Wine Talk: Redemption & revival on the Golan Heights

No activity in the vineyard of a serious winery takes place without the authority and approval of the winemaker.

SALAH ZAHWY, wine grower of Allone Habashan vineyard on the Golan Heights. (photo credit: GOLAN HEIGHTS WINERY)
SALAH ZAHWY, wine grower of Allone Habashan vineyard on the Golan Heights.
(photo credit: GOLAN HEIGHTS WINERY)
The trained professional who has studied the science of agriculture is called an agronomist, and the person who has studied viticulture, the science of vineyards, is called a viticulturist. The manager of the vineyards is commonly known as a grower. The French have a word for the person who grows grapes to make wine: a vigneron.
Once, the two professions of grower and winemaker were separate entities. The grower grew the grapes and the winemaker made wine. All decisions in the vineyard were decided by the grower, and the winemaker took the job of the chef, making the wine from the fruit he received at the winery. A winemaker would never be seen in the vineyard. The grower and winemaker would probably meet for the first time during the harvest, when the grapes were brought to the winery.
One of the main results of the Israel wine revolution led by the Golan Heights Winery, was that the decision making in the vineyard, including how to prune and when to harvest, passed for ever from the grower to the winery. Grape growers became known as “wine growers,” and any serious winemaker will now spend a fair proportion of their time in the vineyard. No activity in the vineyard of a serious winery takes place without the authority and approval of the winemaker.
No doubt, the grower is still a crucial component in a successful wine. The winemaker receives all the credit, but if as we now say, wine is grown in the vineyard, then the grower is crucial.
You can’t make good wine from bad fruit. If wine is a product of a person and a place, then the person who affects the quality could be divided into both wine grower and winemaker. In a small winery, the grower is even more influential, and resulting wines often more individual. Even in a large winery, the grower is often an unsung hero.
The Golan Heights Winery recently launched two new single vineyard wines from the Allone Habashan Vineyard on the Golan Heights, which tell a unique story, which is particularly complimentary to the grower. These are no ordinary single vineyard wines. They come from a vineyard known for producing good wines in the past, which became infected by the virus that is the scourge of Israeli vineyards. It was replanted and rejuvenated with a thoroughness, professionalism and large investment that also tells a great deal about long-term planning of the winery.
The Golan Heights Winery was the pioneering winery of Israel that effected real change. It has led the way not only in terms of quality of wines and awards won, but also in technology at the winery, research and development in the vineyards. The desire to go for long-term quality whatever the cost, has been most surely illustrated with the winery’s response to the chronic virus problem in Israel.
THE GLORIOUS fruit produced in the Allone Habashan vineyard, which is turned into award-winning wines. (Golan Heights Winery)THE GLORIOUS fruit produced in the Allone Habashan vineyard, which is turned into award-winning wines. (Golan Heights Winery)
Over many decades, Israel has been importing unclean plant material unknowingly, and as a result, vineyards all over the country have been riddled with leaf roll virus. This plague in the vineyards was not resolved at the governmental, agricultural or winery level. The long-term threat to the future of Israeli wine is very real.
THE GOLAN Heights Winery did not shrug off the threat or assume that “someone else,” like the wine authorities or Agriculture Ministry, would deal with it. Instead, in 2008 they took action in a unique way, taking full responsibility for the health of their own vineyards, and made an enormous investment to create their own propagation block and nursery to ensure clean plant material.
They did so in partnership with ENTAV-INRA in France, the world’s largest and oldest bank for grapevine raw materials, adopting their rigorous standards and guidelines. The Golan Heights Winery’s propagation block and nursery are both up and running, and both are licensed by ENTAV.
The next step the winery took was to make the vineyards sustainable. Following the format of allying themselves with the best and most professional international players, the winery decided to follow the “Lodi Rules” protocol set up in California, becoming the first Israeli winery to be certified as sustainable, and the first international winery to be certified by Lodi Rules.
This brings us back to the Allone Habashan Vineyard. It is situated on the Central Golan Heights at 600 meters elevation (nearly 2,000 feet above sea level), not far from the Syrian border. This story becomes personal when considering the grower.
If a wine reflects the winemaker, a vineyard grows in the image of the person who nurtures and cares for it. With that in mind, please meet Salah Zahwy.
Zahwy is a Druze from the village of Buq’ata in the northern Golan Heights. The Druze are a religious group found not only in Israel, but also in Syria and Lebanon. They are loyal, Arabic-speaking citizens of Israel who serve in the Israeli Army with honor and reach major roles in politics and public service. Jethro of Midian, the father in law of Moses, is their spiritual founder and major prophet.
