Wine Talk: Welcome to the ancient world

Israel is part of the Eastern Mediterranean wine-growing region, a region that gave wine culture to the world.

Basalt Stone 311 (photo credit:
Basalt Stone 311
(photo credit:
Israeli wines are invariably considered to be part of a kosher category. However, this is misleading. There are Israeli wines that are not kosher, and “kosher” is not a country.
From a wine point of view, Israel is better described as being part of a wine-growing region, and ours is called the Eastern Mediterranean. This comprises Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Lebanon and Israel.
It is true that it is one of the few wine regions in the world divided by borders of war and religion. However, there are similarities that unite the countries culturally. Mezze, ground coffee and anise-flavored spirits like arak, raki or ouzo are just three things that come to mind.
Furthermore, there are similarities in their wine industries. The Eastern Mediterranean was the region that gave wine culture to the world, long before the vine even reached the rest of Europe. This is the region that was the France and Italy of biblical times. The history, archeology, literature and folklore of the era bear witness to a very advanced wine industry, which was a mainstay of the economy and an important part of the lifestyle. If Europe is the old world of wine-making, and Australia and California are the new world, then the Eastern Mediterranean must be the ancient world!
This is an area that produced pretty dire wine for 2,000 years, but there has been an incredible turnaround in quality in the last 20 years or so. Greece and Lebanon have gone through quality revolutions similar to what has happened in Israel. There are some wonderful wines from both countries.
Greece has by far the largest and most exciting wine industry in the region. Not unlike the experience in Israel, hosts of small quality boutique wineries have opened, and the larger wineries have responded positively with quality investments of their own.
It is a country with 300 indigenous wine grapes, including the well-known red varieties like Xinomavro from the Nauossa region and Aghorghitiko from Nemea. The dessert wines like the muscats from Samos, the port style Mavrodaphne and the Vinsanto, from sun-dried grapes, are both original and world class. Also the white wines made from the Assyrtiko grape, particularly on the volcanic island of Santorini, are superb. The best of the larger wineries are Boutari and Tsantali, and of the smaller boutique wineries Gerovassiliou, Gaia, Kir Yanni and Alpha Estate are recommended. However, there is great depth of quality throughout Greece.
The Lebanese wine industry is tiny; but whereas 15 years ago there were only five wineries, today there are more than 30. Lebanese wines are heavily influenced by French traditions, as most of their winemakers were trained in France. Their red wines are genuinely good, showing the full fruit flavor of the Lebanese sun and the spiciness of the Eastern Mediterranean.
Apart from the iconic Chateau Musar, the most famous winery in the whole region, the best of the larger wineries are Ksara and Kefraya. The smaller wineries like Massaya and Clos St. Thomas are maintaining the overall move to quality, and they are being further strengthened by exciting new boutique wineries like Chateau Belle-Vue and Domaine de Baal. The main growing region is still the Bekaa Valley, but some of the newer boutiques are planting vineyards in other parts of Lebanon.
Though slower off the mark, in recent years Cyprus and Turkey are also starting to make very encouraging changes. Cyprus has the highest per-capita concentration of vineyards in the world. However, until recently it was known only for the treacly dessert wine Commandaria, the world’s oldest wine brand dating from the 12th-century Crusades.
However, now there is a mini revolution afoot in Cyprus and a new desire to make quality wines. The larger wineries are SODAP and Keo, but arguably the better wines come from new boutique wineries, such as Kyperounda, Tsiakkas, Vlassides and Zambartas. The reds from the local Maratheftiko grape and whites made from Xynisteri are best. As in Israel, the best vineyards are at higher altitudes, and in particular in the foothills of the Troodos Mountains in the southwest of the country.
Turkey has the fourth-largest area of vineyards in the world, but only 2 percent of the grape yield is used to make wine. Turkey, though, does have some unique and interesting indigenous varieties like Boglazkere, Okuzgozu and Kalecik Karasi among the red grapes, and Narince and Emir for whites.
The three largest wineries – Kavaklidere, Doluca and Kayra – are arguably making the best wines and leading a new drive for quality. There are, however, new small wineries like Corvus and Buyulubag that are investing in quality.
The Eastern Mediterranean is making exciting wines that are sought by enterprising sommeliers and wine stores for their quality, originality and the fact that they come from the world’s “newest” quality wine region. Israeli wines should be listed on wine lists and displayed on wine shelves along with those of Greece and Lebanon.
This is far preferable to Israeli wines being hidden, stateless, in a kosher section. European, South American and Australasian wines are often bracketed together. Why not also the wines of the Eastern Mediterranean? After all, the Jewish winemakers of Israel share a common purpose with the Christian winemakers of Lebanon and Cyprus and the Muslim winemakers of Turkey. As I often say, if the people of the region drank more wine and less coffee, it might be a more peaceful place.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Wine and writes about wine for Israeli and international publications.
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