Monday evening could not have come sooner. Finally, a reprieve from the awful summer heat wave which absorbed Israel the past week was now softened by the breeze and the setting sun, as the Jerusalem Wine Festival got underway at the Israel Museum.
It was a change from the rather chaotic reality and divisions that Israelis have been facing recently – “the grape escape,” as a friend quipped. With it came a return to communality – the sole purpose to bring us together at the annual festival as we indulged in vino goodness and became inebriated with life.
“You’re all our little test rabbits,” quipped Shir, a staff member dispensing vintages and information at the Barkan Winery station, the first one I visited, as she unveiled the Beta Series. “We named it ‘Beta’ because it is experimental,” she said as I sipped the light and fragrant orange wine.
This type of wine – an overnight sensation in the wine world – is a rare kind of white wine in which the grape skins are not removed during the fermenting process. As a result, the wine has a deep, orange/amber hue (not to be mistaken for a mimosa), though this year’s crop created a lighter tinge. If this is what being a test rabbit means, I’m more than happy to hop to it.
Jerusalem Wine Festival: Exemplifying the Israeli spirit through world-class wine
Wine has been produced in Israel for millennia, but only recently has the industry (regional politics aside) started booming and blossoming, becoming an exciting force to be reckoned with among Old World wine countries. The Israeli spirit is one of determination and inventiveness, perfectly exemplified by its wineries gaining world-class recognition, and the Jerusalem Wine Festival has always been its true showcase.
In recent years, the number of big-name wineries participating in the festival has been shrinking, with ticket prices increasing incrementally. However, the opening evening, and the following three festival nights, were a welcome change from previous years.
The festival embraced a more low-key approach, focusing mostly on quality versus quantity; smaller wineries were able to shine, and the smaller lines and quieter atmosphere allowed some sommeliers to be more personable. Festival goers were seen enjoying the full bubbly experience, allowing for much-needed schmoozing and mingling in these trying times.
Nothing seems to unify Israelis more than yelling “Mazel tov!” in tandem as a tipsy reveler accidentally drops a wine glass to the floor.
Besides established names like Teperberg, Meron, Tabor, Chateau Golan, and Pelter (alongside Domaine du Castel and Matar as part of the Avi Ben Wine Shop), there were a few moments of innovation among the wineries.
Feldstein, a garagiste (small-scale, entrepreneurial) winery by legendary winemaker Avi Feldstein, showed off its fascinating Dabuki white, made with indigenous, ancient grapes from the Carmel that have been engineered and reconstructed from their original counterparts. The sommelier said it was “almost like Jurassic Park” to him.
Another is Odem Mountain Winery, Israel’s northernmost and highest winery, which grows its vines in volcanic soil, lending its Cabernet Sauvignon a powerful and heavy taste. A quote by its founder, Michael Alfasi, greeted me there: “A family is the steadfast ground and the growth bed for making every dream come true; small or big, it is in your hands.”
Shorr Estate Winery, hailing out of Ma’aleh Adumim, offered a touch that was close to home with an impressive array of bottles. One was an elegant and balanced, completely dry, white Muscat; another a light rose, an 80-20 blend of Merlot and Syrah, both originating from the Shikma Stream in the northern Negev; as well as a heartily sweet, 16-month-old Portofino.
AS FOR NON-wine beverages, the Hollander distillery offered a tasty apple, passion fruit, and rum liqueur. Grand Mayan displayed four stages of aged tequila, ranging in flavor and intensity. Tea Lovers TLV showcased their fascinating tea concentrates, with extracts of chai masala and matcha green tea, two drinks the Israeli public must properly familiarize themselves with, as well as refreshing fruit infusions.
However, the extras should be just what they are – extras. They shouldn’t take any of the wine’s spotlight, and certainly not be replacements for it.
There were plenty of staple “hangover foods” being served, ranging from classics like pizzas and fish ‘n’ chips to underrated eats such as creamed baked potatoes and dim sum, in addition to churros, cheese platters, ice creams, and gorgeous handcrafted chocolates (the Yuzu one is to die for).
The fact that food is not included in the festival price has been criticized in the past, considering that it is not a good idea to drink large amounts of wine on an empty stomach (unless you’re one for alcohol poisoning... then by all means!). But the food prices are relatively inexpensive, and the quality and quantity are decent.
This year, the stand of retailer Traeger BBQ Grill stood out as a painful acquisitive move by the festival organizers, as they hawked their grill merchandise. What did unabashedly selling grills have to do with wine? It’s hard enough to balance anything while imbibing, let alone carrying a heavy grill home!
The live music performances were either soothing or sing-along-y, with well-done instrumentals. The band’s leading man displayed his charming Israeli accent in old favorites such as “Sweet Home Alabama” and “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
Ticket prices were high, at NIS 120 per person. If you add street food and dessert, you could be set back NIS 200, which on paper might not be worth it to a lot of people – though the joy of being out and about in the holy city on a sultry summer night is priceless.
On its 21st birthday, the Jerusalem Wine Festival might not have had the wildest or grandest celebration, but it seems to be turning its head toward a more refined, mature, and unifying experience, for which we all could raise a toast. L’chaim! ❖