Two ancient winemaking countries are now attempting to gain recognition for their wines beyond their borders--on the world marketplace. It's quite ironic, actually, because both of these Mediterranean countries have a winemaking history that goes back--in what is now Israel--5,000 years, and in Greece, perhaps 4,000 years. (Many wine historians believe that wine was first made in the Mideast, although both Armenia and the Georgian region of Russia also claim this honor.)
Both Greece and Israel had their winemaking interrupted by foreign influences. First, the Roman Empire, and then in 1453 the Ottoman Turks effectively stifled Greek wine production. And the spread of Islam, beginning in 636 AD, wiped out winegrowing in the Holy Land. The Moslem conquest was so devastating in the eastern Mediterranean that all native grape varieties that existed then have become extinct in modern-day Israel. The big difference today In Greek and Israeli wines is that most Greek wines are made from indigenous varieties (over 300 varieties have been recognized), whereas Israel uses only international varieties, primarily French.
Baron Edmond de Rothschild (of Château Lafite-Rothschild) imported grape varieties and planted the first modern vineyards in Israel in the 1880s--hence the French connection. The first two wineries he founded later merged, and in 1957 became part of the Carmel cooperative (still the largest winery in the country); this marked the beginning of modern Israeli winemaking.
There's a common misperception that Israel is too hot, too much of a desert, to make fine wine. True, Israel is dry, with rain falling only in the fall and winter. But with the use of well-controlled irrigation and the discovery of good vineyard sites in the higher altitude northern regions--such as Golan Heights and Upper Galilee--Israel is now making fine wines, especially red wines. It was, in fact, a visiting Viticulture professor from the University of California at Davis who in 1972 first suggested Golan Heights as ideal for wine grape growing, based on its soil and climate. Four years later, the first vines were planted in the Golan, and in 1983, Golan Heights Winery sold its first wines. Its best line of wines is now known as Yarden. In the early 1990s, new wineries sprung up in the Upper Galilee, to the west of Golan Heights. And almost all of these new wineries have hired internationally trained, experienced winemakers.
Today, Carmel and Golan Heights Winery are the biggest exporters of Israeli wine. Other new wineries to watch in Israel include Dalton, Galil Mountain (majority owned by Golan Heights Winery), Recanati, Tishbi, and Domaine du Castel. Bear in mind, however, that Israel, about the same size as New Jersey, and with only part of its land able to support vines, will never be a huge winemaking region.
Israel's leading wines are the usual suspects: Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are the popular reds; Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc the important whites. Syrah is also starting to become popular--as it is in so many other wine regions. Based on my recent tasting trip to Israel, I believe that Israel's most successful varietal wine is its Cabernet Sauvignon, and by a wide margin.
Four major types of soil are present in Israel: sandy; red (terra rosa) near the coast; chalky limestone in the stony hills; and volcanic soil in the northern Golan Heights.
Israeli wines are now beginning to appear on wine lists in fine restaurants. For example, Capsouto Frères, a French bistro in the west Tribeca section of New York City, carries numerous Israeli wines on its list, including Dalton Sauvignon Blanc, Yarden 2000 Merlot, Galil Mountain 2003 Cabernet Sauvignon, and 2000 Yarden Blanc de Blancs sparkling wine. All of these wines are available by the glass. I asked Jacques Capsouto, the oldest of the three brothers who own the restaurant, how his customers react to Israeli wines on his list. Jacques' retort was that 'At first they are surprised; they don't expect to find quality wines from Israel. But most of them are converted after they try them.'
My wine reviews focus primarily on three wineries I visited: Golan Heights, Galil Mountain, and Dalton Winery, plus a review of the new (2000) Recanati Winery, based on my own private tasting back in the U.S. Missing from my reviews are the wines of some of the larger producers, such as Carmel, Barkan, Binyamina, Efrat, Segal, and Tishbi, and two of Israel's critically acclaimed smaller wineries, Domaine du Castel and Tabor. All of these producers' wines are now available in the U.S.
