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Wine has been made in Israel since Biblical times. As civilizations grew in the Middle East, Israeli wine production was a part of the commercial enterprise. But the wines were never considered top quality. Some of the earliest wines were doctored with added herbs, spices, honey, and other botanicals to make them palatable. By the Roman era, the Israeli wine that was consumed was so sweet and thick, no one knew whether to drink it, eat it, or use it as mortar. When the Muslims arrived in the land and decreed a prohibition that ended up lasting nearly 1,200 years, it’s not as though anyone was waxing nostalgic for the Israeli wine their bubbe used to make.
It wasn’t until the late 1800s when Jews returned to the land and Baron de Rothschild established Carmel winery in what is now the Shomron region. However, the wines still had a long way to go before a more refined style was produced. When Israel was officially recognized in 1948, waves of immigrants brought with them a demand for quality wine. In the 1960s, producers began consulting with viticulturalists from UC Davis, who recommended establishing wineries in higher elevations where altitude could nurture optimal grape ripening, in more humid climates, and using better suited grape varieties. One such place was Galilee.
Galilee covers the Upper and Lower Galilee as well as the Golan Heights. The landscape is hilly, with the rocky peaks of Mount Hermon overlooking the Sea of Galilee. There is decent rainfall and cool breezes considering its proximity to the desert. The Lower Galilee is the smallest, centered on Mount Tabor, with iron-rich clay, sand, and limestone soil similar to that of Australia’s Coonawarra. The Upper Galilee and Golan are more diverse, with a mixture of soil types, mostly consisting of limestone and volcanic clay.
There is a heavily French influence on the methods and grape varietals grown. For reds, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Syrah, Grenache, Mourvedre, Alicante, and Carignan are the most popular. 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. Styles run the gamut from dry reds, white, and rosés to sparkling to dessert.
Both Kosher and non-Kosher wines are produced here. If there is no specification on the label, then one must assume the wines are not certified Kosher or mevushal.
The largest commercial wineries, such as Carmel, Barkan, Yarden, and Golan Heights all have vineyards within this region. But there is also emphasis on modern wine-making, boutique operations, and organic practices. This is literally the point where New World and Old World meet, with state of the art facilities in ancient surroundings. ~Amanda Schuster
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