The land of milk and honey… and wine
Israel is a country which conjures images of arid sun-baked hills, hot rustic wines, kosher restrictions and an industry which, boasting a winemaking history reaching back to biblical times, might well be forgiven for a certain stubborn traditionalism. Nothing, I discovered, could be further from the truth.
The Islamic occupation which started in the seventh century effectively saw an end to viticulture and winemaking in Israel until the nineteenth century when Baron Edmund de Rothschild appeared on the scene armed with cuttings from Chateau Lafite.
The modern winemaking revolution however, only began in the 1980’s and thus, unshackled by appellation rules and family tradition, a vanguard has emerged driving the industry forward towards the realisation of premium wine production.
Winemakers, sommeliers, journalists and importers are all part of this revolution and are collaborating to see the emergence of a strong and vital industry. In world terms Israel is still a fledgling industry but they have all the ingredients to be a serious player on the premium global wine stage.
Climate and Soil
These is unquestionably a hot climate for winemaking, but just as the Argentines have climbed their mountains to overcome the heat, so too are the Israelis.
This tiny country boasts mountains with vineyards planted up to 1100m which are proving a Mecca to the quality conscious producers. They are drawn to the well-drained soils, large diurnal fluctuations, cool breezes and long sunshine hours. Add to this, soils that vignerons around the world prize; volcanic basalt in the Golan Heights and limestone sub-soils with a thin covering of terra rossa in the upper Galilee and Judea Hills. The volcanic wines show amazingly low pHs with the subsequent vibrant colour and dancing acidity.
At their best the wines boast fine, supple tannins, mineral and graphite depths with complex floral and fruit aromatics. Equally exciting are the terra rossa/limestone soils, combining rich concentration of fruit with a lithe tannic framework and fresh acidity providing the perfect canvas for the complex spicy fruit.
The choice of grape varieties, and the direction these plantings are taking, is broadly split between Bordeaux varieties and Mediterranean varieties. Those focusing on the latter are producing beguiling, complex, aromatic wines from Syrah, Carignan, Marselan, Roussanne and Marsanne. There are also some interesting early experiments with Alicante Bouchet and Touriga Nacional.
Those with a Bordelaise focus lead with Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc. At best these wines are producing exceptional wines; ripe, supple, perfumed, and savoury with great potential to age. However, unlike the Mediterranean varieties, there is a stark division in quality. In a hot climate Bordeaux varieties are far less forgiving and technical knowhow is paramount to preventing unripe but hot and extracted wines. However, the domestic market demand which accounts for approximately 80%, is for the Bordeaux varieties and the commercial realities cannot be ignored.
There is a small but exciting sector researching the indigenous varieties that were long thought to be lost to Israel. It is spearheaded by Dr Shivi Drori at Ariel University and they are currently researching some 60 indigenous varieties.
The opportunity to taste three wines from indigenous varieties from Cremisan Cellers was very interesting. There was a blend of Hamadani and Jandali, an attractive refreshing mineral white wine similar in style to Piedmont’s Arneis, a Dabouki which was richer, tropical, dry and spicy, more akin to Petit Arvine from Switzerland and a Baladi, similar to a premium Valpolicella in style.
The opportunity to resurrect and taste the original vines from these ancient soils is an exciting prospect, and the early signs of quality are promising.
As a young industry with many self-taught winemakers, there is some understandable lack of experience affecting quality. Those that missed the mark were lacking tannin management, alcohol control, and had problems with oxidation. Though the rich, overripe, alcoholic wines are losing currency in many international markets, medals have been awarded to this style which is perhaps unfairly encouraging others to emulate them.
However, as the influx of young, talented, internationally trained Israeli’s come home their influence will spread swiftly. Where they have settled, the leap in quality within one vintage is stark. As they share their knowledge one can only anticipate a huge uplift in quality across the board.
The Kosher Conundrum
Blind, it is impossible distinguish a kosher wine from a non-kosher one without a glimpse at the label. However, there are certain considerations that would not trouble a non-kosher producer.
Firstly general perception of Israeli wine ranges from surprise that they produce wine at all, to the assumption that as it is kosher it is likely to be inferior in quality. That it is generally sold as kosher rather than Quality Wine of Israel does little to challenge this perception. Kosher and high quality wine are by no means mutually exclusive.
Secondly there are production challenges.
