Israel: The Land of Milk, Honey and … Wine?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because we’re ready for a drink.
Israel, the country rich in biblical history and great sushi (Tel Aviv is the world’s second largest consumer after Tokyo). What you may not expect from Israel is award-winning wine to wash down the gourmet cuisine made famous by Yotam Ottolenghi that’s put the country on the world’s culinary map.
The recent surge in interest is in part thanks to international wine guru Robert Parker, to whom a few maverick Israeli winemakers dared present their wines for assessment in 2007. Four achieved a jaw-dropping 93 points (90 or higher is considered a great score), and in the past seven years, 23 wines from Israel have scored 91 points or better from the world’s sternest critic.
Israeli wines are pricey, thanks to limited production, but a more affordable mass-market wine has also won a top international accolade.
They include top Yarden-branded bottles from the Golan Heights Winery, which revolutionized Israel’s wine industry 30 years ago by introducing premium wines to a country whose drinking culture consisted of sweet sacramental drops for Shabbat dinner and Passover.
But Yarden was outscored by Domaine de Castel, run by a self-taught chicken farmer who believed he could grow wine where skeptics said it couldn’t be done. Eli ben Zaken ignored the naysayers and worked the gnarly, hilly terrain outside Jerusalem. Today his flagship Grand Vin, a typical Bordeaux-style blend, is considered one of Israel’s greatest reds, and other winemakers who persisted in the area, notably Flam, Clos de Gat and Ella Valley, have also won top accolades.
These wines are pricey, thanks to limited production, but one of Israel’s more affordable mass-market wines has also won a top international accolade. Parker’s competitor, the U.S.-based Wine Enthusiast, this year awarded its highest-ever marks for an Israeli wine to the Adama Merlot from Tabor, a young Galilee winery so promising that Coca-Cola bought it out and invested millions to create great vintages at a $20 as well as $50 price point.
Another name worth knowing is Montefiore, a new label from the descendants of the man who first encouraged Jews to plant wine grapes in Israel more than a millennia after the Romans had left — though he didn’t plant any himself. And while Rachel Montefiore concentrates on high-quality table wines that are the first to carry the family label 150 years later, her father, Adam, is wine development director of the Carmel Winery, once known strictly for the sweet sacramental stuff, and its super-premium offshoot, Yatir. Yatir’s Forest is at least the equal of Castel’s Grand Vin, and its Petit Verdot and Cabernet Sauvignon are also winning top marks.
For sushi lovers, however, Le Blanc de Castel, reminiscent of a classic, buttery white Burgundy, or Flam’s outstanding sauvgnon/chardonnay blend would be an ideal accompaniment, ditto the groundbreaking Roussanne from Tabor, a leader in white wine cultivation in a country whose imbibers have long preferred red.
Looking for more than a bottle with dinner in the Jerusalem Hills? Check out the Cramim Resort, Israel’s first wine hotel that features a vinotherapy spa, complete with cab sauv bath or grapeseed scrub between three daily tasting sessions. And if you can’t make the trek to Israel to sample its finest wines, they are available in the United States, Canada, Mexico, most of Europe and even Japan, while in the U.K. several are available on Amazon.