As a record number of tourists discover Israel—with just shy of 900,000 visiting the country between September 2018 and August of this year—enotourism to the country’s emergent wineries has risen to a prominence few could have foreseen even just a decade ago. From a high-profile mention at number five on Vinepair’s list of “The World’s Top 10 Wine Destinations for 2019,” to the country’s first-ever full page entry in the new eighth edition of Hugh Johnson and Jancis Robinson’s Wine Atlas, Israel has firmly established itself as one of the most important new wine regions in the world.
There is, of course, some irony to labeling Israeli wine production as “new” in any sense of the word, as the cultivation of the vine in the Eastern Mediterranean predates European winemaking by millennia. Nevertheless, truly modern, elite production in the country is a relatively new phenomenon—with the industry’s maturity measured in years rather than generations. And while two hundred and fifty wineries have sprung up in Israel over the last three decades, buoyed by an increase in international exchange of winemaking expertise and technological advancements which deserve their own credit for vaulting Israel’s wine scene forward, there is still scant product to go around.
Israel’s total acreage currently sits at about a third of that which is found in California’s Napa Valley; compounding matters, only 20% of the country’s total production wrung from this already-small area of vines is exported at all. To put it bluntly: that’s not much wine. But the good part? The bottlings that do make their way to foreign markets are high-scoring, well-loved, and thoughtfully-crafted wines that, had they originated elsewhere—say, France, California, or Italy—would almost surely be counted among their region’s finest offerings. With such tremendous praise from sommeliers and the wine press, the demand for Israeli wine is set grow even more in the ensuing decade.
But Israel is more than just an ancient wine region ripe for so-called “rediscovery”—it’s a young, tiny country leading its own viticultural revolution in vineyard technology, sustainability, and vine health. As the ostensibly “cool climate” Old World vineyards of Europe grapple with the turmoil visited upon them by rapid, erratic changes in weather, many wineries are turning to Israeli winemakers—who are, of course, quite adept at navigating hot, dry, or unpredictable growing conditions—for help. Could wine scion Baron Edmond de Rothschild have imagined such an inversion when he first planted Bordeaux vine cuttings in Israel in the late 19th century? Add to this mix a shifting focus on varietals and styles aimed at better matching consumers’ tastes—away from the rich, heavily-oaked Cabernet Sauvignon-dominant blends that have been Israel’s vinous calling card for a generation, and towards a fresher Mediterranean profile—and the result is a winemaking country showing that it has not just big ambitions, but the skill and vision to pull them off. Which is, after all, quite a fortuitous turn of events for a country not even mentioned at all, only four years ago, in Karen MacNeil’s exhaustive Wine Bible.
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.