Technology uncorks the Israeli wine industry

No one would mistake Cynthia Mannesman for being Kosher. The perky investment banker from Grotz Austria "never met Jewish people before moving to London." However, Cynthia may be the future of the Israeli wine industry. "I saw that Carmel won ''Best Wine'' from Decanter Magazine, so I had to give it a try." Technology is helping Israeli winemakers to rapidly improve the quality of their wines.

No Israeli winery has won more awards than Golan Heights, where Victor Schoenfeld is Head Winemaker. "We invested the most in technology over the last 20 years but have also made the most profit... to me, the two go hand-in-hand." In fact, Golan Heights Winery earned 40% of all Israeli wine export revenues last year. "This is a young region. Technology helps us better understand the local conditions."

Victor is engaged in multiple technical projects. This includes working with legendary California winemaker Zelma Long to improve vineyard quality. Mapping is also an important tool for gaining better insights about the local ''terroir'' (environmental and growing conditions). Victor uses a variety of satellite, ecological and landscape mapping technologies. Other ways that technology is being used include the following:
Climate: Soils in the Golan are homogenous (volcanic) but elevations vary wildly. To accurately measure these micro-climates, Victor created a network of 13 meteorological stations, with second-by-second measurement. "We can calculate evaporation or vapor pressure deficit (VPD) from site to site, season to season, year to year."
Soil:  Renowned Israeli soil surveyor, Yoshua Mager, was able to classify five unique sub-types of local soils.  These ongoing studies help Victor to correlate vine performance with different soil types.
Geographical Mapping (NDVI): NDVI mapping is like an x-ray of the vineyard. This was developed by the US military and adapted for agriculture by Dr. Phil Freese. Working with Dr. Freese, NDVI is enabling Victor to monitor and measure each vineyard block. At any time, the winery knows how much light is reflected off the leaves, the amount of sunlight absorbed, etc. "We can quickly generate a map, with break-outs by block. The NDVI tells us how to harvest and where to separate the blocks."
ECS (Electro Conductivity Scanning): Another tool used for measuring soil quality at Golan Heights Winery is Electron Conductivity Scanning (ECS). This creates a clear map of soil variation. After laboratory analysis, the winery can make detailed maps about growing quality. For example, soil type by texture (ie how much silt, sand, clay) or field absorption capacity. Victor calls this "a huge step forward in the way we plant vineyards."
Irrigation: Israel receives one-third the rainfall of most European wine-growing regions. As a result, irrigation and water efficiency are essential. Helping these efforts is plant physiologist, Dr Michael Kopyt. He has introduced a proprietary model for Golan Heights Winery to calculate vine water status between physical measurements. Studying patterns of stress over a season allows Victor to know if growers need to irrigate, accelerate or postpone the harvest. "We can get to harvest with healthier canopies and use less water to do it."
Plant propagation (Entav): The world-leader in plant propagation is Entav of France. Golan Heights Winery is growing Entav-branded plant material (clones) and will begin selling this to other Israeli vineyards next year. Besides improving quality, this should also reduce the prevalence of Leaf Roll Virus- the most troublesome disease for Israeli wine growers.
All of these efforts are meant to support Victor''s primary objective- making world-class wines. "It will take time... but I don''t see why we should not be among the top regions in the world."
Ben-Ami Bravdo, who previously ran the department of Horticulture and Viticulture at Hebrew University, is another influential figure in the Israeli wine industry. Although there are now four Israeli universities with Viticulture departments, most of Israel''s leading winemakers studied under him at Hebrew University. Dr. Bravdo is still a prominent figure in the wine world, serving as Chairman of the ISHS (International Society for Horticulture Sciences) Vine and Berry Fruits section and a member of OIV (Organisation Internationale de la Vigne et du Vin) group of experts.

Earlier in his career, Dr. Bravdo helped popularize drip irrigation. "This process, invented in Israel, saves water and stabilizes plant growth." As a senior advisor for Israeli company Netafim (the largest drip irrigation company in the world) "I promoted drip irrigation to winemakers, especially in the New World. I wanted growers to realize it is possible to increase yields AND quality. Drip irrigation, with chemical analysis, allows growers to determine the best time for harvest, the amount of cropload, and so many other factors that can improve quality."
Together with another Hebrew University Professor of Biotechnology (his former PhD student, Oded Shosheyov), Dr. Bravdo runs the winery Karmei Yosef. "Oded wrote his dissertation on the biosynthesis of aroma compounds in must and its effect on wine quality. We want to apply our experience in the classroom toward making great wines." 
Experimenting with the chemical properties of the wines has helped this young winery, founded in 2001, create a number of world-class wines. For example, Karmei Yosef wines are recognized for their aromas. "We intentionally enhance the hydrolization (separating the glucose from the terpenes). You can only smell volatilecompounds. The difference between a warm and cool climate is that in hot climates the evaporation of volatile compounds is higher. Even when they evaporate, there is more hydrolysis from storage of bound sugar aroma compounds (glucosides) . That is why we harvest at night when the temperatures are low, so the volatile escape is lower. We also control the amount of volatiles during fermentation by controlling the temperature."
Whether in the fields of Golan Heights Winery or the lab at Karmei Yosef, world-class technical expertise is helping the Israeli wine industry to improve quality. In Part II of this article, we will look at the next big challenge facing the industry- marketing Israeli wines to a global audience.