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Israeli Wine on the Front Lines

Israel first made wine thousands of years ago, but producers are still trying to figure out which grapes grow best where. Writer W. Blake Gray travels around the country, discovering strange paradoxes and enormous potential.

Winemakers often talk about challenging vintages. In 2006, for instance, some European regions had trouble with wet weather. In 2006 in Israel, "challenging vintage" meant rockets.

Hezbollah, in neighboring Lebanon, fired over 4,000 rockets into Israel that July and August. Because many of Israel's best vineyards are in the Golan Heights area, just across the border, all were potential targets. Several were hit; many could not be tended until just before harvest. Wineries near the front lines closed and sent their workers home. This is not the sort of thing that happens in Tuscany.

Earlier this year, I visited Israel to get more closely acquainted with the country's wines; at the same time, I got more acquainted with barbed-wire fences and security guards with guns. I also got used to the wineries' industrial look, with big tanks—mostly fermentation, occasionally army—sitting out in the open. One winery showed a video of grapes being mass-processed, filtered and bottled like Coca-Cola. (I liked its honesty, but not its wines.) Fortunately, it was the exception.

Just two decades ago, Israeli wines were nearly all sweet and—unfortunately—horrible. But since then, Israel has made more progress than most countries do in generations, overcoming challenges that few regions ever have to face, and now it is one of the most exciting wine-producing countries I've ever encountered: the new frontier of Old World wine.

Here are portraits of four of the best wineries.

Israeli Wine: Golan Heights Winery/Yarden

Israeli Wine: Golan Heights Winery

Courtesy of Yarden Wines of Israel

One might expect acres of great old vineyards in Israel—people have made wine here for thousands of years. But until 1967, the country didn't have much land truly suitable for grape growing, as the climate was far too hot. When Israel occupied the Golan Heights after the Six-Day War, that changed. The appropriately named Heights is higher in elevation and thus cooler than the rest of the country. In the 1970s, experts from California said that the Heights might offer the best wine terroir in the country, an assertion that has largely turned out to be true.

As a result of appraisals like these, over the past 20 years, there's been a rush to plant vines in the Golan Heights and neighboring Judean Hills. In the 1960s, 90 percent of Israel's vineyards were in the hot coastal regions; now, only 44 percent are, a sign of viticultural progress albeit a complicated one.

Golan Heights Winery winemaker Victor Schoenfeld, a Southern California native, explained the difficulties of making wine here as we stood together in an organic Chardonnay vineyard the winery owns. On the drive there, we'd passed passenger cars that had been bombed during the 1948 Arab-Israeli War and left to stand where they were, as reminders of the conflict. We drove past a large army base bristling with soldiers doing drills. But standing with Schoenfeld in the vineyard, I could turn 360 degrees and not see a building of any kind—which must be how a battlefield looks when the fighting stops, I guess.

The main problem was simple, Schoenfeld said: Syria still claims jurisdiction over the land. His feeling is that if Syria truly wants peace, then the Israeli government should give the Heights back. "But that isn't something we think about in terms of our wines," he says. "Our work is not short-term."

Schoenfeld spent a year in Israel during college. After graduating from University of California, Davis, in 1988 with a degree in enology, he worked in California at Robert Mondavi Winery, Chateau St. Jean and Preston of Dry Creek. He got a recruiting call from Golan Heights Winery every year. Finally, in 1991, he decided to take the job that he hopes will be his legacy.

Schoenfeld has married an Israeli, taken Israeli citizenship and committed himself to the winery that kicked off Israel's quality revolution in the 1990s. He has also dedicated himself to growing grapes in the Golan Heights. The future may be uncertain, but as long as he keeps making bottles like the 2006 Golan Galilee Cabernet Sauvignon—a superb, complex red wine made with grapes from several vineyards—the present is inarguably good.

Israeli Wine: Vitkin Winery

Since every bit of ancient viticultural wisdom in what is now Israel disappeared during centuries of Muslim rule, when every grapevine in the area was ripped out, another task facing its winemakers has been figuring out which grapes are best suited for the soil and climate.

The oldest vines in Israel were planted about 40 years ago. Unfortunately, they're mostly on land that is not ideal for grape growing. Also, two of the most widely planted grape varieties are the Bordeaux varieties Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. While Israel does produce some good Cabernets, I became more and more convinced while touring the country's wineries, and tasting wine after wine, that Mediterranean grapes would be better in the long run.

Vitkin owner and winemaker Doron Belogolovsky agrees. "I think Israeli wines should be bigger, and I think they will be bigger," he said, meaning richer and more robust—more Mediterranean—in style. "We are not Bordeaux. If you try to imitate something, you will never be as good."

