By Elizabeth Kratz
In Parshat Shelach, we learn of the sins of 10 of the 12 meraglim,spies, sent to scope out Eretz Yisrael after they had left Egypt. Ten came back with damaging lashon hara, spouting terrifying reports of a cruel land filled with giant, undefeatable enemies. Only Calev and Yehoshua, the last two spies, brought back a vastly different report, saying that not only was the land good, but it was “very, very good.” (Bamidbar, 14:7)
During my visit to Israel this past winter, Ya’acov Ben-Dor, general manager of Yatir Winery in the Negev, explained that Israeli winemakers are not in competition with one another, but rather they stand together with a shared purpose. “Every time you drink wine or eat good fruit from Eretz Yisrael and you enjoy it, [when] you say, ‘Wow,’ your act atones for the sins of the meraglim, because they said lashon hara about Eretz Yisrael.
“And when you say the land is good, and the fruit is good, we reverse the sins of the meraglim; we are part of the evolution of those who came back home, and became am ha’aretz (people of the land) again. ‘Tova ha’aretz me’od me’od.' The land is not just good, it’s very, very good.’
In that sense, during my first trip to Israel in many years, this message helped ground me as I scouted out the goodness of the land. Traversing a good portion of the country, I visited 15 wineries in virtually all of Israel’s wine regions. While I didn’t hit every one of the 15 regions as listed on the Israel Professional Enology Viticulture Organization (IPEVO)’s 2020 map, I got pretty close.
But one of my favorite wine memories of the trip was not at a winery at all, but at the tasting room adjacent to the Montefiore Windmill in Jerusalem’s Yemin Moshe neighborhood. Carmit Ehrenreich, who is VP and export director for Jerusalem Vineyard Winery, took me through a tasting of the “Windmill Project” wines and Jerusalem Winery’s premium selections, my favorite of which was the Jerusalem Vineyard Winery Premium MRS 2018, a 100% marselan, redolent with a nose of fresh strawberries.
Ehrenreich, formerly of Yarden Winery, also works in a public relations capacity for several other small wineries, including one of our “wineries of the year,” Yaffo Winery. We spoke of the collaborative nature and shared expertise of Israel’s wine community. It’s interesting to note that virtually all of today’s most wellknown winemakers have worked at some point in their past at Yarden or Carmel; and that the message of the meraglim, Carmel Winery’s memorable logo image, continues to bring the world good wines from Israel, and therefore a good name.
Another memorable moment of my trip was visiting Pierre Miodownick in his winery in Mitzpe Netofa in the Lower Galilee, where he brought me back to the basics as he quipped, “A good bottle of wine is an empty bottle of wine.” Miodownick, certainly the godfather of kosher French wine who made wine for Royal Wines in France from the late 1980s until 2015, considers himself one of the original Israeli “Rhône Rangers,” who seeks to use the inspiration of the wines of France’s Rhône Valley in Israel’s warmer terroir.
The terroir not just in the Lower Galilee but in the Negev and elsewhere, certainly sets Israel apart in terms of experimentation. One thing that I learned at Yatir was that though they primarily make blends, they are passionate about pushing the limits of warm climate winemaking and have been experimenting with one single varietal wine since 2008: petit verdot. “We think we cracked the code of this wine as a single variety,” said Eran Goldwasser, Yatir’s winemaker. “We have four different plots of petit verdot and use a combination of them all.”
As petit verdot is often used as a component of the Bordeaux blend, it has only been in the last decade
where we have seen it come to market from Israel as a single varietal, but now there’s a fair few. “It was not an easy thing to explain to the rest of the world, that it’s OK to enjoy a single varietal petit verdot, and that we make it,” said Etti Edri, Yatir and Carmel’s export director. “The different terroir and the topography here are different; what’s taboo in Europe is not the same in a warm country.”
