Israeli Winesby Tinamarie Bernard June 30, 2010
The second most memorable feature of Château Golan is located underground. Their wine cellar, requisite with the familiar scents of fermentation and oak, dim lighting and cool temperatures, houses more than just this boutique winery’s reputable vintages. Smack in the center of their subterranean space rests an impressive slab of dark wood, bound with iron casings, surrounded by 24 Pesach-comfy chairs. It is, by any standard, a table fit for an epicurean’s palate.
Founded in 1999 and located in the southern area of the Golan Heights, Château Golan is one of approximately 250 wineries in Israel, many of which are youthful additions to the vintners club. About 100 years ago, sophisticated and complex wine from these ancient lands was a dream that has at long last materialized in the last 25 years.
We didn’t know it when we arrived for our tasting at Chateau Golan, but luck was with us that fine bright morning. Tours are usually scheduled in advance, but the principal partners, Itzahk Ribak and Shuki Shai, were on hand and graciously agreed to share their winemaking story with us.
Our exploration started in that underground room, where we learned about the fledging Israel wine industry from Ribak while marveling at their table of immense proportions.
The vineyards, fully owned by the winery, are planted near the Château, above the point where the Yarmuk and Roked rivers meet. Walking toward the main building, which houses the tasting room, barrel room and bottling facilities, it’s obvious the harmony of art and nature inspired the founders. Visitors enter through an impressive wrought iron affair and stroll upon a pebbled path flanked by rows of the various grape varietals planted in the vineyard. It’s a place designed to make good first impressions, pleasant memories and first-rate wines.
Uri Hertz, the Chateau’s California-trained winemaker, is in charge of the winery’s production, which amounts to about 100,000 bottles annually. What they produce runs on the expensive side, (prices range from 89- 259 ILS per bottle, or about $23-67), and they are known for excellence; we especially enjoyed the sauvignon blanc and Eliad, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and petit verdot.
The History of Wine in the Holy Land
Wine production in Israel goes back to biblical times, as indeed, the fruit of the vine is one of the seven blessed species. It was consumed for hundreds of years until the Islamic conquest in the seventh century, during which time wine was forbidden. The crusades (1100-1300 C.E.), brought a brief revival of winemaking, but the modern industry really only got its start in the late 19th century.
In 1882, Jewish philanthropist Baron Edmond James de Rothschild established the Carmel Winery, located in the Sharon plain south of Haifa and near Zichron Ya’acov.
Calling itself Israel’s “historic winery,” it is also the largest overall producer of wines; its 3,472 acres of vineyards cover the land of Israel from the Upper Galilee in the north to the Negev in the south, and its four wineries produce 15 million bottles a year. The original two wineries — one located at Rishon Le Zion, the other in the historically quaint town of Zichron Ya’acov — boast deep underground basements built by the Baron more than 100 years ago.
For generations, Israeli wines were sweet in keeping with the customs and expectations, perhaps, of the kosher wine-drinking consumers. High yielding vineyards focused on quantity over quality, placing an emphasis on ritual purposes over imbibing enjoyment. That trend began changing in the 1960s when the Carmel Winery experimented with dry red table wines.
It was a second birth in the modern wine making era. Israel and her early vintners were laying the groundwork for the introduction of a new breed of grape growers and sommeliers. It was only a matter of time when the small, specialized wine industry materialized, of which Chateau Golan is part.
The honor of ‘first’ boutique winery goes to Margalit Winery. Owners and winemakers Yair Margalit and his son Asaf Margalit, have a special fondness for the Bordeaux varieties, cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc. The winery offered its first cabernet sauvignon, a 1989 vintage, in 1991. Initially, the winery was established in a small village near the town of Rehovot, but after a few years, they moved to the Mediterranean shore. Of the 1,600 cases produced each year, some is available for purchase by private clients during just three weeks out of the year (March/April), but most goes to fine restaurants and wine shops in Israel and abroad.
The largest family-owned winery is Tishbi in Binyamina, recognized for its distinction in kosher wines and long established expertise in the art. The Tishbi family’s romance with grapes and wine began in 1882 when the present generation’s great-grandparents were commissioned by Baron Edmond de Rothschild to plant the first modern wine grape vineyards in Israel. After more than a century of growing grapes for Carmel Winery, the Tishbis founded their own estate, with a focus on sophisticated and drinkable wines that just happen to be kosher, too.
