Israel is an Eastern Mediterranean country, part of what some will call the Levant and others, the Near East. It is a sliver of a country bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the west, and surrounded by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt to the north, west and south.Israel is land of 20,770 square kilometers (7,992 sq miles). It stretches a mere 424 kilometers (263 miles) from north to south. The population is 7 million. Ancient names like Galilee, Nazareth, and Jerusalem reek with Biblical history. There are also the modern cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa built on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, which are fruits of modern Israel. The country boasts mountains like Mount Hermon on the Golan Heights, Mount Meron in the Upper Galilee and the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth.The country may be divided into three distinct parts. There is the coastal plain, the hilly or mountainous region that runs down the spine of the country and the Jordan Rift Valley, which is part of the Syrian – East African Rift. There is also a semi arid area and the Negev Desert, which covers more than half the country.Apart from the Negev Desert, the climate of Israel is typically Mediterranean. Dry, hot, humid summers and warm, wet winters. There is usually no rain in the growing season. Therefore drip feed irrigation, invented by Israelis and exported all over the world, is essential. There is usually a falling of snow in the winter on the higher grounds – particularly on the Golan Heights and in the Upper Galilee.
The 1990’s – THE REVOLUTIONIt was the 1990's that really saw the coming of age of the Israeli wine market. Why the change? During these prosperous years Israel went through a cultural revolution in terms of food & wine. New quality restaurants started to open with young chefs who had studied abroad. Wine magazines and books were published in Hebrew for the first time. Quality wine stores opened, wine tasting and wine making classes were fully subscribed with paying customers. People traveling abroad in an atmosphere of relative peace and economic growth, absorbed the wine culture and returned demanding new standards. Israelis were learning to live a little. As importing tariffs came down, many wine lovers became instant importers flooding Israel with wines from all over the world. The Israeli connoisseur started to read the Wine Spectator, buy wine at Sotheby’s and to join local tasting clubs. As the customer became more discerning, they began to reward those companies which invested in quality. The vast leap in quality of Israeli wine was shown in the recognition at wine tasting competitions which resulted in great interest at home. As a result the wine drinker began to buy a better quality than previously. Consumption doubled to over 6 liters a head. At the volume level, the market was influenced by the massive aliya/immigration from Russia, which introduced into the country a people with a wine drinking culture. The French paradox had a big effect. In the 1990’s wine production, previously 70 % white, 30 % red changed to reflect new tastes to 60 % red, 40 % white. Wine lovers began to boast that they ‘only drank red wine.’ The change in style in winemaking also helped. Young reds were made in a fruitier, less astringent way and so became more attractive to the white wine drinker. The big brands were once big sellers because they were cheap. Today the two biggest selling brands are Carmel (Vineyards) Selected and Yarden Mount Hermon – not the cheapest wines. The new Israeli is buying better. Grape Varieties – TodayColombard and Carignan used to dominate the list of grapes at every harvest. Carmel introduced Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, and the Golan Heights Winery: Merlot, Chardonnay. Today the main varieties for the quality wines are these four noble varieties.However there is also Syrah, Pinot Noir, Cabernet Franc, Barbera and Nebbiolo amongst the reds and Gewurztraminer, Viognier and Muscat Canelli (de Frontignan) of the whites.No doubt though the best Israel variety in terms of outside quality recognition is the Cabernet Sauvignon. The best awards for Israeli wines & the premier wine of each winery tends to be with this grape. The most promising for the future may be Syrah.Unfortunately Israel does not have its own indigenous varieties. The nearest are Muscat of Alexandria – the local Muscat. Muscat is common to most Mediterranean countries. Also the Argaman variety was created in Israel by a cross of Carignan and Souzo – a Portuguese variety. The ideas were to create a better blending grape than Carignan, with good color. However by the time it was released, quality demands had changed and there was enough Cabernet & Merlot to satisfy the needs of the big wineries. Its use is really unnecessary in quality winemaking terms. Anyway it does exist and it is Israeli! The Emerald Riesling is a cross between Muscadelle & White Riesling. It was developed in the 1950’s at U.C. Davis but has really caught on in only one country in the world – Israel! Today Emerald Riesling is the