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Wine has been produced in this area for thousands of years, and while Israel’s viticultural roots are, in a sense, Old World, Israeli wines fall squarely into the New World category. The modern state of Israel was established in 1948, and at that time, the nascent country’s budding wine industry consisted of 14 commercial wineries. Today, there are more than 300 wineries, including 70 that harvest 50 tons of grapes or more a year—and the 10 largest produce more than 90 percent of Israel’s wine. The rest are boutique and medium-sized wineries. The country is also home to many garagiste winemakers.
Wines from classic French varieties, such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc are the country’s most revered, however, there is a growing interest in wine made from Mediterranean varieties—and from the area’s native grapes. Israel has a total of 5,500 hectares under vine. Approximately 60,000 tons of grapes are harvested annually.
Bordered by Lebanon to the north, Syria to the northeast, Jordan to the east, Egypt to the southwest, and the Mediterranean Sea to the west, Israel comprises 20,770 square kilometers. The country runs 424 kilometers from north to south and about 135 kilometers across at its widest point. There are three main landscapes: the coastal plain, which runs along the Mediterranean Sea; the hilly and mountainous region that runs down the spine of the country, and the Jordan Rift Valley, which is a fertile landscape in its northern areas and transitions to semi-arid in the south. Israel has a diverse array of soil compositions that vary from limestone, terra rossa, and volcanic tuff to calcareous clay, chalk, and alluvial loam.
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Though situated in the Middle East, Israel’s climate is distinctly Mediterranean because of its proximity to the Mediterranean Sea. The Sea is Israel’s most significant climatic element, as it brings winds, winter rains, and humidity. The winds flow through the vineyards, providing ventilation and creating a cooling effect that reduces humidity and decreases average temperatures. Israel has long, hot, dry summers and short, cool, rainy winters. Occasionally, winter snow accumulates at higher elevations in the areas of Golan Heights, Upper Galilee, and Judean Hills—three areas that are renowned for producing the country’s highest quality wines. The newer vineyards in these higher altitudes rise from 400 meters to 1,000 meters above sea level, where cool temperatures encourage a longer growing season.
Annual precipitation can range from about 100 millimeters in the south to 1,100 millimeters in the north. A chronic lack of water is a problem that winegrowers throughout the country face, especially during growing season. Drip feed irrigation is often a necessity. Temperatures hover between 15 degrees Celsius to 20 degrees Celsius on average, annually, reaching up to 33 degrees Celsius in the hottest months and down to 5 degrees Celsius in January, the coldest month of the year. Canopy management is critical for controlling vine vigor and protecting the fruit from overexposure to the sun.
Mechanical harvesting is common among Israeli winegrowers, though in some cases, hand-harvesting is employed, such as with fruit on old vines. Israel’s harvest season tends to start in July, though the bulk of it occurs during August through October. The biggest climatic challenge during harvest season isn’t rain or frost, but the hamsin—hot winds that blow in from the Arabian Desert and can boost temperatures up to 40 degrees Celsius, which causes the vines to close down.
About 5,000 years in the making, Israel’s wine history has ancient roots that date back to Biblical times. The area’s thriving early wine industry, however, went into dormancy after the Muslim conquest and the Ottoman Empire began ruling the territory in the early 16th century. Winemaking returned to the area in the 19th century, but mainly for the purpose of generating wine for religious rituals. Toward the end of the century, however, Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of the famed Château Lafite Rothschild in Bordeaux, attempted to pioneer a new age of winemaking in Israel in the 1880s. In addition to planting vineyards and constructing wineries with deep underground cellars, he hired French winemakers and agronomists to help pioneer the efforts. Unfortunately, at that time, the market for the area’s fine wines didn’t yield enough demand for Rothschild’s vision to truly bear fruit.
When the Israeli state was established in the mid-20th century, more than 90 percent of its vineyards were concentrated in the coastal regions, including the area around Mount Carmel, the Judean foothills, and the Judean plain. Wine was typically made in a sweet style from either Carignan or Sémillon, and the wines were generally consumed during religious rituals. In the 1970s, varietal wines made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc gained some traction. Golan Heights was discovered in 1976 to be ideal terroir for producing premium wines. Around that time, its high-altitude, cool-climate vineyards began drawing international winemakers who would help elevate the region’s production.
