The only Middle Eastern country to produce wines professionally and commercially, the production of wine in Israel goes back to biblical times. My last visit to this country was in 1978 and I was quite keen to see the change. The only other neighbouring wine producers, Lebanon and Jordan, are much smaller and for essentially if not exclusively local consumption.
A Bit Of History
Historically, and we’re talking two thousand years back, the production of wine in Israel was mainly for religious ceremonies and quantity was more important than quality. Until the end of the 19th Century, the industry never really expanded, facing highs and lows (even disappearance) due to the various military occupations.
It was only at the end of the 19th century that the industry really kicked-off on a continued and stable basis. The man behind this rebirth was Edmond de Rothschild who created the Carmel Winery, Israel’s largest wine producer with over 1 million cases, exporting to 40 countries and representing almost 50% of the country’s wines.
All wineries in Israel produce Kosher wines, except for two small wineries running by Christians. Photo by Jean-Marie Simart.
However, the wines produced in the following 100 years were mainly sweet and of low-to-mediocre quality.
In the 1980’s, the wine industry expanded with plantation of new varieties, creation of new wineries (Barkan wine cellars and Golan Heights being the biggest after Carmel) and improvement of vinification, for example.
Today, there are 300 wineries ranging from boutiques to the very large and a total production of around 36 million bottles a year. A comparision with Australia is interesting to make, a country 333 times bigger and a population three times larger, Oz produces less than 40 times more bottles.
Israel and Wine Production Today
All wineries in Israel produce Kosher wines, with the exception of two small wineries run by Christians. Kosher wines are often associated with poor quality because the traditional method is to “boil” the wine at around 94°c (mevushal wines) which, of course, greatly affects the flavour, tannins and the aging potential.
To be considered kosher, Sabbath-observant Jews must manage and guide the entire winemaking process, from the time the grapes are crushed until the wine is bottled. Once bottled, the wine remains kosher and can be drunk by anybody.
The grape production is divided between five regions, with the largest – the Sharon plain - along the Mediterranean Sean. Supported by all our wine tastings, the best (and most expensive) wines come from Galilee and the Golan Heights in particular.
The wine remains kosher when the entire winemaking process have been fully managed and guided by Sabbath-observant Jews. Photo by Jean-Marie Simart.
We especially recall a visit to a small winery in West Galilee, producing around 60,000 bottles through 11 varieties. Kishor, situated 20 km from the Lebanon border, only began producing their first wines in 2010 yet the quality of their products is remarkable.
We tasted a dozen wines with the following highlights: Sauvignon Blanc (very Bordeaux like), Viognier 2018 (typical: peach, apricot, grass) and the 2017 which, for unknown reasons, developed a “jamais vu” taste of rotten leaves, ripe game, chicken poo.
Among the reds: A 2016 Cab Sav/Merlot/Cab Franc with a long palate, smooth, elegant tannins and a 2016 50-50 Cab Sav/Shiraz was very interesting. This 50-50 mix is quite popular in Israel with the Barkan winery being one of the best.
Israel, a Middle Eastern country on the Mediterranean Sea. The majority of Carmel’s most recent vineyards were planted in the Upper Galilee region, the source of most of the finest wines produced by the Carmel Winery. The industry really kicked-off at the end of 19th century.
Wines to try graphic
The Yarden labels: Wines coming from the best grapes from the Golan Heights winery including Chardonnay, Rom - Cab Sav/Shiraz/Merlot – and the Sauvignon Blanc with incredible fruits flavour far from its traditional New Zealand counterpart.
The Barkan labels: Special Reserve Chardonnay and its typical Israeli Cabernet/Shiraz mix.
Blanc du Castel: Pure Chardonnay from the Jerusalem area – a superb Meursault type.
Planning to Visit Israel? Consider these tips:
The best wine producers we tasted: Yarden, Lueria, Barkan, Blanc du Castel, Chateau Golan, Golan labels, Gamia.
Most of these wines are available in the US ranging in price from USD20-200+. In Australia and Singapore, it is more difficult to find them, however they are stocked at some boutique online wine stores and Dan Murphy’s.
In Tel Aviv, go to the Black Out restaurant for a dinner – possible the most challenging meal you can have, served in total blackness by blind people.
In Jerusalem, book a table at the Joy restaurant with great accompanying advice on the wine and don’t miss the breakfast at the King David Hotel.