Much ink has been spilled in attempts to describe the revolution in winemaking in Israel and to sing its praises. Israeli wine exports are expected to hit the $30 million mark this year, up from $22 million in 2009, and in each edition of Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book, an increasing number of Israeli wineries are being cited.
Today Israel is home to hundreds of wineries, ranging from family-run vineyards that produce a few thousand bottles a year to large companies that produce millions of bottles annually. Some have opened recently, while others trace their roots back to the late 1800s. Below are the stories of some of the lesser-known wineries.
Shuki Yashuv’s love for the charm and mystery of wine has guided the making of his sophisticated wines, which have been awarded high ratings around the world for over a decade. “It’s all about sensual intelligence,” he says, eschewing the snobbery of the wine world and declaring that his goal is simply “to make the best possible wine that we and the land can produce together.”
His winery produces four blends – blanca, rose, kessem, and special reserve – from grapes grown in the Judean Mountains. The grapes from each vineyard are fermented separately before being blended.
“The unique characteristics of each plot of land affect the flavor of the grapes and the wine produced from them. It takes generations to understand and know and contain the special taste of each plot,” Yashuv says.
“There’s a symbiotic relationship between a wine grower and the surrounding community.” Yashuv hosts wine tasting sessions overlooking a view of the Judean Hills and his vineyards. (By appointment only.)
Ella Valley Winery
The Ella Valley was known throughout the ancient world not only for the famous battle fought there between David and Goliath but also for the excellent wines it produced. The Ella Valley Winery was founded in 1998 to revive this tradition. The winery’s general manager Danny Valero carefully selected the location for each of its three vineyards, analyzing the soil and climatic conditions, using modern technology. While planting the first of these vineyards, workers discovered a winepress from the Second Temple period, confirming Valero’s faith in the location.
The winery has gained a worldwide reputation for the quality of its wine. Some 40% of the 300,000 bottles of wine it produces annually are exported to the U.S., Canada, France, Italy, Germany, Denmark, and Japan.
Reservations must be made in advance to visit the winery for a tasting session. Tours are also offered to groups of 10 or more. Wine can be purchased on the premises as well as shipped to clients abroad.
Hans Sternbach Winery
The Hans Sternbach Winery at Moshav Giv’at-Yesha’yahu specializes in both producing excellent wine and in agricultural tourism, explains Emmanuel Mador, who operates the winery with his partners Gadi and Shula Sternbach. Gadi leads tours of the winery, its vineyards, and the surrounding area as well as wine-tasting workshops.
In addition, the winery’s restaurant serves Mediterranean cuisine featuring eggs from Moshav Giv’at-Yesha’yahu, vegetables from the Sternbachs’ organic garden, and entrees prepared using its wines. In good weather, meals are served outdoors in a pavilion shaded by grapevines with a dramatic view of the surrounding mountains. The restaurant is open for breakfast and lunch on Fridays and Saturdays and can host groups of 10 or more at other times as well. (Call in advance to arrange a visit.)
The concept of terroir is central to the winery. The wines are named after geographical features – Janaba Reserve is named after the vineyard’s location, in the Hakhlil Valley. “We believe that the quality of the grapes from this area is unique,” Mador says.
Named after the fruit used to produce most of its wine: the pomegranate. In 2002, after hearing about the health benefits of pomegranates, Gabi Nachmias decided to try to make wine from pomegranates in his orchards at Moshav Kerem Ben Zimra, which he began to produce commercially in 2004.
Today his Rimon Winery produces more than one million bottles of dry wines, dessert wines, sparkling wine, and port per year and is recognized for its excellence around the world. The pomegranate flavor is most noticeable in the dessert wine, which is 15% alcohol.
The process of growing pomegranates is similar to that of grapes, but it takes longer for them to ripen, explains Nachmias, whose background is in agriculture. Pomegranates usually are ripe enough to harvest in September or October. The seeds are separated from the skin with a specially designed machine that cuts each fruit into the shape of a star.
The white seeds are made into pomegranate oil, while the red seeds are used to produce wines and juice. The wine is actually considered healthier since it has a greater concentration of anti-oxidants than the juice. They are sold not only in Israel, but also in Japan, Australia, the U.S., and England. The winery also hosts tastings and tours of its facilities and the surrounding area. (Advance reservations required.)
The Rimon Winery also produces two award-winning grape wines under the brand name 72, which is a reference to the 72 kabbalistic names of God. The winery is located in the heartland of Kabbalah – near Safed, Meron, Or Haganuz, and the tomb of Rabbi Bar Yohai.
Galil Mountain Winery
The Golan Heights Winery and Kibbutz Yir’on together established the Galil Mountain Winery in 2000. Located at Kibbutz Yir’on, near the Lebanese border, it produces one million bottles of dry wines (90% red and 10% white) annually, making it Israel’s seventh largest wine producer. About a quarter of its wine is exported to the U.S., Canada, Asia, and Europe.
The winery has six vineyards near the kibbutz in the mountains of the Upper Galilee, each with different topographical and climatic conditions that allow them to grow a large variety of grapes. The winery itself was designed to provide a comprehensive and holistic tourism experience integrating agriculture, tourism, and industry. Its visitors’ center offers tours, workshops, and tastings in English, Hebrew, and Russian (advance reservations recommended).
Yiftah’el Winery, in the village of Allon Hagalil, is not just a winery. It is part of a farm that Tzvika and Hadas Ofir founded in 1985 that includes beehives, vineyards, a visitors’ center, and more. The award-winning winery is relatively small, producing about 10,000 bottles per year from the five types of grapes grown in the farm’s fields.
The farm specializes in making honey from wildflowers, citrus, and clover, producing nine types of honey. The visitors’ center includes a special room for honey tastings.
The visitors’ center itself is an attraction since it is located in a log cabin that was originally built in the 1840s in the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia. Allen Radley, a Jewish farmer who was originally from New York and settled in West Virginia, acquired the cabin, dismantled it, shipped the pieces to Israel, and rebuilt it in the Galilee. The visitors’ center houses a store that sells the farms’ products and a resource center on wine and honey.
Tishbi Estate Winery
Jonathan Tishbi, whose family has been planting and tending vineyards in the Land of Israel since 1882, established the Tishbi Estate Winery, originally known as the Baron Estate Winery, in 1984. The winery’s vineyards are located all over the country, from the Negev and the Judean Hills to the Carmel Mountains, the Upper Galilee, and the Golan Heights. They produce one million bottles of wine a year that are sold in 25 countries. In addition to being kosher, the wines are vegan since neither gelatin nor albumin are used to produce them. Many of the wines, including the sparkling wines and brandy, have won awards.
The estate also produces fruit and wine jams, which are sold at the visitors’ center along with wine and related accessories. The visitors’ center has a dairy restaurant that serves homemade sourdough breads and pizzas as well as cheese from local dairies. The visitors’ center offers tours of the winery and can host events for up to 100 guests. The latest addition to the facility is an exclusive tasting room for wine and chocolate.
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