IN THE field of wine journalism, one often gets to learn a lot about a culture through its winemaking ideologies. Recently, on my visit to Israel (also known as the Holy Land) and its equally sacrosanct vineyards, I got a first-hand taste of some very unknown (and thus undervalued) wines in the world.
Here are a few tips on understanding the wines of Israel:
1. The vineyards in Israel emphasise a lot on altitude, as, being a hot climate country with a lot of desert land to further make things difficult, the only thing that helps retain freshness in wines is the height above sea level. So the average vineyards are 500 m up and go as high as 900 m.
2. Israel may have been making wine since thousands of years, but what remains today is largely based on classic international grape varieties, the kind one would expect to find anywhere else in the West, east, south…you get the drift.
3. From my personal observations, there is a lot of good wine to be found in Israel. The industry is about 30 years old and a lot of the change has come about in the last decade. Winemakers have come to understand techniques better and have learnt to read vineyards more astutely, which allows them to govern the style of wines more precisely.
4. Israel loves oak. White or red, they can’t think of making a premium wine without it. In fact, they possibly suffer from an oak over-indulgence and could do well to cut back on it. No matter the region the wines came from, they were always fresh and vibrant, resplendent with fruit and showing good structure. Which is another reason why a little oak restraint may help exemplify the sprightly aspect of these wines better.
5. Cabernet Sauvignon seems to be very popular, but frankly, I enjoyed Shiraz (or Syrah), Merlot and Cabernet Franc more. Pinot and Emerald Riesling are mostly missable, save for a winery or two. A few unusual finds would include Barbera, Malbec and Sangiovese for reds; and Riesling, Gewurztraminer and Viognier for whites. Petite Sirah (or Durif) wines that I tried here were among the best I have ever tasted.
6. Regions aren’t really defined in terms of what grapes may or may not be planted there. So the wines, although great, can vary drastically in style from one winemaker to another. Suffice to say the terroir for the moment is more about winemaking philosophy rather than regional topography, which isn’t entirely a bad thing in the long run, allowing winemakers creative freedom to express the best from their patch of dirt.
7. Kosher wines is a touchy subject. It basically means that only the religious folks can work at the winery and handle the equipment. If anybody else comes in contact with the wine or any vessel that holds it, the wine stands ‘un-Koshered’. This can make things tough for a winemaker, as mostly they aren’t extremely religious. Hence to have to work through the arms and legs of another person in the winery can be highly constricting. Imagine wanting to take a barrel sample and not being able to do it yourself in your winery. However, the market for Kosher wines is big abroad (mostly the US), as also within Israel and that helps keep things going.
8. That said, in Tel Aviv at least, most people don’t really care much for Kosher. One of the best pork ribs I have had was right here and it was a Jewish winemaker who suggested I order it. He even shared it with me. So within the city limits, there exists a large market for non-Kosher wines. Trouble is that outside of Israel, the market for non-Kosher Israeli wines isn’t a given.
9. Israeli wines weren’t exactly cheap. Wineries are small (big ones produce 50,000 bottles and small ones as little as a few thousand bottles) and this drives up costs. In such a situation, they aren’t exactly competitive on the world shelf. If they can somehow manage to create a market for their wines that is not entirely based on the notion of Kosher, it would be the best long-term strategy for the industry. Austria and New Zealand are both small wine-producing nations with high price per litre and yet have seen much success. Israel can emulate a similar model.
10. Among the brands that I would highly recommend, a few (in no particular order) would be Bar-Maor, Recanati, Montefiore, Tzora, Sea Horse, Yatir Forest, Yaffo, Livni, Ella Valley, Gva’ot, Trio, Margalit, Carmel, Jezreel, Binyamina and Golan Heights.
The writer is a sommelier