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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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.