Over the past decade, quality Israeli wines have won the appreciation of wine lovers around the globe. From family-run estates to large establishments, the Judean region offers visitors an opportunity to learn about vintage productions while sampling a host of fine wines
With the harvest season at its peak and the aroma of ripe grapes in the air, there's no better time to take a pause from the bustling routine and travel from the coastal plain to the Judean Mountains through one of the country's most fascinating wine regions.
For many Israelis, traveling through vine-covered hills with a couple of friends and a glass of wine means an expensive trip to Tuscany, Bordeaux or the Napa Valley. But there are regions that can deliver an equally breathtaking wine-country experience much closer to home.
From family-run estates to large establishments that produce up to 100,000 bottles a year, the Judean region wineries offer its visitors an opportunity to learn more about wine production while tasting a variety of award-winning wines and enjoying a country dining experience.
Over the past decade, quality Israeli wines have won the appreciation of wine lovers around the globe. Enthusiasts from distant countries can now sample well-made wines such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc made in the Holy Land.
With more than 120 wineries scattered among Israel's five main wine-growing regions, the challenge is no longer to find a good Israeli wine but to find a great one.
The Judea region, stretching from the Coastal Plain to the foothills of the Jerusalem Mountains, has become a home to an up-and-coming wine route with more than 25 wineries. Over the years, they have proven that they can produce excellent wines that can compete with the best in the industry and, in fact, have won awards locally and internationally.
Warm days and cool night temperatures characterize the Judean Hills region, which for many years has served as the locale for wineries that make sacramental wines. The vineyards, which in some places are 800 meters above sea level, are planted on limestone, clay, and stony soils. Over the past decade, many of these vineyards were replanted with noble varieties that proved to produce excellent grapes which, though slightly less colorful than the fruit harvested in the Galilee and the 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.
The charming setting and unique grape-growing conditions have earned the Judea region the honor of being referred to as one of Israel's famous wine-producing regions. The route is one of the country's most scenic, winding through forests and bountiful vineyards. Each curve on this adventurous road takes you into deep valleys and along steep hillsides with picturesque landscapes and panoramic vistas.
Anchored by Cabernet Sauvignon, which has placed local produce on the international map, many vintners in the area began making their own produce in hope of catching the wine wave. Still, there is a wide range in quality.
At the large-scale wineries, visitors are offered an in-depth tour where they can see the entire production process. However, sometimes when you've seen one bottling line, you don't really need to see another. That's where the smaller wineries come in.
So whether you're an experienced connoisseur or a would-be wine lover, take a day, save the overseas airfare, and get ready to explore this fascinating wine route where grapes have been grown since biblical times.
Aside from the wine, the greatest treasure of the area is the people, who are warm and friendly with a good sense of humor. Visitors are delighted by their unconditional hospitality.
As most of the wineries in the area are quite small, they have no established visitors' centers, so it is recommended to book your visits in advance.
Karmei Yosef (not kosher)
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 a number of years in which they improved and developed agricultural methods for optimizing the grapes, along with training the best of the country's winemakers, the two established their own boutique winery.
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 specialty of this estate is its exceptional techniques for producing a high-quality wine. The techniques include water pressure combined with exposing the grapes to sunlight.
Under the label "Bravdo," Karmei Yosef produces three series of wines: Cabernet Sauvignon; Merlot; and Chardonnay.
Tel: (08) 928-6098
Clos de Gat (not kosher)
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.
The beautiful vineyards are planted on the grounds of Kibbutz Harel, located in the fertile Ayalon Valley, which connects the Coastal Plain and the hills around Jerusalem.
Situated 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, a clos is an enclosed vineyard surrounded by stone walls; in Hebrew, word gat is an ancient Roman wine press, one of which is found next to the modern winery.
The winery's owner, Eyal Rotem, practiced winemaking at several Australian wineries before returning to make wine in Israel. He strives to produce the finest wines by controlling every stage of the winemaking process and using the most natural techniques.
Tel: (02) 999-3505
Ella Valley Vineyards (kosher)
Established in 1998 at the location 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. The extreme temperature changes between the warm days and cool nights provide the grapes with an extended ripening period. The winery, situated next to the vineyards, has 700 dunams in two other locations: Ness Harim and Moshav Aderet.
Each vineyard has its own unique soil and climate conditions, 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 for 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 an annual production of 90,000 bottles, the winery has three series of wine: Vineyard's Choice, Ella Valley and Ever Red.
Tel: (02) 999-4885
The view of the vineyards and olive groves alone seen from the observation point near the Mony winery is worth a visit to this boutique establishment. It is located at the Dir Rafat Monastery, on the way to Beit Shemesh. Owned by the Artul family, an Arab-Christian family from the Galilee, the winery is named after their son Mony who was a cardiologist and died of heart disease. Nur, the second son, is the winemaker and runs the winery with his two bothers and their father, Shakib. The estate lies on the 650 dunams of vineyards leased from the monastery. In 2005, they produced 60,000 bottles.
