A recent wine tasting of Israeli wines conducted by Jancis Robinson MW in London revealed a huge surprise. The best white wine was produced by a monastery. What was astonishing was not that the wine did so well but that wine people in Israel knew so little about it. The wine was made by Cremisan Winery.

It made me think how important it is for us to get to know and understand the wine around us and those different from us, within. Only by understanding the region better will we truly understand our own terroir.

Israel is a little schizophrenic with regard to where it is positioned. Politically, it is considered part of the problematical Middle East. In sporting events, it competes as part of Europe. In wine competitions, it is regarded as being in Asia. Look at the wine shelves in some countries, and it would appear that Israel is part of a wine country called “Kosher.” Culturally, we are nearer to being the 51st state of the United States.

Our cuisine is a fusion of North Africa, Eastern Europe, the Middle East and Mediterranean. However, as far as wine is concerned, Israel is an integral part of the Eastern Mediterranean. The Mediterranean Sea runs along much of the west coast of the country, and the climate of most of the country’s wine-growing regions is Mediterranean. Decanter Magazine seems to agree. A recent feature article on Israel was headlined “Israel – Eastern Med, not Mid East.” So it is important for us to open our eyes.

The most famous wine in the whole of the Eastern Mediterranean is not an Israeli wine. It is Chateau Musar from Lebanon. This winery was founded by Gaston Hochar in 1930 in Ghazir, north of Beirut. When his son Serge took over, the wine was “discovered” at the Bristol Wine Fair in 1979. Serge Hochar was made Decanter Man of the Year in 1984. Since then, the winery has been given almost cult wine status.

Today it remains the third-largest winery in Lebanon, producing wines in its own unique style. However, these days there is so much more than just Musar in Lebanon. Today there are 40 wineries, producing eight million bottles of wine a year. Some 90 percent of the industry is based in the Bekaa Valley, but there are now vineyard developments in north Lebanon, in the Mount Lebanon region and in south Lebanon.

The largest and oldest winery is Ksara, founded by Jesuits in 1857. Other very good Lebanese wineries include Kefraya, which has received scores of 92 and 91 points from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate for its prestige flagship wine, Comte de M, and Massaya, whose quality allied to good marketing ushered in a new wave of quality in Lebanese wine. Others to look for are Clos St. Thomas and Domaines des Tourelles. There are a number of newish wineries, such as the nearest one to Israel, Karam Winery, which is based at Jezzine; the impressive Ixsir Winery; and Chateau Marsyas.

Lebanese wines, in my view, taste of sun and spice and are very high quality. The reds are better than the whites, and the best are blends often including Cabernet Sauvignon and Syrah. The main planted grape in Lebanon was historically Cinsault, like we have Carignan in Israel. They have two indigenous white varieties, Merwah and Obadeh, which are considered possible forerunners of Semillon and Chardonnay. The best example of these two varieties is the Chateau Musar Blanc.

Lebanon adjoins the Upper Galilee. Moving on to the northeastern border, we come to Syria, which meets Israel in the Golan Heights. There is a very high-quality start-up winery in Syria, based near the port of Latakia. It is owned by the proprietors of Chateau Marsyas in Lebanon. The highly regarded Bordeaux consultant Stephane Derenoncourt consults there. The first wines, using international varieties, were released a few years ago to critical acclaim.

Then we come to Jordan, the other side of the Jordan River. There is a good winery in Jordan called Zumot Winery. Previously, winemaking in Jordan had been left in the hands of a few monasteries. In 1996, Omar Zumot built a winery and planted vineyards at Madaba, southwest of Amman. The wines were named St. George after the nearby church. Now he also has vineyards on the forested slopes of Jerash at 1,000 meters altitude and on the Syrian border at Sama al-Sarhan at 600 meters altitude. He makes organic wines from international varieties. Well worth a visit.

To Israel’s south we come to Egypt, home to the world’s first great wine culture. In 1882, Nestor Gianaclis was determined to recreate the wines of the pharoahs and a created a modern wine industry. The wines were never that great, but the tourist market was huge. So Gianaclis Winery grew, and today it is the largest winery in Egypt. The area of vineyards is near Luxor and the Nile Delta. They do have some good brand names, though, such as Omar Khayyam, Crus de Ptolemees and Rubis d’Egypt. Recently there has been an attempt to make a better Egyptian wine under the brand name Sahara Vineyards. We wait with interest to see how this develops.

West of Israel, the nearest country producing wine is Cyprus. It has the largest area per capita under vineyards in the world and is also the world’s oldest wine brand. Commandaria is a sweet, rich dessert wine, known since the times of the Crusades. For years, the wine industry there was dominated by four wineries, Keo, Sodap, Etko and Loel. Lately, they have all reduced quantities and moved to higher altitudes in a bid to improve quality. Sodap is perhaps the best example with its new Kamanterena Winery. However, the real new developments in Cyprus are in the hands of the small boutique wineries such as Vlassides, Kyperounda and Zambartas.

Of the local varieties, the Maratheftiko is more promising than the heavily planted Mavro, and the white Xinisteri can produce good fresh wines from higher altitude regions (for example, in the foothills of the Troodos Mountains). Of the international varieties, the Syrah is well suited there as it seems to be throughout the Eastern Mediterranean.

This brings me back to the Cremisan wine, which was described by Robinson as the first Palestinian wine she had tasted. The wine was Star of Bethlehem Hamdani Jandali 2011, a white wine made from two local varieties.

Other wines of profound interest to Israelis will be their Dabouki (another white) and their Baladi Asmar red. The wines were made in cooperation with Italian Ricardo Cotarella, one of the most famous consultant winemakers in the world. Before Baron Edmond de Rothschild brought French varieties to Israel in the 1880s, the early Israeli wineries (Shor and Efrat, for example) used these same local grapes from the Bethlehem and Hebron area.

The Cremisan Monastery was founded in 1885. It is a Salesian Monastery, affiliated to the Catholic Church. It is situated right on the border between the West Bank and Israel, five kilometers from Bethlehem and 12 km. from Jerusalem.

I don’t think you need a flag to grow grapes. A wine is the result of the place the grapes were grown and the person that made it. A wine made in Alsace, whether it was under a German flag or a French flag, did not in fact change the wine. Therefore, I am profoundly interested in the wines of our region and believe we can learn a great deal by taking time to understand the similarities and differences.

Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine for international and Israeli publications.
adam@carmelwines.co.il

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