Another wave of international winemakers, mainly from California and Canada, arrived on the Israeli wine scene in the 1980s, helping to revolutionize the country’s winemaking techniques in both the vineyard and the cellar. In that decade, the most planted red grape was Carignan and the most planted white was Colombard. By the 1990s, boutique wineries started proliferating throughout the country. Since the beginning of the 21st century, there has been an overall shift in focus toward quality- and terroir-driven wines that’s pushed Israeli winemakers to create more aromatic, structured, balanced wines than ever before. The effort has resulted in numerous awards and accolades for Israeli wines from some of the international wine community’s top players.
Israel produces more than 40 million bottles of wine a year. A lack of appellation laws gives the country’s winemakers a lot of freedom to experiment with different grape varieties and blends. While there are no stringent appellation designations, there are six distinct regions that represent present-day winemaking in Israel. They vary slightly from the country’s official wine regions—Galilee, Shomron, Samson, Judean Hills and the Negev—which were designated more than a century ago when the traditional winemaking regions were concentrated in the country’s coastal areas. Today, the main wine regions are in cooler, higher altitude regions.
One of Israel’s largest wine regions, Galilee is situated in the north of Israel and divided into two sectors: Upper and Lower Galilee. The upper sector, near the Lebanese border, is hilly with altitudes that rise up to 1,000 meters. Its soils are volcanic, gravel and terra rossa. Elevations in the lower sector near Mount Tabor range from 200 to 400 meters and the soils vary between volcanic and limestone.
A volcanic plateau rising to 1,200 meters above sea level, the Golan Heights region is characterized by its high elevations, cool climate, and tufa and basalt soils. It has three subregions—the southern Golan, the middle Golan, and Upper Golan. This is the wine-producing region where most international attention is focused these days, as its high-altitude vineyards have been critical in driving the country’s quality revolution and garnering awards and accolades.
This region crosses Israel from Haifa to the Dead Sea. It’s made up of Mount Carmel, the Menashe Hills, the Shomron Hills, and the Judean Hills. The majority of vineyards are located in the valleys around Zichron Ya’acov and Binyamina. It was also one of the first regions where Rothschild planted vineyards at the end of the 19th century. Soils here include calcareous clay, terra rossa, limestone, and chalk.
A hot, humid region, the Coastal Plain is situated southeast of Tel Aviv. At 0 to 100 meters above sea level, it’s a low-lying area. The region consists of alluvial soils mixed with sandy, clay loams, along with terra rossa soils. It was one of the original areas planted by Rothschild, but today it’s better known for its citrus fruits and strawberries, rather than wine grapes.
Rising toward Jerusalem, the Judean Foothills are mainly located in the West Bank. This little region contains nearly a third of all Israel’s vineyards. Many of them are small plots composed primarily of terra rossa topsoil over limestone bedrock. Beneficial diurnal fluctuations result from warm daily temperatures that are offset by cooling winds from the Mediterranean Sea and cool nighttime temperatures. There’s also a dramatic increase in elevation that goes from 300 to 1,000 meters within the region.
This arid desert region makes up half the country. Altitudes in the Negev Highlands can reach 900 meters. The soils tend to sandy loam and loess. Dramatic diurnal shifts in temperature typically go from very hot during the day to very cold at night, sometimes resulting in thick mists that blanket the vineyards early in the morning. The dry conditions and low humidity help keep vine diseases at bay.
Key Grape Varieties
The modern Israeli wine industry was built on classic Bordeaux varieties, and they still dominate the market, both as single-varietal wines and blends.
One of the most widely planted varieties in the country, Cabernet Sauvignon came to Israel by way of Bordeaux in the 19th century thanks to Rothschild. Some of the finest wines in Israel are varietal Cabernets and Cab-based Bordeaux blends, notably those from Upper Galilee and Golan Heights. Israeli expressions of the grape yield deeply colored wines with concentrated ripe dark fruit aromas and flavors, and strong tannic structure, though some of Israel’s Mediterranean microclimates can also cause the wines to develop an overly jammy character.
