Most people will credit the Golan Heights and the Upper Galilee as being the finest wine-growing regions in Israel. The higher altitude and cooler climate have made the northern area a magnet for wineries wanting to plant quality vineyards.
Only 20 years ago, there was a feeling that only on the volcanic plateau of the Golan Heights was it possible to make award winning Israeli wine. The high altitude, cool climate, volcanic tuff and basalt stone made it a unique terroir. Then, about 10 or 15 years ago, the Upper Galilee became the “new” trend in wine regions. The mountainous terrain, plunging valleys, running streams and woody forests certainly made it a beautiful wine-growing area. With the high altitudes and a mixture of soils from terra rossa and gravel to volcanic, came the realization that the Galilee was also a great region for the wines of new Israel. Dalton, Galil Mountain, Tabor and Carmel opened wineries there. Furthermore, many other wineries, though situated far from the Galilee, made sure to use the precious Galilee fruit for their best wines.
The Israeli winery industry was built on coastal vineyards, most of which were in the Mount Carmel or Shfela regions. In the last 20 years, though, as the move to quality took root, the northern region of the Golan and Galilee combined has now become the largest wine region in Israel in terms of number of vineyards.
However, the idea that only the Golan and Galilee are capable of producing Israel’s finest wines is not necessarily correct. Israel wine watchers noticed another region gaining its fair share of major awards and recognition. Wineries from the Judean Hills started being noticed. The continued success and high profile of their wines has pushed this historic region to the fore.
It is a fact that in the late Daniel Rogov’s last Israel Wine Guide, no less than half of the wineries listed in the “Top 12 Israeli Wineries” were from the Judean Hills. The six wineries listed, in Rogov’s order, were Yatir, Castel, Clos de Gat, Flam, Sea Horse and Tzora. It is a surprise to many to see the strong representation of Judean Hills wineries on the list of the best wineries in Israel.
The place of the Judean Hills in the quality arena is reemphasized even more when examining the tasting results of Israeli wines in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. In this prestigious publication, only 28 Israeli wines have managed to achieve scores of 91 or more points. Yet an astonishing 18 of these are not from the Galilee or Golan Heights but from the Judean Hills! Those 18 Judean Hills wines are made up of six Yatir wines, five Castel, four Clos de Gat, two Tzora and one Flam.
Furthermore, the two most successful Israeli wines in the Wine Advocate over the last six years have been Castel Grand Vin and Yatir Forest. Both are from the Judean Hills. The highest scoring Israeli wine, Clos de Gat Muscat, produced by Clos de Gat, is also from the Judean Hills. So at the time that wine experts were talking up the Golan and Galilee, the Judean Hills was gaining recognition at the highest possible level. It could be that the Judean Hills is a higher quality wine region today than was previously thought, thereby renewing an ancient tradition going back thousands of years.
In around 1700 BCE, biblical patriarch Jacob blessed his son Judah that his land would produce quality wine. Jacob’s blessing came true, and Judea became the center of wine activity in biblical times. The slopes of the Judean Hills were covered in vines.
This was the Bordeaux of the ancient Israel.
Judea was the name of the southern part of the land inhabited by the Israelite tribe of Judah. It was followed by the Kingdom of Judah, and then later the Roman Province of Judea. In those days, the Jerusalem hills had terraced vineyards to allow the vineyards to grow on the steep slopes. There would most likely have been a stone watchtower alongside as described in Isaiah’s Song of a Vineyard (Isaiah 5:1). The wines were made in wine presses, which were limestone basins, situated near the vineyards. The finished wines were stored in large, two-handled amphorae in cool caves.
Fast forward more than 2,000 years, and today vineyards are again being planted on every spare bit of agricultural land on the way to Jerusalem. Wine is once again prominent on the slopes of Judea.
The region may be divided into three distinct areas, which may be described as the Judean Plain, the Judean Hills and the Judean Mountains. The central coastal, Judean Plain, southeast of Tel Aviv, is a large part of what is known as the Samson Wine Region. Baron Rothschild planted vineyards around Rishon Lezion, Rehovot and Gedera in the 19th century. It was not until the 1950s, after the founding of the state, that vineyards were planted in places from Karmei Yosef to Givat Yeshayahu and points in between. Wineries in this area include the historic Rishon Lezion Wine Cellars, Barkan Winery at Hulda, Bravdo at Karmei Yosef and the Latrun Monastery.
