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Wine has been produced in Israel since Biblical times, perhaps longer than anywhere in the world. According to the authors of the Old Testament (Tanakh, “Hebrew Bible,” etc.), Noah planted the first vines once the great flood subsided. From that point, there are several references to wines consumed by Moses, Micah, King David, and most notably Jesus. Ancient equipment has been found in archeological sites as well as beneath parts of modern day facilities in the Golan Heights and as far as the Negev Desert. Israel made contributions to this growing industry, which spread throughout the Middle East and Mediterranean. A document dating to around 1800 BC was discovered stating Israel was “...blessed with figs and vineyards producing wine in greater quantity than water.” However the wine that was available was often doctored with botanicals, honey, and other additives to make it more palatable. A sweet, viscous style became a popular export during Roman times. But it was so thick and toothsome no one knew whether to drink it, eat it, or use it as mortar.
The Arab conquest around 600 put an abrupt halt on all wine production due to Muslim law forbidding alcohol consumption. There were scant amounts of wine produced by the few remaining Jews who used them mostly for religious purposes. The prohibition lasted 1,200 years until the late 1800s and what is called The Return to Zion, as Jews settled in Palestine. But during that time, it’s not as though people were longing for the wine their bubbe and zayde used to make.
Baron Edmond de Rothschild is credited with reviving wine production in Israel in the 1870s. However, most of this was once again that cloying, sweet substance that British Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli said was , “...not so much like wine, but more like what I would expect to receive from my doctor as a remedy for a bad winter cough.”
After the state of Israel was established in 1948, immigrants that came in droves brought with them improved, more sophisticated wine-making practices. In the 1960s, some producers consulted with UC Davis viticulturalists to optimize planting and production practices, and find suitable grape varieties to the surrounding conditions. Facilities moved closer to mountain ranges for better grape ripening, and also near sources of water and flat lands with better irrigation and climate moderators. The sickly sweet wines still exist, and there are some that prefer them, but there are increasingly well crafted wines coming from Israel.
First a word about Kosher wines: Just because a wine is from Israel does not mean it’s Kosher. By most definitions, “Kosher” means prepared only by Jews in a certified facility that is used strictly for the production of Kosher products. All preparation, in every stage from vine to bottle is handled by Sabbath-observant Jews. No artificial additives or animal products have come in contact with the wine. As an added precaution, some wines are “mevushal,” which means they have been pasteurized briefly on the off chance they might be handled by an errant non-believer, and are therefore Kosher. If neither the Kosher symbol or mevushal statement appear on the label, one must assume the wine is not Kosher.
The most prestigious region in Israel is the Galilee, which includes the Upper and Lower Galilee as well as the higher elevations of the Golan Heights. This is literally where the concepts of New World and Old World collide, with state of the art modern techniques working in ancient surroundings. Depending on location, the mix of soil types from limestone, clay, volcanic ash, and free-draining gravel plus cooler and a moister climate are excellent conditions for premium grape-growing. The varietals are mainly of French origin (as they also are in nearby Lebanon): Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Grenache, Mourvedre, Alicante, and Carignan for reds. Whites consist of Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Muscat, Chenin Blanc, and Chardonnay. Some producers are branching out toward emerging international grapes such as Viognier, Barbera, Nebbiolo, Malbec, Petit Verdot, Gamay, and Tempranillo. The biggest names in Israeli wine, Carmel, Barkan, Yarden, and Golan Heights Winery, all have vineyards within this region, but there is also an emphasis on boutique wineries and organic practices.
The southern Negev region is one of the hottest in the world, mostly desert-like. But this is the place where wine was pretty much invented, dating back possibly 6000 years. These days, the small amount of viticulture here takes place in areas of higher altitude, in the Negev Hills, and where soils can retain the most moisture. Outside irrigation is necessary.
The Samson region includes the up and coming Judean Hills. The conditions here are similar to those in parts of Galilee, with a range of quality soils, warm summer, cooler winters, and humid air. Grape varieties grown are also very much akin to the Galilee.
If Galilee is the cradle of modern wine in Israel, the Shomron (Samaria) region, in the coastal plain below the city of Haifa, is the classic. This is where Baron de Rothschild’s Carmel winery originated, and where other French wine-makers established themselves. New World style wines are also a major commercial concept here, though much of the production is centered on value-driven releases. ~Amanda Schuster
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