Wine country closer to home

Once, local oenophiles had to travel to the Golan Heights or Upper Galilee. Today they can sip and savor high-caliber vintage in the up-and-coming wine region of the Judean Hills.

Castel's Grand Vin-a red Bordeaux-style blend. (photo credit: Domaine du Castel)
Castel's Grand Vin-a red Bordeaux-style blend.
(photo credit: Domaine du Castel)
For Israel’s winemakers, that means one thing: the grape harvest. Time was, local oenophiles had to travel to the Golan Heights or Upper Galilee for high-caliber vintage. But today, those living in the Jerusalem and Tel Aviv areas have ample options for winery tours closer to home in the up-and-coming wine region of the Judean Hills.
Listed here are a handful of top-notch central region wineries that offer tours to the general public. These wineries charge a fee for tastings and require reservations ahead of time, so be sure to call ahead.
Be forewarned, however, that visiting more than three or four at a time isn’t recommended – the kids will get restless and the driver tipsy unless he or she spits out the libations. Worst of all, your taste buds will lose their sensitivity and your senses will dull to the splendor that is the fruit of Israel’s vines.
In Ramat Raziel, a moshav on Route 395 just 17 kilometers west of Jerusalem, lies Domaine du Castel, the big daddy of Judean Hills wineries. It’s a great place to start, both for the warm welcome offered by the Ben- Zaken family, which runs it, and because the wines are so superb you’ll want your palate good and fresh.
Eli Ben-Zaken – an Egypt-born and Switzerland, Italy and England-educated wine lover – founded the winery in 1988 shortly after making aliya. Lacking any vintner’s experience but “prompted by intuition,” he planted a small vineyard on a hilltop beside his home.
Since then, Castel has grown into one of Israel’s premier labels, a fixture in tony restaurants at home and abroad.
Part of Castel’s success lies in its “less is more” approach – its entire range is limited to three wines: “C” chardonnay, Petit Castel and its flagship Grand Vin (the latter two are red Bordeaux-style blends).
All three wines have been kosher since the 2003 vintage.
Currently producing 100,000 bottles a year, Castel is opening new markets in Europe and Japan.
For a relatively small fee (call for details), visitors can tour the winery grounds and cellars, then sit down with Ben-Zaken’s sons, Eytan and Ariel, for tastings – more often than not accompanied by fine cheese and pleasant conversation.
The brothers give hundreds of tours a year, but with their hearty welcome and passion for all things wine, you’d never know it.
Domaine du Castel, Ramat Raziel, (02) 534-2249.
CONTINUING WEST on Route 395 is Moshav Eshtaol, home to the venerable Flam Winery, founded in 1998 by brothers Gilad and Golan Flam as one of Israel’s first boutique wineries.
The owners’ father, Israel, was for 30 years chief winemaker at Carmel, the country’s oldest and, to this day, largest wine producer.
Gilad is CEO and Golan the vintner, bringing experience from study in Italy and Australia to create finely crafted wines consistently rated as among Israel’s best, and – starting with the 2010 vintage – all of them kosher.
“The most important things is the orchards,” says Gilad Flam. “We know each dunam, exactly what’s happening there.”
Having branched out from its boutique roots, Flam now produces 100,000 bottles a year, 85 percent of which stays in Israel. The rest is shipped abroad, mostly to the East Coast of the United States.
Highlights include the Superiore Syrah – hailed as “suave and elegantly constructed” and rated 90 by the eminent US wine critic Robert Parker – and the complex, dominant Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon Reserves, both lauded by Israeli critic Daniel Rogov with 92 and 94 ratings respectively.
For a NIS 60 fee – or NIS 100 to include a variety of artisanal breads and cheeses – visitors can tour the winery and sample some of Flam’s wares. There is also a food and gift shop adjacent to the winery, and nearby Martyrs’ Forest is an ideal spot for a picnic.
Flam Winery, Moshav Eshtaol, (02) 992-9923 or 054- 211-3324. Closed Saturdays.
FURTHER SOUTH on 395 is Agur, a rustic moshav hosting a boutique winery by the same name. Shuki Yashuv is the colorful proprietor of the operation, founded in 1997 and now producing 30,000 bottles a year, all kosher.
Agur produces four varieties, all of them blends, from a refreshing Rosé to the exquisite Special Reserve red.
Come for the wine, but stay for the conversation, as Yashuv proffers nuggets of wisdom to all comers at his breezy vineyard-side picnic table.
Tastings are just NIS 20, the cost of which is refunded upon purchase at the winery store.
Agur Winery, Moshav Agur, (02) 999-5423. Call ahead on weekdays, or drop in Fridays or Saturdays between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m.)
PAST BEIT Shemesh on Route 375 is the Ella Valley Winery, founded in 2002 near the site where, according to tradition, David slew Goliath. All the offerings are kosher – the winery was created with the express aim of creating top-notch kosher wines.
Ella Valley grows 750 dunams of grapes – twice as much as it needs – and harvests grapes by hand at night, ensuring only the finest fruit goes into its bottles.
Today it produces some 200,000 bottles annually (40 percent for export) of its Ever Red, Ella Valley and Vineyard’s Choice lines. All three lines are premium – wine considered substandard is sold off to other producers.
The winery makes three whites and seven reds, including the just-released Vineyard’s Choice Syrah and Cabernet Sauvignon and a 2007 Syrah varietal (aged 16 months in French oak and two years in bottle).
A sampling session in the plush tasting room costs NIS 65, and groups of 10 or more may tour the winery as well.
Ella Valley Winery, Kibbutz Netiv Halamed Heh, (02) 999-4885. Open Sundays through Thursdays 9 a.m.-4 p.m., Fridays 9 a.m.-1 p.m.)
WHILE IN the area, consider visiting Tzora, a Beit Shemesh-area kibbutz with its allkosher winery and nearby specialty delicatessen – an ideal place to stop for lunch.
Offerings include the flagship Misty Hills and single-vineyard Shoresh and Neve Ilan series, all grown with grapes from the winery’s own estate.
Tzora Vineyards, Kibbutz Tzora (02) 990-8261. Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
FROM THE kibbutz, it’s a hop, skip and jump to the handsome Deir Rafat monastery, where on Saturdays visitors may be allowed to tour the grounds, depending on the mood of the resident Catholic monks. Don’t miss the church ceiling, which features the word “peace” written in some 340 languages.
Adjoining the monastery is Mony, a small winery owned by the Artuls, a Christian family from the Galilee village of Maghar. The winery – named for the Artuls’ son, a cardiologist who himself succumbed to heart disease – is now helmed by Sam Soroka, a noted vintner in his own right.
All its wines are kosher, and the adjacent shop offers homemade olive oil, honey and goat cheese.
Mony Wines, Deir Rafat Monastery (02) 991- 6629. Open daily 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
THE PAST decade and a half has witnessed epic strides in the Israeli wine industry, and this year’s harvest promises to be no exception.
Quality is improving annually, and the wine world has taken notice.
Areas once distant from Israel’s traditional viniculture areas are producing exquisite wines – meaning residents of Israel’s main population hubs can easily and spontaneously enjoy a taste of wine country much closer to home.