Although most of Israel's best wines, in my opinion, are red, I did taste a few interesting whites and one very good sparkling wine, as you'll see below:
Yarden, Golan Heights (Israel) Blanc de Blancs 2000 ($20, Yarden Wines Selection): Golan Heights Winery produces two sparkling wines under the Yarden label, a non-vintage Brut and a Vintage Blanc de Blancs; the latter is the better of the two. In fact, it improves with some aging. The 2000 Blanc de Blancs, available in the U.S. now, is more complex than a couple of the younger vintages I had at the winery. Made from 100% Chardonnay from vineyards in the northern Golan Heights, the 2000 Blanc de Blancs has crisp acidity, with very good depth and length on the palate, and flavors of ripe melon and fig. It's slightly fruitier than Champagne, but closer to France than California in style. A very good value. 90
Dalton, Upper Galilee (Israel) Chardonnay Reserve 2006 ($18, Allied Importers): Dalton has been cutting down on its oak aging for its Chardonnays; the 2006 has been aged in oak for only four months, half the time of the previous vintage, and the wine has not gone through malolactic fermentation, in order to maintain its freshness, crisp acidity, and aging potential. The '06 Chardonnay Reserve is firm, with good depth and concentration. It could benefit from another year of aging. 89
Yarden, Golan Heights (Israel) Gewurtztraminer 2006 ($12, Yarden Wines Selection): This is the surprise white wine for me in Yarden's lineup. The 2006 has the classic Gewurtz aroma of roses, plus it's dry, racy, and delicate, with good acidity. A very refreshing wine. Among others, Angelo Gaja is a fan of Yarden's Gewurtztraminer, importing a couple of thousand cases each year for distribution in Italy. Great value. 90
Dalton, Upper Galilee (Israel) Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2004 ($30, Allied Importers): Dalton's 2004 Cab Reserve has concentrated aromas and flavors of spicy red fruits, is dry, with soft tannins, and is medium- to full-bodied. This is a lovely, polished Cabernet, in the California style. 90
Galil Mountain, Upper Galilee (Israel) 'Yiron' 2004 ($24, Yarden Wines Selection): Galil Mountain's Yiron, a blend of about 2/3 Cabernet Sauvignon, 30% Merlot, and 3% Syrah in the 2004, is its top-of-the line red wine. The 2004 Yiron is dry and lean, with some gamy and lead pencil aromas, and lots of oak character. It's fresher and has more purity of fruit expression than the 2003 Yiron (which is currently available retail in the U.S., but will soon be replaced by the 2004). The 2004 Yiron has good aging potential. 91
Galil Mountain, Upper Galilee (Israel) Pinot Noir 2005 ($20, Yarden Wines Selection): As you might expect, Pinot Noir has been a much more challenging variety than Cabernet Sauvignon and the other Bordeaux varieties for Israeli wine producers, but Galil Mountain, with its 2005, seems to be going in the right direction. It's fresh, with aromas and flavors of red fruits, along with some vanilla from the oak aging. The 2005 Pinot is Galil Mountain's best effort so far. 89
Recanati, Upper Galilee (Israel) Barbera 2004 ($15, Palm Bay Imports): Recanati has produced Israel's first Barbera and it's quite a good attempt with this native Italian variety. It has lots of fresh, clean, concentrated black fruit flavors with decent acidity. But it's a bit ripe and soft for a Barbera, with alcohol (14%) on the high side. 88
Yarden, Golan Heights (Israel) Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($28, Yarden Wines Selection): Yarden's 2003 Cabernet has fresh, really good concentration of red fruit flavors, considerable tannins, and is well-balanced, with a lengthy finish on the palate. This is a polished, well-made wine that will age well. 90
Yarden, Golan Heights (Israel) El Rom Vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon 2003 ($36, Yarden Wines Selection): This single-vineyard Cabernet Sauvignon, along with the even-better 2001 El Rom, is the most impressive Israeli wine that I've tasted. The El Rom vineyard is in a particularly cool, high-altitude location; unfortunately, the vineyard is limited in size and there never will be more than a few hundred cases of the wine. The 2003 El Rom has real depth, good acidity, and excellent concentration of small black fruits. It's a solid, chewy wine that will age nicely for 10+ years. 93
Yarden, Golan Heights (Israel) Merlot 2000 ($22, Yarden Wines Selection): Merlot, generally a more difficult variety to grow successfully than Cabernet Sauvignon, often yields leaner, greener wines than Cab in Israel. Also, Merlots here seem to require a few years to develop; and for this reason, the best Merlot I tasted in Israel was a 2000 from Yarden, which fortunately is still available retail in the U.S. It has a velvety texture, dusty tannins, and concentrated, plummy fruit flavors. An impressive Merlot that is drinking well now. 90