Israel: Small Industry, Big Ambitions

Friday, 24 March, 2017
Cathy van Zyl MW
‘Sommelier’, an annual trade-orientated wine show showcasing Israel’s wineries and wines to new and existing customers, is held in Tel Aviv. This year, the Israel Export & International Cooperation Institute invited Cathy van Zyl MW to attend the two-day event and visit several of the country’s wineries.

She summarises the basics of the industry for and lists just a few of the wines that stood head and shoulders above the rest.

The biggest six producers in Israel, in an industry that comprises roughly 250 wineries (some tiny garagistes) crush approximately 75% of the harvest, which is grown on just 5 500 hectares of vineyards.

To put this in perspective, South Africa’s area under vine is a little more than 98 000 hectares and, of its 566 wineries, 244 wineries crush less than 100 tons.

The Western Cape is roughly the size of Greece whereas Israel would comfortably fit into Wales. Like many long, thin countries it has a surprising number of microclimates, which are reflected in its wine regions.

These – Shomron, Samson, the Negev, Galilee, and the Judean Hills – were decided in the 1960s, long before the wine industry took its current shape, and there are ongoing talks to change and update these as the industry evolves.

The coastal regions of Shomron and Samson are where the bulk of vineyards were originally established. Together with the Negev, they are regarded by some as ‘old school’ and the wines from these regions as ‘old fashioned’ or ‘in the old style’. There are, of course, exceptions and exciting developments in each.

Newer vineyards, which many believe are proving to be Israel’s best for quality wine, are found in the cooler areas of the Upper Galilee and its sub-region Golan Heights, Judean Foothills (technically part of Samson) and the Judean Hills.

Shomron, first planted by Baron Edmond de Rothschild in the 1880s, is the most traditional. Soils vary from calcareous clay, terra rossa, limestone and chalk, and the climate is Mediterranean. The region is home to the well-known Mount Carmel, Ramat Manashe, Shomron Hills, Zichron Ya’acov Wine Cellars, Binyamina, Tishbi and Amphorae wineries.

Many of the large volume vineyards – such as Rishon Le Zion Wine Cellars, Barkan Winery, Bravdo and the Latroun Monastery – come from Samson, which is not a geographical place in the truest sense, but takes its name from the Biblical figure said to have lived there. It comprises the central coastal Judean Plain and Judean Lowlands, south east of Tel Aviv, where alluvial soils mix with sandy, clay loams.

The hot and dry Negev is the desert region that makes up half the country. Yatir Winery and Midbar Winery have vineyards in the loess soils in the northeast while Kadesh Barnea and Carmei Avdat have theirs in the sandy loam of the Negev Highlands.

The soils in the Upper Galilee are heavy, but well drained. Home to Galil Mountain, Dalton, Adir, and Carmel’s Kayoumi Winery, they tend to be a mixture of volcanic, gravel and terra rossa soils. While the Golan Heights is a sub-region of the Galil, its soils and microclimate are distinctive. A volcanic plateau, its soils vary between basaltic clay, and volcanic tuff and basalt. Frontrunners are Chateau Golan, Golan Heights Winery, Pelter, Bazelet Hagolan and Odem Mountain.

Clos de Gat, Ella Valley, Flam, Mony, Teperberg and Tzora can all be found in the Judean Foothills, the fastest growing region in terms of newly planted vineyards and new start-up wineries. Its soils are characterised by limestone soils and clay loams while those in the Judean Hills, a quality but relatively undeveloped region, are thin, limestone and stony. Located here are Psagot, Domaine du Castel, Gush Etzion, Ramat Hebron and Sea Horse wineries.

Like South Africa (and the rest of the world outside of Europe, to be fair), French varieties dominate the vineyards, and not just those from Bordeaux and the Rhône. There’s also a fair amount of marselan for example, a red cross between cabernet sauvignon and grenache created in 1961 by Paul Truel near the French town of Marseillan, and an increasing interest in ancient indigenous varieties.

Leading the charge in this respect is Cremisan Estate in the Cremisan Valley between the West Bank and Jerusalem which has identified 21 ancient varieties – including table grapes – to date, and since 2008 has been vinifying four of these, and Recanati, which has planted a biodynamic vineyard with what it calls ‘rescued’ vines and which also makes a very decent marawi.

Challenges facing the industry include leaf roll virus, legislation and regulation, and a mature and very important consumer market that is reluctant to change.

Many of Israel’s vineyards are infected with leaf roll virus which, as we South Africans are all too aware, interferes with the grape’s ripening cycle. Golan Heights Winery has invested considerably in technologies and consultants, including a South African, to combat the virus in its vineyards but this appears to be an issue most others have put on the backburner.

Legislation and regulations hampering the industry include the outdated official classification of the state’s wine growing regions, the fact that wineries cannot own land (essentially they must buy fruit from existing vineyards or lease uncultivated land from municipalities and towns, and establish the vineyard but with no guarantee that their lease will be extended past its original tenure) and that wineries must be located in light industrial zones, many of which are far from the vineyards.