The wines are aged and stored in French oak casks in a limestone cave that has ideal natural conditions of 17 degrees and 70% humidity. Since 2005, all the wines made in the winery are kosher. Visitors can purchase the vineyard's varietals, as well as its olives, olive oil, honey and goat cheese.
Dir Rafat Monastery
Tel: (02) 991-6629
La Terra Promessa (not kosher)
Located on 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 vineyard's name means "the Promised Land." La Terra Promessa 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 at a Jerusalem restaurant. There he met Irit, whose family roots are in Cochin, India, and decided to settle in Israel. The pair set up a small winery, where Sandro began making 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. It produces three series of wines, as well as liqueurs based on Sandro's family recipes. Visitors can also enjoy a unique meal that combines Italian and Indian cuisine prepared by Sandro and Irit.
Flam (not kosher)
Brothers Golan and Gilad Flam founded the Flam boutique winery in 1998. Their father, Israel, who had been the chief winemaker at the Carmel winery, 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 growth of the vines are similar to the conditions in Israel. Golan's desire is to craft top-quality wines with an 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 for the wine's character. The winery is located adjacent to the Hakdoshim forest, which makes a lovely place to stop for a picnic, sip the wine and enjoy the magnificent surroundings of the Judean Hills.
Eshtaol Junction, Hakdoshim forest
Tel (02) 992-9923
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, a short distance from Jerusalem. By 1992 he was crushing his first Cabernet and Merlot grapes, and by the spring of 1995 the wine was bottled and the label read "Castel," after a nearby Crusader fortress.
Since then, more vineyards have been planted with different kinds of grape, and the old stable and coop have been transformed into a state-of-the-art winery.
The vineyards, located on the slopes of deep valleys, benefit from an excellent summer breeze and short hours of sunshine.
In an impressive cellar excavated in the rock beneath the winery, the superior wines of this family-run estate mature to their full potential under perfect conditions.
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.
As for the white wines, 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: (02) 534-2249
Many of us grew up drinking sweet and syrupy kosher wines made of Concord or Carignan grapes, and some think that in order to be kosher, wine must be sweet.
There's a special place for wine in the laws of kashrut, and the grape is placed above all other fruits due to the precious wine that is pressed from its skin.
Kosher wines are made through the normal processes of winemaking, but only those who are Shabbat observant can handle the grapes from the time they arrive at the winery until the bottles are sealed.
The equipment and machinery - such as crushers, presses, tanks and casks - must be used exclusively for kosher wine production. All casks must be brand new or used only for kosher wines. No casks used for non-kosher wines may be used in kosher winemaking.
For wine to retain its kashrut, when opened and poured by a non-Jew it has to be mevushal. Mevushal wine goes through a process that brings the liquid to the boiling point, defined as "heating," until air bubbles are brought to the surface and some wine is lost through evaporation. In this way, the wine retains its religious purity no matter who opens it or pours it.
The kosher laws regarding mevushal wine have been refined, and modern winemaking techniques now allow production when the must quickly runs through a flash heat pasteurizing unit, where the wine is heated rapidly. The must is then cooled down just as quickly, and the rest of the fermentation and winemaking process goes on.
The quality of the kosher wineries in recent years has dramatically improved, as local winemakers use different grape varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Chardonnay.
Wine has its own vocabulary. Is the flavor buttery or oaky? Beginners shake their heads and ask, "What?"
Here's a quick guide to some wine terminology.
Aftertaste: The flavor the wine leaves after it is swallowed. Also called the "finish." Fine wines have a lingering finish.
Aroma: A broad term to describe a wine's smell. Younger wines have aroma, not bouquet.
Bouquet: The often complex aromas, such as black cherries, apples, mint or thyme, that develop with age in fine wines.
Buttery: Describes a wine with an aroma and flavor of butter. Most often used in describing Chardonnay.
Corked: Wines become corked when bacteria in the cork interact with chemical residue that remains in corks or bottles after they are cleaned. Corked wine has a defective odor and flavor. Any wine - regardless of quality or price - can become corked.
Oaky: Aroma and flavor that derive from aging in oak casks or barrels. Characterized by smokiness, vanilla or other spices.
Oxidized: The stale, flat aroma and flavor of wine spoiled by overexposure to air.
Tannin: A natural component in the skins, seeds and stems of grapes. It's most noticeable in reds, where it creates a dry, puckering sensation in young wines. It mellows with age and gives some red wines a firm structure.
Varietal: Wine made from a specific variety of grape, such as Chardonnay, Cabernet, Merlot, Riesling or Pinot Noir. In France and other European countries, wines are named after the region in which they are made, not the grape.
Vintage: The year the grapes were grown and harvested. A vintage year is printed on the labels of most wines.