“But this is not the terroir of Bordeaux, so [it follows that] we will not succeed with planting Bordeaux blends here,” said Jacob Ner-David of the Lower Galilee’s Jezreel Valley Winery, noting that the original vineyards planted by Baron Edmond de Rothschild in the 1870s and 1880s are still relevant today. “Having said that, as you know, many wineries have managed to succeed in spite of the fact that Israel does not have classic Bordeaux terroir. But generally, his advice was to plant varieties that love the sun. Carignan was the one that Rothschild knew the best, so the
carignan that we are drinking today are the grandchildren of what was planted back then.”
Gvaot's tasting room at Givat Harel.
At Jezreel I also had the opportunity to enjoy a few magnificent tastes of various wines only available at the winery, paired with a next-level cheese plate (and truffle butter!) created by Jezreel’s on-site chef. An exceedingly distinctive wine that Ner-David sent me home with was made in a solera style, a barrel-aged riesling that had, quite literally, been left to age in the sun for eight years. This white port-style wine was immensely complex and viscous, with a beautiful nose of dried fruits and nuts that followed through to a lingering and clean finish. My Shabbat hosts were mesmerized and had never tasted anything like it.
In addition to using techniques and climate to the advantage of winemaking, there are also those interested in adding “native varieties” to their portfolios, going much further back than the 1880s and Rothschild’s carignan. Two winemakers in Israel—Dr. Shivi Drori of Gvaot and Guy Eshel of Dalton—are experimenting with newly discovered varieties based on plant laboratory research. Drori, whose winery in Givat Harel is near ancient Shiloh, has made a Beaujolais-style wine with the Bittuni grape; and Eshel in northern Israel has made a similar wine using Zuriman, using clay amphora rather than barrels or neutral vessels to store and age the wine. Both varieties were developed by Drori in his lab at Ariel University, essentially working to find native grapes that had been lost to history on disputed lands. (When Israeli lands were taken over by Arabs, invariably they would pull up all the vineyards and plant olive groves.)
Eshel, a native Israeli who spent a good portion of his childhood in the U.S., studied viticulture at
UC Davis. He worked with Ernie Weir of California’s kosher Hagafen Winery before coming back to Israel to do his military service and settle. In addition to serving as the primary winemaker at Dalton’s powerhouse winery, which now makes 1 million bottles a year, Eshel makes approximately 10,000 bottles through Dalton’s Asufa label; these are experimental, playful Galil blends that have a lot of native character and elegant fruit notes, influenced as well by his experience in California. Dalton is the northernmost winery I visited, in an industrial complex that also houses Adir Kerem ben Zimra and Lueria. Dalton also has recently acquired property nearby and has begun building a distillery, and sent one of its new products— an aromatic vermouth that exploded with juniper and blossom scents—for us to try.
Gvaot’s Drori said he was inspired by one of his professors, Oded Shoseyov, who introduced him to the idea that he could both study plant science on an academic level and also use its practical applications in a winery. “The winery started in 2000, began producing wines in 2005, and it was good wine; better than we expected,” he said. “My first vineyard that we started with was a cabernet sauvignon vineyard next to my house, and this is one of our best vineyards today. It’s not irrigated at all. Its base is a very spongy limestone, so the wines are really mineralic, really interesting. I succeeded in growing it without any water or irrigation for the last 10 years, which gives its roots a lot of depth.” Drori added that while he has spent his career in academics, most of his real learning has been in the winery, where he mentors many young winemakers coming out of his university’s viticulture programs.
South African vintner Richard Davis, of Kishor Winery, uses the influence of history and local research as well in his winemaking. He has been making wines in a beautiful village designed for adults with special needs on the border of the Upper and Western Galilee for the past 15 years. He explained that he started off making Bordeaux varieties, and then expanded to Rhône-style, noting that all the research he has followed is based on the wines made from Christian monasteries in the region, which have been making wine here continuously since the Byzantine era. Drori had also noted that his first wine consultant was of a monastic background, because only workers from this population have an unbroken chain of vineyard experience in this region before the beginning of the 20th century.