Another important milestone in Israel’s wine industry was the establishment of the Golan Winery, makers of three labels with wide appeal and appreciation: Yarden, Golan and Gamla. Built on the site of an agricultural village in the Golan Heights, the Golan Winery released its first vintage in 1984 and now produces six million bottles annually of 17 varietals. They are also the largest exporter of Israeli wines, and according to the head winemaker, Napa-raised Victor Schoenfeld, demand now outstrips supply.
World Wide recognition
Last year, Israel’s wineries exported $22 million in sales, and in 2010, it is estimated that value could reach $30 million. In a span of 30-plus years, Israeli wines metamorphosed from just a few wineries producing mostly sweet kosher blends to world-class beverages worthy of the world’s attention.
The quality revolution had begun, and in 2007, Israel’s winemakers basked in the glow of a job well done. That was the year when Robert Parker, the world’s most influential wine critic and founder of The Wine Advocate, tasted Israeli wines for the first time, bestowing a score of 90 or better on 14 of the 90 vintages sampled.
In a follow-up tasting of Israel wines in 2009, he wrote, “The wines are getting better all the time, and some of them are superb.” Triumphantly, for those making kosher wines, most of those rated as world-class by The Wine Advocate have also been kosher.
Sweet Blush for Kosher Wines
“In the past, since most Israeli wines were kosher first and quality was an afterthought, their image overseas and even in Israel was tainted,” says David Rhodes, a former San Diegan now living in Ra’nana. Rhodes is a wine educator and broker for several wineries and host of a weekly radio show on the subject. He’s enthusiastic about the current and future state of winemaking, explaining that “there’s an evident juxtaposition that Israeli wines are quality wines first and kosher for those that it matters.”
Kosher wine production requires vintners to adhere to certain guidelines that have less to do with the ingredients that go into the wine and more to do with who handles it. In general, for a wine to be considered kosher, a Sabbath-observant Jew must be involved in the entire process, from harvesting the grapes through fermentation to bottling. This is because of wine’s historic purpose in Judaism; there must be no question that the wine is fit for ritual religious use.
The Future of Israel Winemaking
“In the next decade, I expect Israeli wine will continue to pleasantly surprise both wine professionals and consumers,” continues Rhodes, pointing to the steep learning curve of the boutique wineries throughout the country. “As their vineyards mature and their grapes and wines develop depth and complexity, Israeli winemakers continue to learn at the best oenology and viticulture schools in California, Australia, France, Italy, Canada. This means Israeli wines can only get better and better.”
Additionally, Rhodes says, “dramatic new plantings of vineyards continue in the Galilee and Golan Heights as well as the Judean Hills,” three of the regions in Israel that are home to “premium growing appellations.” With higher elevations, cool breezes and stark temperature changes from day to night, the rich terrain of the Galil and exposed plains of the Golan are superb for growing quality grapes. Winemakers are also exploring two other locales — the Negev and the Sharon Plain south of Haifa — as well as new grape varietals.
According to Rhodes, that list is extensive and includes syrah, cabernet franc, carignan and petite sirah for the reds. “Pinot noir, mourvedre and grenache are also peeking interest for winemakers,” he says, “in addition to the success that cabernet sauvignon and merlot have already found.”
The lighter sides of wine are also getting attention. Quality rosé, sparking wines and dessert wines are gaining ground, and Rhodes points out that “chardonnay and sauvignon blanc are popular offerings, with gewurztraminer and viognier showing great promise.”
Great promise, indeed. Israel, the nation known for its start-up mentality, might be the next winemaking wunderkind of the 21st century.
California Kosher Wineries
Four Gates Winery
Kosher chardonnay, merlot, pinot noir and cabernet franc.
Santa Cruz Mountains
Kosher cabernet sauvignon, chardonnay, merlot, pinot noir, sauvignon blanc, syrah, white riesling, zinfandel and three brut cuvèe sparkling wines.
Herzog Wine Cellars
With vineyards in Sonoma, Napa, Monterey, San Luis Obispo and the central coast of California, Herzog Cellars produces quality kosher varieties including merlot, zinfandel, chardonnay, chenin blanc, sauvignon blanc, petite sirah, syrah, viognier, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir and pinot gris. Kosher restaurant, Tierra Sur, on site.