L’Chaim! Cheers for Israeli Wines

One would think the last thing a country in the desert with parched soil and weather extremes would produce is quality wine.

Think again.

You probably did not think “Israel,” more frequently referred to as the ‘land of milk and honey.” But folks can add world-class wines to its list of stellar agricultural bounty.

This was not always the case.

Grapes have been grown in what is now Israel since biblical times, and many of the stories in the Talmud and New Testament describe wine at weddings and other celebratory events. Many people might not even realize that wine was used as a commodity like salt or spices sold along ancient trade routes through the region. Grape growing for wine was prohibited, however, by the seventh century when Moslem groups conquered the region.

In more recent history, wine production was a fledgling industry. That changed in the late 1880s, however, when Baron Edmond de Rothschild, well known as a vintner in France, financed some small Israeli wineries. The industry still was small, providing wines for the local population until the last 15 or so years.

Today, this country that’s barely the size of New Jersey has a thriving, world-class wine industry. Israel’s 60 commercial wineries and more than 300 boutique wineries produce close to 36 million bottles of wine annually, exporting about 55 percent of it to the US, the world’s largest importer of Israeli wines.

The $315-million industry revolves around five primary winegrowing regions: Galilee, in northern Israel, has the highest elevations and produces the most wines – about 41 percent – and includes the Golan Heights. Some say Galilee also yields the best grapes, due partly to its well-drained soil, warm days and cool nights.

Another 27 percent of Israeli wine is produced in the Samson Central Coast region, west of Jerusalem and north of Tel Aviv. The Negev region is largely a semi-arid desert; growing grapes here is only possible with drip irrigation. The remaining regions are Shomron, including the renowned wine town of Benyamina, near the Mediterranean coast; and the Judean Hills surrounding Jerusalem.

Israeli wines are made from familiar grape varieties; the most prominent are Cabernet Sauvignon (18 percent) and Carignan (17 percent). Other prolific varieties are Chardonnay, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and, more recently, Riesling and Syrah. And it’s sold in wine stores across the US; a friend shared a bottle of delicious Pinot Noir, produced by Barkan Wine Cellars in Negev, that she had purchased in Columbus.

Israel’s biggest producer is Carmel Winery, the first to make dry table wine in the late 1960s. Barkan is the next largest, followed by Golan Heights Winery and Teperberg 1870 Winery in the Judean Hills – the four biggest players in Israel’s wine industry.

These days, dry wines are as common as sweet in Israel – and not all Israeli wines are deemed “kosher.” For a wine to be kosher, it must be produced following specific religious procedures. The strict rules require that only Sabbath-observant Jews perform all methods of production, from the growing and harvesting of the grapes until the final bottling of the wine.

Mevushal wines are produced under those kosher conditions as well, but are flash- pasteurized. These wines are usually served at banquets and restaurants where they might be handled by non-Jews. Most kosher wines are not mevushal and kosher wines can be enjoyed at home.

In the United States, most mevushal wines are produced by a familiar company: Manischewitz, which makes not only kosher wines but also matzo, soups and other kosher foods.

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