It should come as no surprise that viticulture was first practiced in Israel back in Biblical times. What is unusual, however, is that the industry was nonexistent for centuries – an anomaly given that most cultures always found some way or other to continue production against whatever odds they faced.
Back in the day, wine played a significant role in religious life until Islamic conquest in the 7th century wiped out the industry. It sputtered back to life from about 1100 to 1300, then records of a wine industry again disappear.
Intrepid (or stubborn) viticulturalists tried again starting in the mid 1800s, and this time winemaking took hold, thanks in part to the investment of one Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, owner of Bordeaux’s famous Lafite Rothschild estate.
The Baron imported French varietals and established Carmel winery, which is still in operation today. (The winery claims two interesting historical footnotes: the a young David Ben-Gurion worked in their cellars, and one of Israel’s first telephones was installed at the estate.)
Traditionally, Israeli wines were sweet, and winemakers focused on quantity over quality. The first dry Israeli wine was produced in the 1960s at Carmel. Twenty years later, an influx of modern technology and know how from around the world have created a boom in boutique wineries. Today, less than 15% of the country’s wine is produced for sacramental purposes.
Generally speaking, Israel has a Mediterranean climate with hot, humid summers and cold, rainy winters. Soils are limestone based, and most vineyards are planted with the classic French varietals.
There are five major growing regions:
- Galilee – this area is considered the best, due to its elevation. Cool breezes, wide diurnal temperatures and well-drained soils create an excellent environment for grapes.
- Judean Hills – this area boasts a milder climate than other regions. It also benefits from cool nighttime temperatures. The up-and-coming area is home to a number of boutique wineries.
- Samson – the climate here is fairly typical Mediterranean, with warm summers and mild winters. Soils include stone, clay and loam.
- Negev – this semi-arid area can be challenging for growers. Irrigation and cooler nighttime temperatures help the grapes thrive.
- Shomron – this is the largest grape-growing region. Soils here are heavier, and most vineyards are planted in the valleys.
WHAT MAKES A WINE KOSHER?
Defining a kosher wine is pretty straightforward: In order to be kosher, a wine and the winemaking equipment can only be handled by Sabbath-observant Jews from the time the grapes are crushed until they are bottled.
If that’s not possible, a wine can be boiled or pasteurized, after which it may be handled by any person without losing its kosher status.
According to one story, this is acceptable because heated wine was not used for religious purposes in biblical times, its consumption is not sacrilegious. (It’s also interesting that heating wine for preservation purposes was done in China as early as the 1100s.)
At any rate, a wine that has received this treatment is indicated by “mevushal” on the label. There is a perception that all mevushal wines are bad, with a cooked or boiled taste, but it’s not entirely accurate.
The impact on a wine’s flavor can be minimal to nonexistent depending on when during the process the wine was heated and to what temperature, so there’s no reason to shy away from mevushal wines, especially at higher price points.
Finally, a kosher wine cannot have any non-kosher ingredients or non-kosher fining agents, which are used to remove any solid particles left in a wine after the winemaking process is complete.
Some wines are described more specifically as “kosher for Passover”. This requirement is satisfied by insuring that the juice has not had any contact with grain, bread or dough.
Perhaps surprisingly, Israel no longer has a monopoly on kosher wines. Estates throught the world produce wines according to kosher standards, with even wineries in renowned regions like Napa and Bordeaux getting in on the act.
WINES TO LOOK FOR
While many people still associate Israeli wines with grape-juicy Manaschewitz, the overall quality of the country’s wines has improved considerably since the 1960s. However, this isn’t to say that they are all stellar, either.
This was borne out at two tastings I did recently, with two different sets of kosher wines from Israel. While every wine got some love from at least one person in the room, there were a handful that were more universally liked, and those tended to be at the higher end of the price spectrum.
Here are some of the most popular wines from the events along with their average retail price.
Dalton Sauvignon Blanc Reserve 2011, $18
This wine was quite refreshing, with lots of acidity and crispness thanks to a cold vintage. It’s made with only the free-run juice, considered to be the best. A good value.
Alexander Winery LIZA Chardonnay 2011, $27
This wine is crafted more in the Burgundian style, so it’s a little leaner than a California chardonnay, but still a nice round, creamy feel on the palate.
Teperberg 1870 Cabernet Sauvignon 2011, $18
1870 refers to the year this winery was founded, making it one of the older estates in Israel. The wine is about 15% merlot, helping balance and soften the cabernet. This wine is generally fruity, with a nice savory quality.
Tel Arza Malbec 2010, $18
Malbec is usually associated with Argentina, making this an unusual cuvee. The grape loves Israel’s hot climate, creating a wine with a dark, inky color, lots of tannins, and plumy flavor.
Barkan Classic Pinotage, $12
Another unusual wine, in that the grape is found primarily in South Africa. This was a delightful expression of the grape, and a very enjoyable, easy-drinking (though not terribly nuanced) wine.