In biblical times, the center of the wine industry was in Judea. One can imagine terraced vineyards in the Judean Hills and amphorae being stored, one leaning on another, in the cool caves of the area. Wine was rampant. It was for this reason that it was so often cited by the prophets. Discussing life using the metaphors of the vine and wine was done so often because this was a language understood by the common man. In those days, wine was a mainstay of the economy.
Each amphora was marked with information about the wine, including where it came from. So even then, the terroir of the wine was important. Terroir is the sense of place. The wine consumer will show interest in when a wine was made, who made it and where it came from. This is what differentiates wine from other beverages.
Who cares where Coca-Cola comes from? In a sense, the place where a wine is grown has become a brand no less important than the wine’s name. Think of a Cabernet Sauvignon where a region is not specified on the label. Compare this with a Cabernet from Central Valley in California and one from the Napa Valley. If you don’t know the winery’s name but have heard of the Napa Valley, it is like a silent recommendation.
A known region provides an identity to an unknown wine.
It is the same in Israel. The wine buyer abroad will take more comfort in buying a wine with Galilee on the label than, say, Samson. Names like Napa Valley, Barossa Valley, Bordeaux and Galilee are comforting to the wine buyer because these regions might be recognized before the winery’s name.
In modern times, Israel’s wine industry was built on the coastal areas. In the 1960s, some 87 percent of the wine vineyards in Israel were planted in the Mount Carmel region south of Haifa and the Judean lowlands and foothills, southeast of Tel Aviv. Not surprisingly, these areas were close to Israel’s largest wineries of the time, the wine cellars at Zichron Ya’acov and Rishon Lezion.
In the 1970s, Prof. Cornelius Ough from the University of California at Davis recommended the Golan Heights as an ideal region for growing quality wine grapes. The Golan rises from Lake Kinneret to the snow-covered Mount Hermon.
The northernmost vineyards are 1,200 meters above sea level.
In the 1980s, Israeli wine reached its eureka moment as the country began to produce its first world-class wines, courtesy of the Golan Heights Winery.
The general manager, Shimshon Welner, was wise enough to aim high and to employ a Californian wine consultant, Peter Stern, who had the technical knowledge to help him achieve his objective.
The Golan Heights was characterized by its high altitude, its black basalt stone and its volcanic tuff soil. The good drainage and minerality combined with the cool climate to produce a unique area producing world-class wines.
It was understood that in Israel, the temperatures were nearer to North Africa than the south of France and that what was lost by latitude could be gained by climbing. Higher-altitude vineyards with a cooler climate provided the potential for grapes to have a longer growing season and delicate aromas and flavors to be preserved rather than being baked out of existence. For the first time, the Golan was referred to as the finest wine-growing region in Israel. The Golan Heights Winery, the pioneer of the region, referred to it as Israel’s Wine Country, and indeed it was.
Archeological finds at Avdat and Shivta provide evidence of a rich winemaking ancient history in the south of the country, and in 1988 the Negev became part of the modern wine scene. Israelis showed their creativeness by planting vines, fulfilling David Ben-Gurion’s dream of making the desert bloom. Carmel Winery was the pioneer of the Negev, planting the Ramat Arad vineyard, near Tel Arad. This was followed by others in the 1990s planting vineyards at Sde Boker and Mitzpe Ramon, which were to be used by Tishbi and Barkan wineries respectively.
Experiments were made in irrigating vineyards using saline water dug from below the earth’s surface and by treating waste from local army camps.
Nothing warms the heart so much as to drive through the desert and come across a square of green vineyard surrounded by sand and dust.
In the early 1990s there were scarcely any vineyards in the Galilee, apart from the tapestry of vineyards at Kerem Ben- Zimra and the Ramat Naftali vineyard, whose potential was realized in the Golan’s wines.
Then, wineries led by Avi Feldstein, the winemaker of Segal Wines, began to explore the potential of the Upper Galilee.
In the mid-1990s there were numerous vineyards planted in the Upper Galilee. Dalton (1995), Galil Mountain (2000) and Carmel (2004) built wineries there. Today, these three wineries and many others such as Amphorae, Barkan, Binyamina, Chillag, Flam, Galil Mountain, Margalit, Recanati, Saslove, Segal, Tabor and Tulip source their best wines from the Upper Galilee.
The Galilee is arguably Israel’s most beautiful wine region. It is a region of crowded forests, plunging hills, running streams and stony ridges. The variety of soils, sometimes gravelly, other times volcanic or terra rossa (and sometimes all three in the same vineyard) became attractive to quality wine growers.
In the 2000s there was a period of consolidation and massive planting in the Upper Galilee and Golan Heights. Now more than 40% of Israel’s vineyards are in the cooler, higher-altitude Galilee and Golan. It is Israel’s largest wine growing area, and wines exported from this region come under the appellation “Galilee” in export markets. The Galilee is regarded by many as Israel’s finest wine region.
There has also been a great deal of planting in the Judean Foothills/Judean Hills region.
This region made a comeback through the efforts of wineries such as Castel, Clos du Gat, Ella Valley, Tzora and Sea Horse, which showed that the region could make world-class wines in modern times. Castel and Clos de Gat in particular have pushed the region to the front, being among the highest quality wineries in Israel.
The newest region to have revived wine growing is the Samaria mountains, where since the mid-2000s wineries and vineyards have been springing up like mushrooms after rain. This is also reviving an ancient wine growing tradition in these biblical hills.
So vines once again cover the Land of Israel. In ancient times, Judea was the center of all things vinous. Only 20 years ago, the area of the southern Mount Carmel was Israel’s largest wine growing region.
Now the new Israeli wine industry has move northward, as the Golan and Galilee takes prominence in both quality and volume.
There has also been a move eastward to the Judean and Samarian hills.
The most significant move has been upward as the new Israeli vineyards chase altitude and elevation. Ancient Israel was built on the hills, while modern Israel has developed on the coastal plain. However, the country’s wine people, to paraphrase Israel’s 11th prime minister, Ariel Sharon, have “grabbed the hills” – but for wine reasons.
Today, the finest quality appellations for Israel’s best wines tend to come from the Upper Galilee, Golan Heights and Judean Hills. Each of these areas has a higher elevation and relatively cooler climate.
The old coastal regions remain areas for the bulk of Israel’s inexpensive wines, but the quality part of the industry has move northward, eastward and upward.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications.