Castel Grand Vin have each received scores of 93 points in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate magazine – the leading global wine publication. These are all kosher wines!
Galil, Recanati and Teperberg are some other winning wineries. Gvaot in Samaria and Psagot in Binyamin are producing fantastic wines too. Flam, Ramat Naftaly, Saslove and Tulip are now becoming kosher and consequently growing in size.
Besides the familiar Cabernet, Merlot and Syrah varietals, Israel is also growing quality Carignan, Malbec, Petit Sirah and Petit Verdot (and if you like white wines, also Chardonnay and Viognier).
The fascinating individuals behind all this success are people like Shiki Rauchberger, chief winemaker of Teperberg 1870, who earned his masters degree in viticulture at Hebrew University’s Faculty of Agriculture and then studied enology at the world-renowned Robert Mondavi Institute for Wine and Food Science at UC Davis. Rauchberger’s broad knowledge of global winemaking techniques and his love for the soil of Israel come to fruition in every bottle he sends to market. Try his Malbec or Cabernet Reserve.
Wine drinking is not just an upper class phenomenon. More than 20,000 people from all walks of life pack the annual Jerusalem wine festival at the Israel Museum. Similar numbers of wine lovers will attend the month-long Judean Mountain (Yoav Yehuda region) wine festivities, which began last night. The Israeli market for good wine grew ten percent over the last year alone.
The wine critic who set new standards for wine and culinary discourse in Israel was the recently-deceased Daniel Rogov, who will be remembered for his exuberance, exceedingly high benchmarks and ethics, and his encyclopedic mastery of Israeli wines. He was voice and face of the Israeli wine renaissance. He did more to chronicle and publicize the quality revolution in Israeli and kosher wines than any person on the globe. As a devoted fan and member of his Israeli wine discussion forum, I learned a tremendous amount about wine from him.
Rogov’s penultimate, mammoth Guide to Israeli Wines was sent to the printer last month just before his passing, and it will be published in the coming weeks. It is sure to be a memorial best-seller. LeChaim!
* Originally published in Israel Hayom, November 4, 2011.