“Israeli wines have come up a hell of a lot; I don’t think anyone can say they are inferior to anywhere in the world,” said Davis. While not as many of Kishor’s wines are exported to the U.S., the winery is selling out their wines, so more can be expected. “We plan to increase our production to meet demand, to produce upwards of 130,000 to 150,000 bottles of wine,” he said. Particularly memorable for me was tasting Davis’s snappy and aromatic viognier, as well as an elegant Bordeaux-style blend.
An aerial view Psagot Winery's courtyard tasting room, where weddings are held.
One of the things I noted during my visit to Israel was the openness of the winemakers I spoke with, and their interest in learning from everyone around them. “There’s a natural tendency when you think of Israelis; you think we will always say, ‘We know, we know, we know,’” said Psagot Winery’s Sam Soroka, a native Canadian (who also worked at Carmel!) whose experience in the Israeli wine industry spans 22 years. “But when you dig a little deeper, you will realize we are all still exploring. This is something to be proud of; there’s something about Israelis that is so ambitious. They will taste a great wine and say ‘Oh! We can do that,’ and that’s why there are so many small wineries cropping up so quickly.”
Psagot, which has a stunning new mountaintop tasting room (and enough room to dance at two weddings if they’re scheduled the same night!) overlooking vineyards in Sha'ar Binyamin, has spent this decade growing. It plans to produce over 700,000 bottles of wine in the coming year. Its wines are wellmade and polished, showing ontarget varietal aroma in its whites and rosés, and richness and elegant structure in each sip of red. Soroka’s experience as a winemaker in two hemispheres—with a diploma from Australia, vineyard experience in the Languedoc region of France, Western Australia, Napa and even in Canada, making ice wine north of the Finger Lakes—feeds his fascination with Israel's search for identity. “In some ways, Israel is still searching for its terroir,” he said.
In terms of growth, though, not all the winemakers I spoke with have the same instinct as Psagot to always be growing. “As demand increases, we have to be concerned with our quality staying the same. We are not trying to be bigger,” said Gilad Flam, of the Flam Winery in the Judean Hills, which produces 180,000 bottles annually. “We had this auspicious plan at the beginning, to make high-quality wines that reflect an understanding of the unique terroir we have here,” he said, referring to the winery’s highly individualized plots: in Givat Yeshayahu for chardonnay, the dry creeks of Ella Valley, and the Evan Sapir Vineyard at a higher 700-meter elevation, where the effects of the night last longer into the day and are very good for growing grapes.
Flam explained that his father, Israel Flam, graduated from UC Davis in 1968 and was chief winemaker at Carmel for many years. When his sons Gilad and Golan went to Europe to study wine, they decided they wanted to move beyond commercial winemaking. “When we went to Europe, specifically Tuscany, we learned that wine is not just something to make; it’s a story of a people and a bigger idea to tell the story of your soil.” Initially, Flam added, it was not Israel who was the first investor in his sons’ big idea, but their mother, Camellia. “In 2019, after 20 years of the winery, we gave a 70th birthday gift to our mother, the 2019 Flam Camellia,” a smooth, fruity and exceedingly memorable chardonnay.
There are a few Israeli winemakers who stand virtually alone in their cellars, without consultants or experts, but with just an idea to go on and a passion to make it happen. An upstart winemaker I met, Eli Shiran, has been making buoyant and balanced kosher wines in an Arab-dominated warehouse district in Kiryat Arbeh since 2012. They have been imported to the U.S. by KosherWine.com since 2018. His poetic, ironic sensibility comes through when sharing his wines, noting that he got into wine as a post-retirement project and his main goal is to “not ruin God’s creation.”
The winemaker continued: “Basically I am using the best grapes I can get ahold of and to try to not interfere with them too much. The best part is getting to choose the blend, which comes down to my personal taste. I am happy if other people like what I like.” Shiran makes wines named after musical themes, with a nod to his roots as the son of a chazan. Considering that last year he produced only 10,000 bottles, it’s quite an impressive feat for Shiran to have had at least four of his wines rank in different top 25 lists in the Jewish Link Wine Guide, granting him status as a “winery of the year."
