Tuscany has its wine routes, as do Bordeaux and Napa Valley. Israel does, too. And there's no better time than now, during the Succot holiday, to drive from the coastal plain from the Judean mountains through one of the country's most scenic, fascinating and rapidly growing wine regions. If your image of vacation includes travel through vine-covered hills with friends and a glass of wine, you don't have to travel far. You don't even have to travel to the Galilee or to the Golan. Close-by is a region no less breathtaking in its beauty and no less tasty in its produce. From family-run estates to large establishments producing up to 100,000 bottles annually, Judean region wineries offer visitors the opportunity to learn about wine production while tasting a variety of award-winning wines and enjoying a country dining experience. Since ancient times, the warm days and cool night temperatures that characterize the Judean Hills region served wineries that produced sacramental wines. The vineyards which in some places are as high as 800 meters above sea level, are planted in limestone, clay, and stony soils. Over the past decade many of these vineyards were replanted with noble varieties which proved to produce excellent grapes that though slightly less bright than the fruit harvested in the Galilee and Golan Heights, show fresh berry character with more cherry, plum and Mediterranean herbs.The resulting wines have an extra dimension of intensity in color, aroma and body. With more than 120 wineries scattered among Israel's five main wine-growing regions, finding a good Israeli wine is no longer a challenge. Today, the test is to find the truly great ones - and even that is becoming easier. The Judea region, stretching from the coastal plain to the foothills of the Jerusalem Hills, has become home to an up-and-coming wine route with more than 25 operating wineries. Over the years, these wineries have consistently proven that they can and do produce wines that are able to compete with the best in the industry world-wide, winning awards both locally and internationally. The charming setting and unique grape-growing conditions combine to make the Judea region one of Israel's most important wine-producing regions. One of the country's most scenic, the route winds via forests and bountiful vineyards. The wide curves and narrow turns carry you into deep valleys and along steep hillsides, as panoramic vistas spread out all around you. Based on Cabernet Sauvignon, which was the first to place local produce on the international map, many vintners in the area began crafting their own produce in hopes of catching the wine wave. Despite the overall high standard, there is still a wide range in quality. The larger wineries offer visitors an in-depth tour in which they can observe the entire production process. But truth be told, often, once you've seen one bottling line, you don't really want or need to see another bottling line. And you certainly don't want to build your tour on the bottling lines. That's where the smaller wineries come in. So, whether you're an experienced connoisseur or a would-be wine lover, take the day, save the overseas airfare, and get ready to explore this fascinating wine route where grapes have been grown since biblical times. Yet, as wonderful as some of the wine is, as enchanting the scenery and as delightful the route, the area's biggest treasure are the "locals." Forget your stereotypes about traveling within Israel. Here are people who are interested in your visits and they are warm and friendly with a great sense of humor. Visitors are often surprised by the unconditional hospitality in one of Israel's best, and still least-known routes. Exploring the road: If you're driving on Route 1 from Jerusalem or Tel Aviv, get off the highway at the Latrun Monastery and keep driving until Nahshon junction. Turn right to road No. 44, and proceed until you see the signs of the Karmei Yosef Bravdo winery. And then, plunge into the heart of the vineyards as you start your tour into this old-new world of wines and wineries. Take the time to discover the authentic soul and to meet with the winegrowers. A word to the wise: Since most of the wineries we've listed are quite small and don't have established visitors' centers, it's recommended to book your visits in advance. Karmei Yosef International wine expert Prof. Ben Ami Bravdo and Prof. Oded Shosayov began working together some 20 years ago at the Hebrew University, where Shosayov wrote a study about the subtleties of aroma in wine. After years of working to improve and develop