Then, while winemakers may be keen to change style and improve quality, customers seeking kosher wines – the principal buyers of Israeli wines worldwide – often prefer the very ripe and oaky styles associated with the country’s wines of the past. A further complication is that these markets respect the sabbatical year, or shvi'it, and shun wines produced in these vintages, As a result, a kosher winery sees sales plummet in shvi'it years.

Despite these challenges, according to a recent article in Wine Spectator (October 2016), Israel’s wine industry is transforming at a rapid rate with fresher wines of all colours replacing over-oaked reds and over-ripe reds and whites.

The transformation, said to have begun in the early 2000s, came about as winemakers reacted to Israelis’ search for quality from their native land and greater appreciation for the Jewish state’s wines in new and traditional markets.

It has been given added impetus by a fledgling but dynamic wine culture driven by enthusiastic sommeliers and restaurateurs, particularly in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, as well as the ambition and competence of a new generation of winemakers and viticulturists.

A prime example is the recently-launched The Judean Hills Quartet collaboration between Domaine du Castel, Tzora Vineyards, Flam Winery and Sphera. The four wineries with contrasting personalities and different wine styles, but a common and unique terroir, have banded together to tell the story of the region, which will complement their individual marketing efforts.

Another is Chateau Golan, where the winemaker – or is it philosopher? – is so passionate, he positively vibrates, and Bar-Maor, where the winemaker’s crusade is to convince the 15 wineries currently required to label their wines ‘Carmel’ to ignore traditional and legislation and bottle their wines as coming from Bikat Ha'nadiv.

Rami Bar-Maor from Bar-Maor Winery.

Yes, this industry is small but so, too, was David.

Flam Winery

2014 Classico – Not as the name suggests, an Italian inspired wine but 47% cabernet, 17% cabernet franc, 16% merlot and malbec, all from the Judean Hills, plus 13% syrah from the Upper Galilee; 30% in a mix of new American and French oak. Very attractive berry fruit, freshness and slight bitter lift with lovely palate complexity and silken texture. 


2014 Archetype Reserve - Guided by need for drinkability, more approachable and less intense than others in the line-up. Mostly carignan (stainless steel) with 10% marselan (wooded). Slightly meaty and a little reductive at first but opened to really decent fruit, balanced alcohol, not too much oak influence.


2014 Carignan – From a single, 20-year-old dry-farmed bush vines planted in powdery limestone; the only Israeli wine currently carried by BBR. Concentrated without being over bearing, extremely elegant.

Dalton Winery

2012 Elkosh Single Vineyard Shiraz – From the highest point of a vineyard in the Upper Galilee of chalk and ammonite fossils. Violet, taut, lively and precise.

Golan Heights

2015 Alma Ivory - 77% semillon plus 14% pinot gris and viognier; hand harvested whole cluster press fermented separately in Burgundian oak. Sense of minerality, peach blossom, orange peel, savoury finish, delicate, pure and pristine.

Chateau Golan

2015 Syrah – Despite being bottled just a month before, really delivered well. Finely-textured with delicate fruit, powdery tannins, elegant and long finish.


2014 The Chosen Red Blend – Single vineyard 'Meirav' with red soils and limestone, 40% each marselan and petit sirah, 20% syrah. Lovely spice, sweet fruit finish, too young but hinting at long-life to come.


2013 Tannat – Single vineyard in the Golan Heights, 950m. Very perfumed with plums and prunes, well managed tannins, interesting little bitter lift, fruit sweet finish.

Tzora Vineyards

2015 Shoresh White - Sauvignon blanc fermented and matured for 7 months in large oak. Restrained and elegant, more of a textural wine – fruitful without being frivolous and fruity, with a long balanced finish.


Stern Petit Verdot,  Kahanov Petit Verdot, Cremisan Winery Dabauki, Sea Horse James Chenin Blanc, Aharonoff Syrah, Maor Winery Tel Fares, Vortman Colombard


Soils in the Judean Hills
Soils in the Judean Hills

Uri Hetz - Chateau Golan's winemaker - so vibrant, he positively vibrates
Uri Hetz - Chateau Golan's winemaker - so vibrant, he positively vibrates

The Judean Hills Quartet Tzora Vineyards' Shorish White, one of the most accomplished white wines
The Judean Hills Quartet Tzora Vineyards' Shorish White, one of the most accomplished white wines

Golan Flam from Flam Winery, another member of The Judean Hills Quartet
Golan Flam from Flam Winery, another member of The Judean Hills Quartet

Sphera, the only producer to focus on white wines in Israel and a member of The Judean Hills Quartet
Sphera, the only producer to focus on white wines in Israel and a member of The Judean Hills Quartet

Guy Eshel, winemaker at Dalton Winery
Guy Eshel, winemaker at Dalton Winery

Impressive single vineyard tannat from Tabor Winery
Impressive single vineyard tannat from Tabor Winery

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