The Israeli wine industry can be said to be 5000 years young. It is a new region, with globally educated winemakers rediscovering the promise of the land and restoring its purpose by bringing New World knowledge and techniques to an area where advanced viticulture was practiced thousands of years ago. The Eastern Mediterranean – including the land that was to become Israel – was, after all, the cradle of the world’s wine trade. While the practice of winemaking itself is understood to have begun somewhere in the triangle between the Caspian Sea, Black Sea, and Sea of Galilee, it was in this area where the business of wine first flourished and from where viticulture was spread by the Phoenicians throughout the Mediterranean basin. In recent decades, as a thoroughly modern Israeli wine industry has been reborn, grape varieties, some of which most certainly originated here in this ‘new world’, have been brought from the ‘old world’, and replanted in the soil from which they had disappeared for over a thousand years.
In their quest to create unique wines with distinct features, today’s Israel’s winemakers continue to experiment and innovate as they employ the latest technologies and match grape varieties to the complexities of the terroir and nuances of the micro-climates of the various growing regions. However, the ancient roots of wine are never out of mind. They are visible in the ancient wine presses that dot the hills and are found scattered among vineyards monitored for moisture via satellite, in the coins and artifacts depicting wine and grapes displayed in museums and uncovered at archaeological sites, in the Biblical image of the Israelites returning from the ‘promised land’ carrying an enormous cluster of grapes suspended on a pole. In this land of contrasts, ancient and modern, past and present, and secular and sacred exist simultaneously, creating a sense of timelessness.
Adam S. Montefiore is the wine writer for the Jerusalem Post, partner in the Israel Wine Experience and CEO of Adam Montefiore Wine Consultancy. He is a member of The Circle of Wine Writers.
He is author of The Wine Route of Israel and contributes to Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Guide, The World Atlas of Wine and The Oxford Companion to Wine, by Jancis Robinson MW.
A wine trade veteran, he has contributed to the advance of Israeli wines for over 30 years. Before that, in the UK, he was a founder & honorary member of the Academy of Wine Service
The history of wine itself is in many ways the history of Israel, as the Middle East and Eastern Mediterranean had a notable wine culture over a millennium before the vine was planted in Europe. Winemaking is understood to have originated in Georgia before making its way south into Phoenicia, Canaan, and then Egypt—where locals were known to have prized the wines of what would ultimately become Israel. Archaeology in this area has revealed ancient presses, vessels, and grape pips that show the presence of a fairly well-developed wine industry, and from the Biblial Noah through the Kings of Judah, wine is known to have played an important role in daily life. Indeed, the Book of Isiah even offers instructions for planting and care of a vineyard—and some researchers even argue that so-called international varietals like Syrah, Chardonnay, and Muscat originally came from Israel.
There is a new trend in Israeli winemaking of rediscovering previously unsung indigenous varietals. Since the history of wine in the Eastern Mediterranean is so long and storied—even King David had his own sommelier and viticulturist—there is significant curiosity about what, exactly, constituted wines from Israel’s ancient past, and if one or more of them could indeed be seen as a uniquely Israeli varietal. Dr. Shivi Drori, an oenological researcher, has been studying this issue to see if any local varieties, which are mostly used for table grapes, are suitable for winemaking; to see what kind of connection might exist between these varietals and international grapes; and to see if there is any relationship between these varietals and ancient grape pips found in archaeological digs. Dr. Drori’s work has revealed at least 120 grapes indigenous to Israel, with twenty showing promise for viniculture. Wineries are already successfully experimenting with the grapes Hamdani, Jandali, Dabouki, and Marawi.
The Israeli wine industry has grown precipitously since the founding of the modern state of Israel in 1948, and with accelerated growth has come ever-rising production quality, increased international visibility among consumers, and numerous accolades from the highest echelons of the wine media and trade. World War II saw the first signs of growth in this nascent industry, and by 1948 Israel could lay claim to fourteen commercial wineries. By 1957, most vineyards were concentrated around Mt. Carmel, the Judean Foothills, and the central Judean Plain. Carignan and Sémillon were then the country’s main red and white grapes, respectively, but the early 1970’s saw the introduction of varietal wines of Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc into the export market—with 1976 marking the release of Carmel’s Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve, which heralded a quality revolution in Israeli fine wines. That same year, cool-climate Golan Heights was identified as an ideal terroir for high quality vineyards, and the region soon welcomed international winemakers who brought with them New World winemaking techniques that would vault Israeli wine forward. The ultimate result of these innovations was unprecedented recognition from critics like Robert Parker and publications like The Wine Enthusiast and Decanter.