agricultural methods for optimizing the grapes, and after investing their efforts in training some of the country's best wine-makers, they established their own boutique winery in 2001. The Shosayov family, with 120 years of grape-growing expertise, planted the 200-dunam vineyards 50 years ago next to Moshav Karmei Yosef where the winery is now located. The estate specializes in using exceptional techniques for producing a high-quality wine, including water stress combined with sunlight exposure of grapes. Under the label "Bravdo" the winery produces three series of wines: Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Chardonnay. Near the winery is the JNF's Defenders Forest, overlooking the Ayalon Valley. It's a lovely spot for an early picnic lunch or just a coffee break. Ha'erez 5 Karmei Yosef Tel: (08) 928- 6098 not kosher From the Karmei Yosef Winery, return to Route 44 and proceed south to Nahshon Junction. At this point, you can continue towards Kiryat Gat along Route 3, to visit the La Terra Promessa (see below). True, this is a detour from the usual wine route, but it's still attractive for those who are interested in ending their day earlier while still thoroughly enjoying themselves. And now you can move on. If you're traveling towards Jerusalem, continue south on Route 44 for another few kilometers, through the enchanted landscapes, until you reach the entrance to the Burma Road, to the Clos de Gat winery. Clos de Gat Here you'll be met by Eyal Rotem, the wine-maker and owner of this winery. Rotem, an architect by training, is a modest man who doesn't talk much - he lets the wine do the talking for him. Surrounded by 130 dunams of vineyards of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay and Petit Verdot grapes, Clos de Gat is one of Israel's most interesting wineries. Situated as it is near the Burma Road, the winery building served as Yitzhak Rabin's headquarters during the War of Independence. The name Clos de Gat is a play on French and Hebrew words: in French, "clos" describes an enclosed vineyard surrounded by stone walls, while the Hebrew word "gat" stands for the ancient Roman wine press which can be found next to the modern winery. The beautiful vineyards are planted on the grounds of Kibbutz Harel, located in the fertile Ayalon Valley, which connects the coastal plains and the hills around Jerusalem. Rotem, who practiced winemaking at several Australian wineries before returning to make wine in Israel, strives to produce the finest wines by controlling every stage of the winemaking process and using the most natural techniques. Kibbutz Harel Ayalon Valley 999-3505 not kosher The path that leads to the winery continues on towards Mitzpe Harel and the nearby Burma Road and the many rest stops established by the JNF. Don't be put off by the dirt roads - they are suitable for any type of vehicle. And don't miss the signs that recount the rich local history, either. Now, continue on Route 44 through the President and Eshtaol forests towards Shimshon Junction. Here, too, you have two possibilities along Route 38. First of all, you can turn right towards Beit Shemesh and the Ella Valley, stop off at Kibbutz Zora, visit the winery (kosher) and their nearby specialty delicatessen shop and continue on to the Mony winery at Dir Rafat (see below). From there, proceed to Kibbutz Netiv Halamed Heh and the visitors' center at the Ella Valley Vineyards. Or, if you prefer, you could turn left at the Shimshon Junction and continue on another 500 meters to the Eshtaol Junction, where you'll find the Flam boutique winery and the "Tavlin" store-restaurant, filled with wonderfully-exotic Mediteranean spices and some rather mediocre dishes. Then, continue onward on Route 395 and proceed along one of the most delightful routes you can imagine, where you will find the jewel in our crown of wineries, the Castel Winery. Ella Valley Vineyards Established in 1998 at the site where David defeated the mighty Philistine warrior Goliath, the Ella Valley Winery in Kibbutz Netiv Halamed Heh was set up to produce high-quality kosher wines. The valley has optimal conditions for the cultivation of wine grapes as the extreme temperature changes between the warm days and cool nights provide the grapes with an extended ripening period. The winery is next to the vineyards, and has 700 dunams in two other locations: Nes Harim and Moshav Aderet. Each vineyard has a unique soil and climate, which are reflected in the quality of the fruit. To preserve the unique character of the vineyard, the grapes are hand picked at night and