Wine was made in ancient Israel long before the early French even knew what wine was. By the time the Romans burned Jerusalem to the ground in 70 C.E., the Jews were known to produce some of the finest wines in the Mediterranean. Alas, an exile of nearly 2,000 years put a serious damper on Jewish winemaking, despite the importance of wine in Jewish culture and religious practice.
But the tide has turned. Israel is again a Jewish state and its modern-day winemakers are paving the way to a new era that honors its storied wine heritage. The pundits have noticed, too. Last year, Wine Spectator honored Israel with a cover feature in its October 15 issue. And just last month, Food & Wine magazine published a 6-page spread on the Israeli food and wine scene. Vanity Fair also recently ran a piece on Israeli dining and drinking.
So what’s going on? Has Israeli wine finally gone mainstream?
I wouldn’t say quite yet. But after having produced wine in Israel for the last four vintages, I can truly say that the Israeli wine community’s resourceful, pioneering spirit reminds me of Napa Valley 30 years ago. And judging from the many new wineries appearing on the scene—there are now some 350 or more—this newly invigorated wine producing region is fast cementing its place in the world of fine wine.
In 2011, I visited Israel with my Covenant Winery partner Leslie Rudd. We were struck by how much the wine topography reminded us of northern California. In the Galilee and the Judean Hills, volcanic, red soils were flecked with white limestone. (It also looked a bit like France’s Rhone Valley.) And up in the Golan Heights, darker basalt soils reminded us of the rocky, valley floor vineyards in Napa Valley, California, where we had lived for much of the last 20 years.
As in California, Israel’s growing season is fairly hot, sunny and dry. Sure, there are plenty of varied micro-climates, but by and large, making wine in Israel is reminiscent of making wine in northern California. Grapes tend to get very ripe, and as a result, the wines tend to be a plusher and rounder than those found in Europe.
Lately, I’ve tasted some extraordinarily good wine from Israeli wineries producing a diverse number of varietals and styles to suit many palates. There’s terrific Chenin Blanc, Chardonnay, Roussanne, Viognier and Sauvignon Blanc among whites; and fantastic Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignane and Cabernet Franc among reds. There are even a few varietals unique to Israel as well.
I don’t know why, but it seems that Rhone varietals like Syrah are especially well suited to Israeli terroir. In the right conditions, Cabernet can also thrive. At Covenant Israel, our best wines—for now—seem to be our Syrahs. The Cabernets we are making are also quite good, but they come in a little less ripe. Inspired by France’s Rhone Valley, we made some Viognier this past vintage. It is extremely expressive, with an exotic, spicy fragrance that I find thoroughly intriguing.
Making wine in Israel is, for me, a bit like starting over again—but in a good way. There’s a lot to learn about the people and the place. But it’s all inspiring. And don’t get me wrong: California, where I still make three times as much wine as I do in Israel, continues to be equally challenging and rewarding. Making wine on two continents is a very exciting endeavor.
In the short time I’ve been making wine in Israel, I’ve seen terrific progress across the board in wine quality there. In addition to the established winemakers who have built a foundation in Israel, there is now a whole new generation of young winemakers—many of whom have worked in Europe and California. They are bringing fresh, new energy to the scene, and it shows in the wines.
In summary, there are many great wine regions in the world. But there’s not one with a history like Israel’s. When the Jewish people get behind an idea, they can move mountains. They did it to (re)establish the state of Israel, and now I believe they are poised to bring back the ancient glory days of wine to the Middle East.
It’s a great time to be part of the Israeli wine renaissance, and I’m grateful for the opportunity.
If anyone reading this has the good fortune to visit Israel, not only are winery visits encouraged, but so are restaurant excursions. Move over New York, Paris, San Francisco and London. The Israeli dining scene is dynamic—a culinary crossroads that serves up a wondrous multicultural cuisine. You will eat well, drink well and be merry! It’s well worth the trip.
Vintner Jeff Morgan is the co-owner of Covenant Winery, in California and Israel. He’s also the author of nine books on food and wine and a former wine journalist.