Welcome to Israel, land of wine since ancient times. A vineyard in full change over the past twenty-five years, where dozens of small cellars emerge, producing a few thousand bottles each, alongside a handful of giants, which dominate the industry.
FROM THE SHADOW TO THE LIGHT
The Israeli vineyard dates back far. In the middle of the seventh century, the Muslim conquest marked a brutal stop for viticulture, for more than 1,200 years. It was only from the end of the 19th century, in 1882 to be exact, that the culture of the vineyard restarted under the impulse of a Frenchman, the Baron Edmond de Rothschild (château Lafite).
Divided into five regions – with Galilee to the north, the Judean Hills, surrounding the city of Jerusalem, Samson, located between the Judean hills and the coastal plain, the Negev to the south (semi-arid desert region) and the plain of Sharon, near the Mediterranean coast – the wine industry in Israel has developed a lot in terms of quality since the 80s. Previously, there were only about fifteen players. Currently, it is estimated that around 250 wineries exist in Israel. Although 5 large producers still dominate the Israeli wine landscape, accounting for more than 80% of the total production.
RECANATI WINERY, THE BEAUTIFUL ASCENT
Founded in 2000 by Lenny Recanati and Uri Shaked, the Recanati estate is one of those soaring vineyards that in just a few years has managed to make a name for itself on the international market.
The winery, located an hour north of Tel Aviv, works with 90 hectares of vineyards under contract across the country, on some of the most beautiful terroirs, such as the Golan Heights and the Judean Hills. Recognized for working with Mediterranean grape varieties such as Petite Sirah, Marselan and Carignan, Recanati also relies on international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Sauvignon Blanc, Chardonnay and Chenin Blanc, which appeared in Israel in the 1970s-80s.
In the company of Gil Shatsberg, the chief-winemaker and vice-President of the estate, we visited a new plot of 3 hectares, planted by Recanati a year ago in the north of the country, less than 1km from the Lebanese border and only 15 km from the sea.
A beautiful place at 650m altitude, with a cool breeze coming from the sea and where Recanati planted the local varieties Argaman(1) (red) and Marawi (white). We are already longing to taste the result of this new production!
TZORA VINEYARDS, THE ART OF BLENDING
Established in 1996 in the Judean Hills, west of Jerusalem, Tzora Vineyards is a key estate of Israel. Located at an altitude of 700 meters, this 20-hectare vineyard is surprising.
I felt a great energy from the soil there, consisting of very old fossil stones. It has been divided into meso-climates. A methodical process which has allowed the recognizion of different soils on the same site, in order to plant the right varieties in the right place : Syrah, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay (there is even a touch of Gewürztraminer).
“I believe in international grape blends“, Eran Pick MW, the winemaker and estate manager, who excels in this exercise, confessed.
A meticulous art in collaboration with the French consultant Jean-Claude Berrouet (formerly Petrus’ technical director). The result : beautiful and elegant wines with a lot of freshness, depth and balance, even for white wines. Superb!
A NEW WAVE OF WINEMAKERS
We talked about it in the preamble, the Israeli vineyard has seen many talents emerging in recent years. Small ventures for the most part, which do not lack ideas.
As at Kadma, a family estate as small as it is charming, established in 2010 in Kfar Uriah, in the foothills of Judea. It is currently the only winery in Israel to use large clay jars in the wine production process, made in Georgia (not to be confused with Georgian amphoras, named qvevri, which are buried in the ground).
A lovely winery which is the result of extensive research, in collaboration with Professor Amos Hadas (author of Vine and Wine in the Archeology of Ancient Israel) and Dr. Arkadi Papikian, a recognized Israeli wine producer.
“The fermentation in these clay jars gives the wine unique aromas and flavors“, Lina Slutzkin, the founder and owner of Kadma explained: resin, tobacco, black fruit and exotic woods. Fresh and juicy wines that go well with local grilled meat. The Israeli vineyard has not finished surprising us.
The goal now is to understand what will be the next stage in the development of this booming wine industry of incredible potential. Investing in native grape varieties, to give more identity to the local vineyard, could be one of the keys.
“As far as I know, the main objective is to educate young Israelis to love wine, so that the industry has a solid future to rely on“, Itay Gleitman, journalist at Haaretz said. To follow closely.
Thank you to Recanati, Tzora Vineyards and Kadma, for their warm welcome. Finally, thanks to Haaretz journalist Itay Gleitman for this valuable information about the Israeli vineyard.
(1) Argaman is a crossing of Souzão (a red grape from Portugal) and Carignan (a red grape from France).