Wines of Israel

Wine has been grown in Israel at least as far back as the Biblical times, and wine has special ritual significance in Judaism.

Israeli wines in the Biblical times were not, to put it politely, known for their particularly high quality. The Israeli wine industry suffered greatly in the chaos following the destruction of the Second Temple in 70CE. The Muslim conquest of Israel resulted in a halt in wine production that would not restart again in earnest until the Zionist movement.

Quick History of Modern Israeli Wines

The modern Israeli wine industry can trace its roots back to Baron Rothschild (of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild). The Baron was a strong supporter of Zionism and built two wineries in the late 1800s to serve the Jewish immigrants. Unfortunately, Chateau Lafite's expertise did not follow, and most Israeli wine of the time was made in the "classic" sweet and syrupy style. It is said that Benjamin Disraeli was given a bottle of kosher Israeli wine in 1875 and compared it unfavorably to cough syrup.

It would not be until the 1980s that there was serious effort to make high-quality varietal wine. After the Golan Heights Winery opened in 1983/1984, there has been a small explosion in quality wine production, and kosher wine has never been the same since. At this point, Israel is approaching (and in many cases exceeding) the quality of California; Israeli Cabernets are known for being particulary strong.

There are about a dozen or so major companies and many more smaller producers. Golan Heights led the way in bringing quality wine to Israel. The Carmel winery is the original one founded by Baron Rothschild and has been operating since 1882. Barkan and Dalton are younger companies with significant market share as well.

Geography and Wine Production

Israel is a very small country, so none of the wine regions are very far from each other, but the terrain is varied enough that each region has its own unique microclimate. The names of these regions are familiar to any reader of the Bible.

Galilee's high elevation makes it suitable for Continental European varietals. The Judean Hills are the mountains near Jerusalem and are also known for wine. The Golan Heights are also a major center of wine production and produce some of the finest wines in Israel.

Areas less familiar to Americans (but no less important) are the Negev and Sharon. The Negev vineyards are irrigated desert land; wine grapes grow well in semi-arid climates. Sharon is near the Mediterranean south of Haifa and constitutes the largest growing region in Israel.

Israeli wine production techniques tend to be very modern and high-tech, owing to the youth of the modern wine industry in Israel and the fact that many of the winemakers were trained at UC Davis. Export is limited due to the small size of Israel itself; there simply isn't that much land. However, the revolution in quality within the last generation allows Jews (and Gentiles!) all over the world to enjoy high-quality kosher wine. Israeli wines are usually made in a very New World or International style, similar to California or Australia.

Virtually all wine coming out of Israel is kosher (as it is easy to provide for Jewish supervision) although many are not mevushal. For an explanation of these terms, read about kosher wine.

Nu? What's good?

There is much in Israeli wines for their winemakers and mavens to kvell over. Because the Israeli wine industry is still exceptionally young, it is difficult to say what wines are especially good and distinctively Israeli. However, they have had great success with Cabernet and other red varietals, producing wines that would easily pass for a good (if young) Californian wine (there is something in the style of the ones I've tasted that seems very Californian to me). Kosher wine isn't just Manischewitz anymore; you'd be proud to serve these wines at your table on Shabbat. And there's no reason non-Jews can't partake either. Try some out and put aside your old preconceptions of kosher wine. L'chaim!