A classic blending partner for Cabernet Sauvignon, this noble Bordeaux variety is cultivated throughout Israel, where it tends to ripen early in the Mediterranean climate. It’s produced as both a varietal wine and in many Cab-based blends. Israeli Merlot tends to have a soft and mild flavor profile.
This grape arrived on the wine scene in Israel in the 1990s, and now that many Syrah vines are maturing, it’s being touted as one of the country’s most promising varieties. Not only does Syrah thrive in Israel’s Mediterranean climate, but older vine Syrah offers pronounced, delicious flavors. Israeli winegrowers cultivate grapes from both the French and Australian clones, and the resulting wines tend to be labeled as Syrah or Shiraz, based on the clone from which they were derived. The best expressions of the variety can be found in the Judean Foothills, Judean Hills, and Upper Galilee.
One of the most important varieties for fine white wines in the country, Sauvignon Blanc is undergoing a renaissance in Israel. Newer plantings of the grape at higher altitudes, along with earlier harvests and cold fermentations in stainless steel have resulted in a fresh, crisp style with aromatic citrus and tropical fruit notes that’s proving to be quite popular.
The Chardonnay grape has broadly been regarded as the finest white variety in Israel since it was first cultivated here in the late 1980s. Historically, the best expressions of Chardonnay had been produced in the northern Golan Heights, but today the area around the Judean Hills and Foothills is earning a reputation for its high-quality Chardonnays. Increasingly, high-alcohol and over-oaked Chardonnays are becoming a thing of the past. Crisper styles vinified at least partly in stainless steel to preserve the grape’s refreshing green apple notes are on the rise.
Next Wave Varieties
These days, Mediterranean winemaking styles—and Southern French grapes, in particular—are gaining a lot of momentum in Israel. The key varieties driving the next wave of Israeli winemaking forward are:
- Petite Sirah
Researchers have identified more than 120 grapes indigenous to the geographical area around Israel. These include Biblical era white varieties like Marawi (a.k.a. Hamdani), Jandali, and Dabouki, red grapes like Baladi Asmar and Bittuni, and crosses like Argaman (a cross between Carignan and the Portuguese grape Souzao). Some Israeli winemakers are working to bring these native grapes back into the country’s wine repertoire—and their efforts are generating a great deal of interest.
Winemakers are also experimenting with numerous other varieties in Israel, including Barbera, Cabernet Franc, Chenin Blanc, Colombard, Gewürztraminer, Marselan, Marsanne, Mourvèdre, Muscat d’Alexandria, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir, Riesling, Roussanne, Sangiovese, Sémillon, Tannat, and Viognier.
What’s Happening in Israel Today?
Exports of Israeli wine are increasing year over year. More than 55 percent of the country’s wine is exported to North America, approximately 35 percent goes to Europe (mainly France and the United Kingdom), and the rest is exported to the Far East. Israel’s wine export market is valued at more than $40 million.
A new generation of winemakers is expanding beyond the traditional Bordeaux varietal and blended wines that put Israel on the global wine map. Mediterranean grapes and styles, especially those from Southern France’s Rhône Valley, are well-suited to the country’s terroir and growing fast in popularity. Without any appellation regulations to hold them back, winemakers are also experimenting with native varieties and innovative “Israeli blends” to complement the flavors, spices, and cooking techniques of the country’s cuisine.
As Israel commands more and more international attention for its award-winning wines, the stigma around the country’s kosher designation is dissipating. Kosher isn’t any kind of quality designation; it’s a label that simply identifies wine that’s been made in accordance with Jewish Dietary Laws for Orthodox Jews. No animal-based additives can be used (such as for fining or filtering), so wines that are kosher are also vegan.
In keeping with the quality revolution that’s been taking place in the country over the last couple of decades as the vineyard areas have moved to higher elevations north- and eastward, Israel is producing a more diverse array of wines than ever before.