Yarden Allone Habashan Vineyard 2016. (Hagit Goren)Yarden Allone Habashan Vineyard 2016. (Hagit Goren)
 Yarden Merlot Allone Habashan Vineyard 2016 (Hagit Goren) Yarden Merlot Allone Habashan Vineyard 2016 (Hagit Goren)
There is a large Druze community on the Golan Heights, which adds greatly to the color of the region. They are most known for the Druze cuisine which includes labaneh, pita, olives, stuffed grape leaves, yogurt, and meat-filled pastries. They are very much associated with agriculture of the region, in particular the plentiful apple and cherry orchards. The finest apples and cherries in Israel come from the Golan Heights.
So, agriculture was not off the horizon for Salah Zahwy. He followed a much followed route by working in agriculture, particularly with apples and cherries. In 1999, by chance, he started to work in the winery’s Odem Vineyard and he was taught, inspired and encouraged by Shlomo Zadok, today the manager of the winery’s wine growing department.
He showed an aptitude for this specialist work and learned quickly. Furthermore, he found it interesting, a challenge and far more complex than growing other fruits. He had a touch, an empathy for the vines, and as a result was sought out to manage the Allone Habashan Vineyard. He honed his craft and became a valuable addition to the vineyard managers at the winery.
Imagine the disappointment when the dreaded virus hit his beloved vineyard. At first sight, one is powerless watching the gradual spread of disease, but one carries on stoically because good wine may still be made. However, there is a downward spiral, and many wineries do not have solutions and resources, apart from to carry on come what may.
AS FAR AS Zahwy’s precious vineyard was concerned, there was a solution because of the Golan Heights Winery’s planning, but drastic steps were needed. In 2010, the decision was taken to uproot, or grub up the vineyard, in itself a distressing situation for a grower. Nothing is sadder than a vineyard without vines, or a wine grower without a vineyard.
The vineyard was planted with wheat over two seasons. This replenished the soil and gave back important nutrients. Then the vineyard was replanted with the precious clean plant material grown and nurtured in the winery’s own nursery and propagation block. The results of all this care and attention are now apparent for the first time.
The vineyard was always considered an outstanding one for Merlot, and so it is not a surprise that one of the new wines is the Yarden Allone Habashan Vineyard Merlot 2016. What was sick has been made well, and the excellent Merlot from the vineyard has been restored to its rightful place among the Golan Heights Winery’s finest wines.
The other single vineyard wine is a blend of different varieties in the vineyard. The Yarden Allone Habashan Vineyard 2016 is a blend of 35% Cabernet Sauvignon, 33% Syrah and 32% Merlot. Both wines represent the terroir of the vineyard and the lengths to which this particular winery will go in search of quality. The wines symbolize the return to outstanding quality for the Allone Habashan Vineyard, which has resumed its place as one of the great vineyards of the Golan Heights again.
THE WINE grower caring for his vineyard. (Golan Heights Winery)THE WINE grower caring for his vineyard. (Golan Heights Winery)
As for Salah, who has been the worried parent all the way, he says, “It was a team effort. No one could do it on their own.”
It is true that he is backed by a well-oiled operation that provided support, professionalism and answers to the problems in an individual vineyard. Salah lives the vineyard. He is in it at every opportunity and sees it literally as his baby and responsibility.
He is most at home walking his vineyard, his eyes darting this way and that to take in everything at a glance and ensure all is in its place. Snapping a twig here and pulling a leaf there, he is performing the ritual of the concerned and involved agriculturist. It is almost as if he himself is part of the vineyard, blending among his vines.
He explains, “I look after the vineyard with absolute attention and tender loving care. If a father looked after his children the same way, he would be regarded as an excellent father.”
The proof of the pudding is in the eating. The new wines may look like any other wines of the Golan Heights Winery. They have the characteristic Yarden label with an ancient oil lamp with a mosaic decoration, but the normality of the look masks an amazing story of professionalism, revival and redemption over a number of years.
These particular wines illustrate the unbelievable determination of the winery to produce quality wines and Salah Zawy shows that even in a large company, the successes are due to individuals exhibiting passion and professionalism in equal measure.
The writer is a wine trade veteran who has advanced Israeli wine for over 30 years. He is referred to as ‘the English voice of Israeli wine.’