A former stone merchant who fell in love with wine on his trips to buy marble in Italy, Belogolovsky makes ripe but balanced wine from Mediterranean grapes like Carignane and Petite Sirah. "These are very good varieties for Israel," he said. "They like the heat and don't need so much water."

Belogolovsky's juicy Carignane has black-currant flavors and a peppery finish, and his Cabernet Franc was one of the best wines I tasted in Israel. The only problem is that he makes only 5,000 cases per year and currently has no US importer—but any visitors to Tel Aviv should look for a bottle on a restaurant wine list.

Israeli Wine: Dalton Winery

A huge part of israel's wine renaissance has to do with young tal- ents like Dalton Winery's Naama Mualem. Yet her career reveals that some of the challenges winemakers face here come from within Israel, not only outside its borders.

Mualem was raised in the Golan Heights; having armed soldiers escort students everywhere, she says, was "just a normal part of life." After college, she studied enology in Australia and interned at Navarro Vineyards in California. Unfortunately, though, now that she's returned to Israel, many of the hands-on techniques she learned are ones she can't practice anymore.

Like all of Israel's 17 largest wineries, Dalton is kosher. According to kosher law, anyone who is not an observant Orthodox Jew can't touch the grapes, or anything, once the winemaking process begins. Tanks, barrels, juice, hoses, pumps: All are off-limits. "It is sometimes frustrating," Mualem says, "but then, as the winemaker for a million-bottle winery, I wouldn't be doing basic tasks anyway."

Instead, Mualem concentrates on Dalton's vineyards. She has installed meteorological stations so she knows the difference in average temperature from one line of vines to the next, and has also done "vigor mapping," a viticultural term for using sugar measurements before harvest to determine which spots in the vineyard cause the vines to struggle most (and so produce the most flavorful grapes). The result has been a string of impressive wines, among them Dalton's wild yeast– fermented 2008 Reserve Viognier, a fleshy white with plenty of golden-apple and ripe-pear fruit.

Israeli Wine: Tulip Winery

Tulip winery, says its CEO, Roy Itzhaki, is the biggest nonkosher winery in Israel. But, he adds, not entirely by choice.

Itzhaki applied for a waiver from the kosher rules because he established the winery in Kfar Tikva, a village for people with disabilities and special needs, and employs some of the villagers. "After four years of negotiation, I had to make a decision to be kosher or to employ these people," he said. "I chose to employ them." The villagers help with all the basic tasks around the winery: bottling, labeling, loading and unloading grapes, stacking cases of bottles.

Not being kosher has kept Tulip wine out of Israeli supermarkets, as well as the kosher wine sections in US wine shops. Itzhaki says, "It makes it a much tougher job to sell." But what he has going for him is quality. That's clear from his 2005 Black Tulip, a jammy red blend whose label was painted by a man with Down syndrome, and his fragrant 2008 White Tulip, an unusual marriage of Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer. "I'm not a spiritual guy," Itzhaki says, "but I do think somewhere in the future, things will be better for wineries like us."

5 Great Israeli Wines

2008 Tulip Winery White Tulip ($20) Mentally disabled residents of Kfar Tikva ("Village of Hope") help out with this ambitious winery's day-to-day operations. This rich white is a blend of Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc.

2008 Dalton Reserve Wild yeast Viognier ($20) Fermentation with wild yeasts (as opposed to industrial ones) emphasizes this white wine's distinctive jasmine and peach scent.

2006 Golan Galilee Cabernet Sauvignon ($30) Though Victor Schoenfeld blends grapes from various vineyards located in the Golan Heights for this elegant Cabernet Sauvignon, you would never know there was any unrest in the region from tasting his wine. It's pretty, full of red and black plum fruit and violet floral notes.

2006 Binyamina Chosen Ruby Galilee Syrah ($50) One of the older wineries in Israel, Binyamina was founded in 1952 by a Hungarian immigrant, Joseph Zeltzer. Its Syrah is quite New World in style—full of ripe blackberry flavors—but it never loses its spicy, almost bacony Syrah character.

2007 Domaine du Castel Grand Vin ($60) This small, family-owned winery produces some of Israel's most impressive wines. Its elegant blend of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot is in the same league as the best Cabernets of Napa Valley or Bordeaux's Left Bank, and compared to them, this bottle is a bargain.

W. Blake Gray contributes stories on wine and spirits to the Los Angeles Times, Wine Review Online, Palate Press and other publications.


Published December 2010
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