Itay Lahat, a winemaker who just celebrated his 10th year making wines under his eponymous label, met with me in the Upper Western Galilee, in Kishor. Lahat’s wines are aromatically complex and on the low-alcohol side. They are earthy but also fresh and refreshing. He is expert at blending, and conveyed his intensely polished approach to using just the right percentages of each variety to create a well-rounded, exceedingly balanced mouthfeel. In Kishor Village he explained that there is just one location where one gets the benefit of both the sea breeze of the Mediterranean along with the view of the freshwater of the Sea of Galilee. He explained that the wines he makes are reflective of the terroir, that magical mixture of climate and topography, that characterizes the region.
Lahat, a veteran viticulturist trained in Australia, lectures on Israeli wines around the world, and is also in great demand in Israel as a consultant. His experience, specifically with Rhône varietals, is evident wherever he consults, resulting in wines replete with minerality and elegance. For example, tasting Lahat’s roussanne from an amphora helped me understand what he seeks to do when blending it with other varieties. There was an aromatic and acidic aspect of the roussanne that would round out a blend that also includes whites like viognier and sauvignon blanc.
It would also be difficult to write an article about experimentation and excellence in Israeli wines without mentioning the name Yaacov Oryah. Unfortunately, I was not able to meet with him while on this trip in Israel. But he sent his regrets along with wines for the Wine Guide, asking that they sit for one month to recover from bottle shock. While this meant we could not open most of them in time for the tastings, I made a special effort to taste them, as they are now being imported by KosherWine.com, and I know their availability is of special interest to our readers.
While we tasted few of the wines for which Oryah is famous—his so-called “orange wines”—we found Ya’acov’s Playground Chardonnay, made with a single vineyard of chardonnay grapes made in 13 different winemaking styles, as well as the Silent Hunter (a semillon made in the Australian Hunter Valley style), to be particularly lush, beautiful and complex, as are his reds. His Black Pinecone (pinot noir) and A Place by the Sea (merlot) both made it to our top 10 lists in single varietals. We are looking forward to seeing and tasting more from Oryah in the coming years.
Finally, one great standout memory of my trip this past year was visiting two very different winemakers—Eli Ben-Zaken and Dani Friedenberg— in the same morning. That day I was with my publisher, Moshe Kinderlehrer, and we met with Ben-Zaken, an elder statesman of Israeli wine who has built an empire in Razi’el and a famous name for French-style wines from Israel; and Friedenberg, of one of the largest wineries in Israel, Teperberg.
Seeing high-quality wines made to exacting standards in two extremely different locations within a half hour of one another in the Judean Hills region was yet another poetic example of the type of country Israel has become. We sat in Domaine du Castel, a boutique winery built virtually brick-by-brick by one man, Ben-Zaken, who spoke to us in an elegant tasting room, and later visited Teperberg, a huge commercial factory complex sufficient to house Israel’s fourthlargest winery.
The legendary, elegant, restrained Bordeaux blends that Ben-Zaken makes need no introduction to our readers; his state-of-the art winery in Yad Hashmona and his newer winery Razi'el, in Ramat Razi’el where he lives, will soon likely become as well known, with Rhône-style blends. That following Shabbat, tasting a fruity, smooth Barbera from Friedenberg’s “by Teperberg” project, alongside a Teperberg Inspire blend of malbec and marselan, showed the variety of fine wines Israel offers, from the handmade to the commercially produced. From a $25 Teperberg Inspire to an essentially “priceless” wine that Friedenberg hasn’t yet begun exporting, tasting the wines of Israel is an experience that is truly tova ha’aretz me’od me’od. But did they measure up to Pierre Miodownick’s definition of a good bottle?
Yes, they were both empty.