biggest selling wine in the country. In Israel a varietal wine must contain at least 85 % of the named variety. VineyardsDuring the late 1990’s the area of vineyards planted with quality varieties doubled. Firstly wine was seen to be a booming, profitable industry. Secondly there was a move to new vineyards in cooler areas, and quality, noble varieties instead of the previous inherited vineyards of grapes like Carignan. Thirdly, many fruit growers saw vineyards as a better business investment than pears or citrus – because less water was needed.The result was a grower led boom which has left Israel over vined – like most wine producing countries. The good that will come of this is a quality pruning – the less good vineyards will be dropped for those in the better areas, those with the quality varieties or the growers with the correct standard of viticulture skills.Different wineries have adopted different regions. Wines from the Golan Heights winery came from grapes grown mainly on the Golan. Carmel invested in the southern Judean Hills in Yatir Forest, the northern Negev at Ramat Arad and in the Upper Galilee. Barkan planted in the Mitzpe Ramon region in the central Negev and planted the country’s largest vineyard at Hulda in the Samson region. Israel is a country known for its technology and agriculture, which really comes together in the vineyard. Most vineyards use drip feed irrigation, a system invented in Israel in the 1960’s and since adopted throughout the world. On the Golan the vineyards have their own meteorological stations feeding back information by computer to the winery to build up a data base of weather patterns as it affects a particular vineyard. In the Negev Desert, experiments have been made cultivating vineyards using saline water dug from 2,000 feet below and treated sewage water from a nearby military camp. Nothing is not being tried to maximize the grape growing potential in keeping with the Israeli character that ‘anything is possible.’ As of 2003, the vineyard area of Israel totaled 4,000 hectares.
The traditional wine growing regions are the coastal Shomron & Samson regions. The new quality regions are the cooler climate, higher altitude Upper Galilee, Golan Heights & Judean Hills.The official wine regions which are registered in the EU (Europe) and BATF (America) are:Galilee –
The Galilee, Galil in Hebrew, is the finest appellation situated in the north of Israel. This comprises Israel’s two finest quality wine growing regions, the Golan Heights and the Upper Galilee. These are new high altitude, cool climate vineyards planted in the last 20 years. The Golan Heights is really a different geographical region to the Galilee – but in wine law, it is registered as a sub region of the Galilee.The Upper Galilee is a mountainous area of plunging peaks and stony ridges; the soils are heavy, gravelly but well drained. The altitude is up to 700 meters above sea level.The Golan Heights is a volcanic plateau with basalt and tuff soil rising to 1,200 meters above sea level. The area benefits from cool breezes from the snow covered Mount Hermon. Many of the quality wineries – such as Recanati - use Upper Galilee vineyards for their best wines.
Shomron – Shomron is Israel’s largest wine growing region, benefiting from the Carmel Mountain range and cooling breezes off the Mediterranean Sea. The main concentration of vineyards is in the valleys surrounding the winery towns of Zichron Ya’acov and Binyamina. Soils are heavy, limey and the climate is typically Mediterranean.First planted in the 1880’s, it tends to be a region more known for the lesser known grape varieties used in workmanlike blends rather than the finest wines. Further south in the Sharon Plain is where Recanati winery is situated,
Samson – The central coastal plain – known as Dan, and the rolling hills of the Judean Lowlands (Latroun & Adulam), make up this region which is the second largest in Israel. First planted 1880’s. The soils are sandy and terra rosa on the coast and limestone, alluvial clay and loam on the hills. The area has a coastal Mediterranean climate: hot, humid summers and warm, mild winters. Samson is not a geographical place, but the wine region is named after the Biblical figure that frequented the area.
Judean Hills – The Judean Hills is a quality but underdeveloped wine region ranging from the mountains north of Jerusalem to the Yatir Forest, south of Hebron. Warm days and cool nighttime temperature characterize the region which in places is 800 meters above sea level. The soils are thin, limey and stony. The higher mountains receive snow in the winter. Teperberg and Efrat use vineyards west of Jerusalem in the Judean Hills.
Negev – The Negev is the desert region that makes up half the country. Vineyards have been planted in the higher areas in the northeast and central Negev. Soils are sandy to loamy and the temperatures range from very hot during the day to cooler evenings and cold nights. The vineyards are sometimes shrouded in mists during the morning hours. The dryness and lack of humidity keep diseases at a minimum. They fulfill David Ben Gurion’s dream of making the desert bloom.