Wine Comments

White Yarden White Riesling 2003 (Galilee Region)
6 October 2006 Prominent and sharp fruit with moderate floral tones, refreshing crispness, long finish.
$14 / bottle
White Barkan, "Classic" Sauvignon Blanc 2007 (Adulam)
27 April 2011 Bright tropical fruit, crisp but with a smooth mouthfeel and finish. Light wood. Bordeaux-style but with more zip.
$15 / bottle
White Barkan, "Classic" Sauvignon Blanc 2006 (Adulam)
24 April 2009 Light tropical fruit with a surprisingly buttery mouthfeel and noticeable wood. Somewhat heavy in texture.
$12 / bottle
White Abarbanel, "Efron's Cave" Sauvignon Blanc 2006 (Dan)
2 October 2009 Plump white grape with a touch of flowers and smooth, slightly buttery mouthfeel. Very unlike sauvignon blanc.
$13 / bottle
White Golan, Chardonnay 2007 (Galilee)
31 July 2009 Bracingly crisp and acidic, with light tropical fruits, apple, and a slight hint of butter. No discernable wood. Heady for a white.
$17 / bottle
White Yarden, Muscat 2003 (Galilee Region)
4 September 2009 Syrupy sweet with orange blossoms and slight fruit pungency on finish.
$14 / 500ml
White Golan, Moscato 2006 (Galilee)
16 February 2008 Sweet and effervescent, bursting with powerful peaches and apricots with faint hints of green fruit in the Moscato d'Asti style. Crisp and refreshing, without stickiness despite its sweetness. Very delightful and actually quite a bit better than most Moscato d'Asti.
$12 / bottle
White Noah, Muscat 2005 (Judean Hills)
18 February 2008 Lively, spicy attack with dense and heady floral and grape essences and loads of honeysuckle and botrytis flavor. High alcohol. Heavy and sweet finish. Tastes more like Sauternes than Moscatel, but slightly lighter.
$16 / 500ml
White Carmel "Private Collection" Chardonnay 2003 (Galil)
27 March 2009 Big, rich, and creamy fruit with surprisingly moderate oak. A slightly bloated finish but still pleasant.
$15 / bottle
White Barkan "Classic" Sauvignon Blanc 2004 (Adulam)
20 February 2008 Plump and heavy, with a slightly buttery mouthfeel and noticable wood. Uncomplicated fruit.
$11 / bottle
Red Golan, "Sion Creek Red" 2009 (Galilee)
22 January 2011 Rich fruit raisins, with a soft impression on the mouth and a medium-full body.
$11 / bottle
Red Barkan, Petit Syrah 2004 (Dan)
1 June 2007 Straight fruit with extremely lively mouthfeel and firm tannin.
$11 / bottle
Red Tzora Vineyards, "Giv'at Hachalukim" Cabernet Sauvignon 2006 (Samson)
11 June 2011 Deep peppers and currant with hints of leather, chocolate, and potpourri. Restrained and well-balanced tannins, Old-World Bordeaux style. Very tasty.
$26 / bottle
Red Barkan, "Classic" Pinot Noir 2009 (Negev)
13 May 2011 Big and juicy dark cherries with potpourri. Smooth and supple tannins. Very tasty!
$17 / bottle
Red Barkan, Merlot 2003 (Galil)
20 March 2008 Plump and juicy fruit, with spicy wood and soft tannins. Very forward flavors but light mouthfeel.
$11 / bottle
Red Carmel "Private Collection" Merlot 2005 (Judean Hills)
18 October 2008 Intense pepper and spicy wood over robust fruit, tea, and tobacco. Spicy, big and bold.
$17 / bottle
Red Carmel Vineyards Selected Merlot 2004 (Dan)
30 May 2008 Juicy and smoky, with generous wood, tobacco, incense, and berries. Medium body, easy drinking, and tasty.
$10 / bottle
Red Noah Winery, "Gedeon" Petit Syrah 2005 (Judean Hills)
28 February 2008 Big juicy fruit with plums, cherries, and berries over moderate wood. Light potpourri secondary flavors. Soft and smooth tannins, very easy drinking, but short finish.
$15 / bottle
Red Barkan, Reserve Merlot 2005 (Galil)
26 March 2010 Strong and bold tannins, with peppers, potpourri, and tobacco over solid dark fruit. Muscular and tasty.
$23 / bottle
Red Psagot, Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 (Judean Hills)
17 July 2009 Dark fruit with very firm tannins. Medium wood with smoky tobacco flavors. Tasty.
$26 / bottle
Red Noah Winery "Tevel" Cabernet Sauvignon 2005 (Judean Hills)
7 June 2008 Juicy but not excessive fruit with berries, moderate vanilla wood, and bell peppers. Tasty.
$16 / bottle
Red Noah Winery "Tevel" Merlot 2005 (Judean Hills)
19 June 2009 Stemmy fruit with light wood and a bloody mouthfeel. Faint sour note on finish.
$18 / bottle
Red Golan Heights Winery "Gamla" Merlot 2003 (Galilee)
7 March 2007 Fruity and spicy, with abundant oak and herbal and floral notes. Soft velvety tannins.
$19 / bottle
Red Abarbanel, "Efron's Cave" Cabernet / Merlot / Shiraz 2003 (Judean Hills)
15 February 2008 Light wood and lively but straight fruit. Soft and smooth tannins with mushrooms on the nose and palate. Bone dry yet soft, and surprisingly fun.
$13 / bottle
Red Dalton Cabernet Sauvignon 2002 (Galilee Region)
8 December 2007 Strong forward and spicy fruit with green peppers. Light wood treatment. Smooth. Strong varietal characteristics in the California style.
$24 / bottle