Discovering the Wines of Israel: One Sommelier’s Reflection

Published: December 5, 2019

While the aspiring sommelier may rightfully spend countless hours memorizing the crus of Burgundy, the intricacies of the Northern and Southern Rhône, and every hillside in Barolo, should it not be important as well to delve into the winemaking history of an ancient country whose viticulture predates that of “Old” Europe’s by, well, millennia?

From blind tasting to geography to the finer points of service in a high-pressure restaurant environment, there is likely no better primer on the sheer breadth of the world of wine—and none more intimidating and few more anxiety-inducing—than studying for a sommelier certification. In a discipline as complex, ancient, ever-changing, and shrouded in myth as viticulture, context is king, subtlety rules all, and no detail is too small to escape the unrelenting scrutiny of the vigneron, connoisseur, or critic.

After all, in Bordeaux or Burgundy, a seemingly minute difference of feet from one vineyard’s edge to the next can add zeroes to a wine’s price; the slightest touch of ill-timed weather can wreck the fortunes of an entire vintage; a seemingly innocuous tableside miscue can result in a loss of thousands of dollars (or worse, irreparable damage to a sommelier’s credibility); and the difference between professional advancement and vinous ignominy in the blind tasting arena may ultimately at times be decided by allergies, the competing aftertaste of your morning coffee, or even the intrusive scent of a stranger’s perfume. Was it Alsatian Gewürztraminer or Argentinian Torrontés, white Burgundy or Napa? And will you ever live down the embarrassment?

Wine rewards deep study—but the more you learn, the more you realize how much there is to know, and, worse, how little of it you may ever come close to mastering. Add to this dilemma how the very concept of what constitutes the “world of wine” itself grows by the day, with new regions, countries, and varietals being “rediscovered” and added to the canon like never before, and what you’re left with is a body of knowledge bereft of beginning or end. How much of Champagne, for example, must one master before beginning investigations of Idaho, Croatia, or inland China—and what secrets lie there in the margins?

As a sommelier, and now as someone who writes about wine, I’ve always found myself drawn to wines and winemakers with a strong point of view. A wine, after all, ought to be a translation of the mood of its place of origin, and no place on earth is exactly like any other. And so after years of continual study, passage of the Court of Master Sommeliers Certified exam, and training on the wine teams of a few top restaurants in Manhattan, I’ve come to appreciate not just the classic regions—to which, it might at first glance appear, all “new” regions refer—but the act of continued discovery of the overlooked, the underrated, and the reimagined.

I suspect that this Israeli wine blind spot may be some combination of the particulars of history (lengthy periods where alcohol was forbidden), misconceptions surrounding kosher wine (that it is all sweet, low quality, or otherwise undesirable), or simple unavailability (much of the wine produced in Israel doesn’t make it to the American market). Moving beyond cheap prejudices about what Israeli wine “can” be in order to focus on what it is has opened up both new dimensions for my palate and a new understanding of Mediterranean winemaking in general. While Israel’s vinous reputation has seemed to be affixed to juicy Napa-style cabs and rich, generously-oaked Bordeaux blends, a new vanguard of producers have experimented in both the vineyard and the cellar by planting new varieties, pioneering novel blends, and foregoing wood altogether for a fresher, more accessible style.

A wine, after all, ought to be a translation of the mood of its place of origin, and no place on earth is exactly like any other.

Five Stones D vs. G White 2018

An unusual blend of Gewürztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc, with the former providing texture and aromatics and the latter offering its signature citrus fruit and acidity, the D vs. G (David vs. Goliath, as the wine is produced where the mythical battle was said to have taken place) is an impressive show of balance—and an encépagement that appears to have a bright future in Israel.

Covenant Israel Syrah 2016

Produced in the country’s cooler northern region of Golan Heights from Syrah (with a touch of Cabernet Sauvignon), this robust, weighty red calls to mind a juicier take on the Northern Rhône—but one that is classically Israeli, with a palate of ripe black fruit, spice, mocha, and lavender complemented by a serious tannic structure. This wine is unquestionably age-worthy.

Dalton Grenache 2016

Driven by spicy red fruit, this single varietal Grenache—aged for a year in used French oak—shines among similar examples from the Mediterranean, developing across the palate into black fruit, herbs, and orange zest. On the lighter end of Israel’s often fuller-bodied spectrum of reds, Grenache may just be one of the most important of those varietals to watch.

Tasting new wines, learning their stories, and discovering new regions can be an inspiring mix of intellectual challenge, bias-correction, and pleasure-seeking. The dialectics of wine discovery drive the sommelier forward, with every new exploration enriching earlier study and correcting prior prejudices. What may at first seem an indomitable obsession—say, the zealot’s fixation on Burgundy, and with it all the usual bias of terroir determinism—can on the other hand be contradicted, unexpectedly, by means of some further discovery—say, a transcendent experience with the decidedly dissimilar wines and philosophies of Bordeaux. And so the sommelier continues the never-ending journey of exploration, reflection, and expression.

Author: Andrew Lohse

A Certified Sommelier from the Court of Master Sommeliers and graduate of Dartmouth College, Andrew Lohse has worked on the wine teams of some of New York’s top restaurants and writes about wine for a range of publications.