Modern Israeli viticulture has advanced at a rapid pace in the latter half of the twentieth century. Already famous for its agriculture, Israel has quickly become a leader in innovative technological practices—like drip irrigation and in-vineyard meteorological stations—which have helped make winemaking viable in otherwise inhospitable locales. Recent vineyard expansion has focused on cooler, higher altitude sites in the Judean Foothills, Upper Galilee, Judean Hills, and Golan heights, where elevation can reach as high as 1,000 meters above sea level and day-to-night temperature shifts help to moderate intense heat. A long harvest period and surfeit of sunshine hours—on par with North Africa—plus favorable soils of limestone, terra rossa, and volcanic tuff together make Israel a paradise for vignerons intent on producing world-class wines. Israeli viticulture is a stellar example of the nation’s willingness, and not to mention ability, to throw convention aside and pursue the impossible.
While many of Israel’s indigenous grape varieties disappeared during periods when the Eastern Mediterranean was under Muslim rule, some have still—luckily—persisted. Many of these varietals, like Hevroni, Dabouki, Marawi, Baladi, Razaki, and others, were grown by Arabs and were thus given Arabic names. It was not until 1870 that international varietals made their way to the Levant under the care of the Mikveh Israel Agricultural School, which imported Mediterranean varieties like Alicante, Carignan, and Mourvedre that were well-suited to the country’s warm climate. Carignan continued to dominate Israeli winemaking throughout most of the 20th century, but has been supplanted of late by a focus on Cabernet Sauvignon, Shiraz, and Merlot as the leading reds, and Chardonnay, Colombard, and Sauvignon Blanc as the present-day leading whites. While a renewed focus on resuscitating nearly-lapsed indigenous plantings has garnered critical and media attention, the bottlings considered to be the finest examples of Israeli winemaking remain the products of international varietals brought to Israel in the 20th century.
In the present day, no quality wine-producing country can lay claim to as rich a history of wine culture and production as the state of Israel. Wine has been an important and ongoing component of Israeli life since ancient times, and the joy of wine is central to nearly all acts of worship in the Jewish religious tradition. Wine itself also figures heavily into the literature of Judaism, with wine and winegrowing referenced in nearly all books of the Bible and playing key roles in stories involving figures like Moses and Noah. Canaan, once its own separate state, was producing and exporting wine in clay amphorae more than 2,000 years before the dawn of viticulture in Europe, and even in such early times the Eastern Mediterranean was the crux of a very advanced trade in wine—with the vineyards of Judea, Galilee, and numerous other sites in what is now present-day Israel especially prized by international drinkers.
While kosher wines may have earned a bad reputation over the years, recent advances in Israeli wine, from awards to scores to critical reviews, have reversed this commonly-held notion. Kosher wines have often been confused with Kiddush wines, which are sweet, red sacramental wines—but this is an erroneous association, as kosher wines are made in the same way as all other word-class dry wines and are not specific to religious use. When it comes to wine, in fact, the kosher designation is more of program of quality and hygiene standards than it is a quality defining process. The winemakers, grapes, vineyard practices, fermentation, and aging are all the same as those of any other non-kosher wine production process. Good wine can be kosher; bad wine can be kosher. And now that Israeli winemaking in general is better than ever, so too is its kosher subset—proving that there is no reason for a stigma around the “k” word.
Israel is home to numerous indigenous grape varieties with ancient origins and complex histories that have often cut across the shifting cultural and religious boundaries of the Eastern Mediterranean. Despite being known for the production of international varietals like cabernet sauvignon and chardonnay, recent research by Dr. Shivi Drori has indicated that of Israel’s 120 known local grapes, twenty show the potential to produce world-class wine. The Cremisan Monastery, founded in the late 19th century in a Christian-Arab village near Bethlehem, is one of the notable pioneers of indigenous Israeli grapes like Hamdani and Jandali—which together produce a white wine blend recently highly-reviewed by Jancis Robinson MW. Indeed, there appear to be mentions of these two varietals in the Talmud, in addition to a clearer reference in the 16th and 17th century writings of a Jerusalem rabbi. Other local grapes like Marawi and Bittuni are the noble product of a cross-cultural partnership between Palestinian growers and Israeli winemakers.