It is forbidden to work during Shabbat (sunset on Friday until Saturday night) which effectively means the wine is left unsupervised for nearly 30 hours. This must be the cause of many a sleepless night. Indeed cases of stuck fermentations ruining tanks of wine are not unheard of. This encourages fastidious forethought and planning on the part of the winemaker. Nothing should be left to chance and it is vital that the first 1/3 of fermentation does not fall on Shabbat.
Politics is the third issue that is complicating the export efforts of many producers, most particularly those in the contentious areas of the Golan Heights (previously part of Syria) and the West Bank. These areas are struggling to get the Wine of Origin designation as Israel excepted by some export markets
The overwhelming impression of the Israeli wine industry is one of excitement and determination, camaraderie and optimism.
There was very little arrogance in the many winemakers, sommeliers and journalists, but a determination to continue learning and improving. The vision for quality is one strived towards by the whole industry.
The quality, complexity, polish, finesse and longevity of many of the wines were world class and show their vision is not unfounded.
Continue on for a list of exceptional producers:
Focused on Bordeaux varieties the wines showed amazing precision, power and finesse.
A vertical tasting of Cabernet Franc back to 07 showed that these are wines to cellar for 15-20 years.
A lovely balance of ripe, pure, fruit concentration and complexity, structural power and acidity
Both whites and reds were a case study in effortless assurance, subtle complexity and persistent length.
The Chardonnay is reminiscent of the best of Mornington Peninsular, a barrel aged Sauvignon Blanc that was rich yet vibrant and balanced.
The reds blended Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah to great results; perfumed, graceful and mineral driven yet with a supple power and finesse.
Whites and reds are focused around Mediterranean varieties and show just how good the results can be. The Rousanne/Marsanne was complex, savoury and herbal with perfectly integrated oak.
The reds were not only lithe and rich, but were getting to the heart of exciting varieties such as Marselan and old vine Carignan.
The results are beautiful, wild and beguiling.
The single vineyard wines included a beautiful vibrant mineral driven Riesling that showed complex floral and lime sherbet top notes over a poised chalky spine.
The reds included a Shiraz, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon.
As with the other top estates it was the perfect ripeness of the fruit which gave finesse and perfume, a fine boned tannin structure that provided a beautiful framework and a vibrant acidity that brought the wine to life.
The wines were long and persistent promising a long life ahead of it.
Up and coming ones to watch:
Ella Valley Winery
The whites had a signature minerality and nervy acidity to them reflecting the cool climate. Of the reds, the 2007 Merlot stood out for the smoky red fruit, dried wild herbs and subtle meaty richness. In their youth the wines are very firm and unforgiving and the icon wines, though impressive tended to over extraction which masked their perfume.
Elegance was the name of the game for the chardonnay and the Bordeaux varieties. A wonderful purity of fruit marked all of the wines, underpinned by a cool core of minerality, sleek tannins and refreshing acidity
The only winery to focus on white wine. It is still early days but the results are looking promising with modern restrained, complex, mineral driven wines boasting a subtle kiss of beautifully integrated oak. They are also playing with some exciting blends incorporating Pinot Gris, Riesling and Semillon to great effect.
Odem Mountain Winery
The Chardonnay and the Shiraz were the stand out wines in the portfolio, showing off the aromatic complexity and agile body that high altitude volcanic soils can produce. The Bordeaux varieties were very well made but lacked the ethereal quality of the shiraz.
The wines all displayed intensity and complexity, with rich, savoury dark fruit and ripe velvety tannins lifted by a lively acidity. The single vineyard Carignan was particularly impressive. As with many wineries, the flagship wines had a tendency for heavy extraction while the estate wines showed more balance and finesse.
This is a winery at the start of an exciting journey, with a focus entirely on the vineyard and converting to a dry farming naturalistic approach. The Lilith Cabernet/Syrah has amazing energy and crunch to the fruit, a complex aromatic palate and lingering finish. The other reds showed great promise, and there is no doubt as their understanding of the vineyards and vines improve so too with the wines.
After graduating with a history degree from Newcastle University, Alex made a beeline for South Africa to follow her passion and spend three months making wine. Three months turned into three years before she finally returned to the UK seven years ago to diversify her wine career. The last four years have been spent working with premium wine importer Bancroft Wines.
Alex is currently in her third year studying for the Master of Wine examinations and won the Young Wine Writer of the Year Award 2012. Following this she set up the wine blog www.winemonkeys.co.uk along with two other MW students.