transported directly to fermentation at the nearby winery. French-trained chief winemaker Doron Rav-Hon monitors every aspect of the process - from the sugar conversion in the grapes, to the temperature and humidity in the cellars. With annual production of 90,000 bottles the winery has three series of wine: Vineyard's Choice, Ella Valley and Ever Red. Kibbutz Netiv Halamed Heh Tel: 999-4885 kosher Mony Just the view of the vineyards and the olive groves as seen from the observation post by the Mony winery make a visit to this boutique winery, located in the Dir Rafat Monastery on the way to Beit Shemesh - very worthwhile. Owned by the Artul family, an Arab-Christian family from the Galilee, the winery is named after their son Mony, a cardiologist who died of heart illness. Nur, the second son, is the winemaker and runs the winery together with his father, Shakib, and his two brothers. The estate relies on 650 dunam of vineyards leased from the monastery. In 2005 the Mony Winery produced 60,000 bottles. The wines are aged and stored in French oak casks in a limestone cave which happens to have ideal natural conditions - 17 Celsius and 70% humidity. Since 2005 all the wines made in the winery are kosher and visitors can purchase the vineyard's varietals as well as its olive oil, olives, honey and goat cheese. Dir Rafat Monastery Tel: (02) 991-6629 kosher La Terra Promessa Located at Moshav Shahar on the road between Kiryat Gat and Ashkelon, La Terra Promessa is a winery where the food is as good as the wine. In Italian, the name means "The Promised Land." The winery was founded in 1998 by Parma-born Sandro Pelligrini and his wife Irit. Sandro, who comes from an Italian family of winemakers, arrived in Israel in 1991 and worked as a chef in a Jerusalem restaurant. There he met Irit - whose family roots are in Cochin, India - and decided to settle in Israel. Together the pair set up a small winery, where Sandro started crafting his own wines using grapes from a vineyard in the Upper Galilee. The establishment now has its own organic vineyards of Sangiovese, Zinfandel and Cabernet Franc grapes and produces three series of wines and liqueurs based on family recipes that Sandro has brought from Italy. Visitors can also enjoy a unique meal that combines Italian and Indian cuisine cooked by Sandro and Irit. Moshav Shahar Tel: (050) 568-4775 not kosher Flam Brothers Golan and Gilad Flam founded the boutique winery Flam in 1998. Their father, Israel, was the chief winemaker at Carmel winery, and has joined forces with his sons to produce quality wines at their impressive estate in Moshav Eshtaol. Golan, the winemaker, studied in Italy and practiced at wineries in Italy and Australia, where the hot climate and the behavior of vines is similar to that in Israel. Golan's desire is to craft top-quality wines with Israeli identity. The produce of Flam is based on a marriage between the European theory that "good wine begins in the vineyard" and the New World claim that the winemaker is in charge of the wine's character. The winery is located adjacent to Martyrs' Forest, which makes for a lovely place to stop for a picnic, sip the wine and enjoy the magnificent surrounding of the Judean Hills. Eshtaol Junction Hakdoshim Forest Tel 992-9923 not kosher Castel By planting a small vineyard atop one of the Judean Hills in 1988, Eli Ben-Zaken started a boutique winery at his home in Moshav Raziel. The vineyards located on the slopes of deep valleys benefit from an excellent summer breeze and short hours of sunshine. By 1992, Ben-Zaken was crushing his first Cabernet and Merlot grapes and by the spring of 1995 the wine was bottled and the label read Castel, after the nearby Crusader fortress. Since then, Ben-Zaken has planted more vineyards with different kinds of grapes and an old horses' stable and chicken coop have been transformed into a state-of-the-art winery. In an impressive cellar excavated in the rock beneath the winery, the superior wines of this family-run estate are reaching maturity under the perfect conditions that enable them to reach their full potential. Castel's flagship series, "Grand Vin," is a large and intense wine, like its name. It is a blend of 70% Cabernet Sauvignon and 30% Merlot. The other red series is Petit Castel, with 60% Cabernet Sauvignon and 40% Merlot. Ben-Zaken does well with his whites, too. Castel's "C" Chardonnay has won the winery a score of 90 points by Wine Spectator, the highest rating achieved by an Israeli winery. Moshav Ramat Raziel Tel: 534-2249 kosher

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