The second area is the Judean Hills, which equates to the corridor to Jerusalem, which is the fastest-growing region in terms of newly planted vineyards and new wineries.
The frenetic planting of vineyards here really started only in the 1990s and from this beginning has even gathered pace in the 2000s. The rolling hills have limestone soils and clay loams. Elevations are higher, from 50 to 200 meters above sea level. Wineries in this area include Clos de Gat, Ella Valley, Flam, Mony, Teperberg and Tzora.
Then there is the Judean Mountains region west of Jerusalem, which also runs from north of Jerusalem, southwards down to the Yatir Forest. Here the altitudes are higher, from 500 to 1,000 meters above sea level. The soils are thin, limestone and stony. The higher mountains receive snow in the winter. Psagot, Domaine du Castel, Gush Etzion, Hebron Heights, Sea Horse and Tzuba are wineries situated in the Judean Mountains.
The appellation known as the Judean Hills Wine Region in reality covers the Judean Foothills, Hills and Mountains.
The Judean Hills is proving to be an excellent region for Chardonnay, Castel, Clos de Gat, Tzora, Ella Valley and Mony. Each produces high-quality wines from this variety.
This may even be the wine region producing the best Chardonnays in the country. It is also a particularly good region for Syrah/ Shiraz and Petite Sirah. Clos de Gat and Mony have top-class Shiraz/Syrahs, and Ella Valley and Sea Horse have very good Petite Sirahs. Carmel’s Old Vine Petite Sirah also comes from the Judean Hills.
The Yoav Yehuda Wine Route was the first organized wine route in Israel. This covers numerous wineries large and small and a patchwork of vineyards in the Jerusalem corridor. It is an area bursting with wineries and vineyards and is a popular hunting ground for visitors because it is the nearest wine route to Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.
Without a doubt, the Judean Hills has earned its place in any discussion about Israel’s best quality wine region and has clearly joined the Upper Galilee and Golan Heights as being the source of some of Israel’s finest wines. The prophet Amos (9:13) had his own description of the Judean Hills: “The mountains shall drip wine and all the hills shall flow with it.” Today, with the growth of new vineyards, Amos’s vision is again coming true.
Ramat Hanadiv Wine Festival
There is an attractive new addition to Israel’s calendar of wine festivals. This year, just before Passover, there will be a wine festival in the Ramat Hanadiv Memorial Gardens. It will take place on April 9 and 10 from 6 p.m. to 11 p.m.
Tickets are NIS 90.
To date, there are at least 22 wineries taking part. These include some of the largest wineries in the country (Carmel, Binyamina, Tishbi, Recanati) and some of the finest boutique and domestic garagistes. There will also be local liqueurs and gourmet food, such as artisan bread, cheeses and olive oil from the region.
The beautiful Ramat Hanadiv Memorial Gardens lie between the winery towns of Zichron Ya’acov and Binyamina, on the southern slopes of Mount Carmel, overlooking the Mediterranean Sea. It is 40 minutes’ drive from Tel Aviv and within easy reach of Route 6, Route 4 and the coastal road. Those wanting to drink more than a sip can take a train, and there will be a shuttle to the event from the Binyamina railway station.
The Gardens are a memorial to Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of Château Lafite and founder of the modern Israel wine industry. He was known as “Hanadiv” (the benefactor). He is buried at Ramat Hanadiv in a magnificent mausoleum, overlooking the vineyards he planted and the wine cellars he built, and Caesarea, another monument to the generosity of the Rothschild family.
The festival is organized by Italian trained sommelier Ruti Ben-Israel, with the culinary expertise of her master chef husband, Benny Ben-Israel. The festival celebrates wine and food of the Mount Carmel and Ramat Menashe areas and the northern part of the Sharon Plain. This is the most historical wine region in Israel, where the first roots of Israeli wine were planted in modern times. The festival is thoroughly recommended for wine lovers and connoisseurs alike.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications. adam@ carmelwines.co.il