Wines of Israel: History, Varietals, and Recommendations for Israeli Wine

Wines have been made in the land that is present day Israel for thousands of years, yet, the Israeli wine industry is really just at its beginnings.  Like so much about Israel, the dichotomies between young and old, history and present day, and the political realities of a young country manifest in its wines. 

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There are many references to wine and winemaking found in the Old Testament.  In ancient times, Israel was on the trade routes of Egypt and Mesopotamia and wine was almost certainly one of the commodities traded.  Ruins of ancient wine presses over 2,000 years old can still be visited in Israel.  Israeli wine was prized in ancient Rome often above the locally produced wines.  Of course, Jesus turned water into wine at the Wedding in Cana in the Galilee (does that count?).  With the Islamic conquest of the area in the seventh century, the wine industry ended.  The existing grape vines were ripped out.  Sadly, no one knows today what types of grapes were indigenous to the area or brought there by early traders and what types of wines were made. 

The modern era of Israeli wine making dates to end of the 19th century, when Baron Edmond Rothschild of Chateau Lafite Rothschild in Bordeaux, helped to establish the Carmel Winery near Haifa.  The Baron imported mainly Bordeaux varietals for this venture.  The wines produced were sweet kosher wines.  This sweet style of wine became synonymous with kosher wines.  In the 1960s Carmel released what is believed to be Israel’s first dry commercial wine.  Finally, in the late 1980s smaller, boutique wineries entered the scene.  The growth continued during the 1990s and to this day.  There were 70 wineries in 2000 and that number doubled over the next five years.  Today, there are 35 large scale wineries and approximately 250 boutique wineries.  Israel produces 36 million bottles of wine annually. 

The five largest wineries account for 75% of all wine production.  They are Carmel, Barkan Wine Cellars, Golan Heights, Teperberg 1870, and Binyamina Wine Cellar.  In addition, Galil Mountain, Tishbi, Tabor, Recanati and Dalton make a significant amount of wine as well.  The three largest producers, Carmel, Barkan Wine Cellars and the Golan Heights Winery, dominate production.  Domestically, these three account for 80% of Israel’s growing wine appetite.  Israelis drink about 4.6 liters of wine per person annually.  Israel also exports around $30 million dollars in wine.  The top export market is the United States. 

For more than 25 years, The California Wine Club founders Bruce and Pam Boring have explored all corners of California’s wine country to find award-winning, handcrafted wine to share with the world. Each month, the club features a different small family winery and hand selects two of their best wines for members.

Most of the wine is made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc.  The rise of boutique wineries has seen some successful experimentation with Cabernet Franc, Gewurztraminer, Muscat, Riesling and especially Syrah. 

Israel has a hot Mediterranean climate.  Summer is very hot and runs from April thru October.  There is almost no rain.  The months of October thru March see about twenty inches of rain.  Israel is a small country, about the size of New Jersey, yet there are five different winegrowing regions.  In the north, the Galil, which encompasses the Golan Heights, and upper and lower Galilee areas, The Judean Hills (in the area surrounding Jerusalem), the Shimshon (Samson) (between the Judean Hills and the Mediterranean), the Negev (the desert area in the South), and the Shomron which includes the Sharon Plain just south of Haifa near the Mediterranean.  Most of the plantings are in the Galil, Shomron, Shimshon.  Drip irrigation is essential in all growing areas. 

The Galil is the most classic of all growing areas.  The area extends from the Lebanese border in the north, to the Syrian border in the northeast, and covers most of northern Israel.  It includes areas of the Golan Heights which were captured by Israel in the 1967 war.  Some of the vineyards here reach 4,000 feet in altitude.  The higher elevations experience hot days followed with cooler evenings (snow falls here during the winter).  Due to the heat, harvest is often done at night or very early in the morning.  Approximately 1,600 acres are under vine.  The most famous winery is the Golan Heights winery, which produces wine under the Yarden, Gamla and Golan labels.  The Dalton winery is in the Galil Mountains.  The soils here often are volcanic due to extinct volcanoes.  Much of this area is the northern end of the Great African Rift Valley. 

The Shomron includes the Carmel Mountains and is the largest wine growing region in Israel.  The soils have a limestone base to them.  The summers are hot and the winters can be rainy.  This is the home of some of Israel’s largest wineries including Carmel, Tishbi and Binyamina. 

The Shimshon (Samson) is the central coast plain down to the Judean lowlands.  It is named after the biblical Samson.  The soils are limestone and clay and the climate is more influenced by the Mediterranean: hot, humid summers and pleasant winters.  Carmel Winery is located here as well as Barkan and Segal. 

Exciting things are going on the Judean Hills.  The soil here is thin and rocky.  The days are hot, evenings are cool and rainfall is slight.  Many of the more interesting boutique wineries are found here, less than an hour’s drive from Jerusalem. 

Finally, the Negev is the arid, desert region which makes up much of southern Israel.  Even in the hill area of the north, the vineyards must rely on irrigation.  This is very hot during the day, but due to the altitude, about 600 meters, there is some relief at night.  The soils here are mostly sandy with some loam.  Many of the larger wineries are producing wine here with some interesting success. 

Getting the world to understand and taste Israeli wine is a problem.  Perhaps the leading advocate and critic was Daniel Rogov who sadly passed away in 2011.  Mark Squires, who reviews wines for Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, was recently assigned coverage of the area, so there is some exposure.  Israeli wines are, for the most, part priced fairly for the quality of wine in the bottle.  There are some retailers, however, who take advantage of those restricted to drinking kosher wines and raised those prices.