A viniculture revival

The sale of fine Israeli wines is growing internationally, but local consumption is low.

Winery Israel 521 (photo credit: BAZ RATNER / REUTERS)
Winery Israel 521
(photo credit: BAZ RATNER / REUTERS)
They sniffed, they swirled, they spit, and they scribbled. Sitting around large square tables, the 30 judges rated wine after wine after wine at the international Terravino Wine and Spirits Challenge, which took place at the YMCA in downtown Jerusalem in early December. Now in its sixth year, the Terravino Challenge is sponsored by the Grape Man, a wine school and shop in the Old City of Jaffa.
“The fact that major wine producers are willing to bring their wines here, to this tiny country, shows that we’ve really arrived,” says Jonathan Livny, wine critic for israelwines.co.il, a Hebrew-language website devoted to the wine industry. “This shows that Israeli wine has come of age,” he adds. Of the 700 wines in the competition, 40 percent are from Israel and the rest are from 33 countries around the world, including several countries not usually known for producing wine – Albania, Macedonia and Iceland.
The judges come from both Israel and around the world. Each panel, a group of six judges, sits around a square table, covered with a white tablecloth. The bottles are covered with black plastic bags, to prevent the judges from knowing what they are tasting. Hundreds of large wine glasses line the sideboard – the glasses are changed for every wine to prevent mixing of tastes.
The competition is not open to the public. The few journalists who are allowed into the tasting room are sternly warned to be silent and not to touch any of the wines or glasses. A few weeks later, Grape Man offers a wine-themed weekend open to the public, showcasing the wines that won.
Each panel of six judges tastes different wines, a total of 45 wines each day. The judges take a sip, spit it into a bucket, and scribble notes on the wine in more than a dozen categories including color, bouquet, taste and balance. All of the wines in the competition are tasted “blind,” meaning the judges know only the vintage year, the alcohol and sugar content and the price category. This is the common way that most wine tastings are held. The individual scores are supposed to be secret.
“Eighty-seven, eighty-nine, ninety,” one portly judge mutters to himself, somewhat bending that rule. The wines are rated in each category on a scale of 1 to 100, with100 being a perfect wine. The scale was created by Robert Parker, the preeminent wine critic in the US, and is used in most wine competitions around the world.
According to Parker’s website, wines scoring from 96 to 100 are “extraordinary,” wines rated 90-95 are outstanding, and 80- 89 are classified as “barely above average to very good.” One of the judges is Shuki Rauchberger, the winemaker at Viniculture, one of the country’s oldest wineries. Rauchberger, an observant Jew, wears a large green knitted kippa, and at lunch at the YMCA’s nonkosher restaurant, he eats a pre-packaged kosher lunch with plastic cutlery, while the others dine on salmon and steak. But since the wine-tasting was done “blind,” Rauchberger tastes dozens of non-kosher wines each day. How does he manage to combine Orthodox Judaism and non-kosher wine? “First of all, I spit and don’t swallow so I’m not really drinking it,” he tells The Report with a smile. “But I consulted with several rabbis when I first started studying winemaking and they said that if it’s for my livelihood, then it’s OK.” In other words, to make a living one is allowed to bend the rules a little.
Rauchberger, a burly white-haired man with an easy smile, studied wine-making at the University of California, Davis, considered one of the best wine programs in the world. He became the chief winemaker of Teperberg in 2002, and has taken it from a winery making sweet sacramental wines and inexpensive table wines to one that is making very good wines that are still relatively inexpensive. Rauchberger is also one of the very few winemakers to make wine from Malbec grapes, which are popular in Argentina.
“ The highest grade I gave today was a 90,” says judge Sam Soroka, the American born winemaker at Mony Winery, located near the city of Beit Shemesh, some 20 miles west of Jerusalem. “I’m so happy to be part of this,” he tells The Report on the second day of the competition. “It’s an opportunity to taste Israeli wines in the context of world wines and see where Israel is.” Owned by Christian Arabs and located next to a monastery, Mony Winery makes kosher wines that are sold around the world. For a wine to be kosher, only observant Jews must touch the wine from the time that the grapes are pressed until the wine is in the bottle. Soroka himself is not religiously observant, so he cannot touch the wine. Instead, a mashgiah or kashrut supervisor is on hand. The owners themselves cannot touch the wine, either.
In recent years, there has been a growing trend among Israeli wineries to become kosher to be able to export to Jews abroad, especially to the US. While the large wineries such as Carmel, Golan Heights, and Barkan have always been kosher, boutique wineries – defined as wineries that produce up to 100,000 bottles a year – are also increasingly becoming kosher. Some notable examples of quality boutique wineries that have recently turned kosher are Flam and Castel, near Jerusalem, and Alexander, in the Sharon plain.
Grape Man owner Haim Gan says Terravino is an excellent boost to the local wine industry, which has made tremendous strides in the past 20 years. Israeli wines today are winning prizes in international competitions and have been positively reviewed in wine magazines like “Wine Spectator.” Until the 1980s, there were only eight wineries in Israel; today, there are more than 300 making 50 million bottles a year.
“Until the 1980s, all we made here was cheap dry wine or sacramental sweet wine for Kiddush,” Gan tells The Report. “Today, ,we have dozens of wine-makers in their late 20s and early 30s who went to the best schools and are making some wonderful wines.” The winners of Terravino were announced at a gala dinner at the Jerusalem Crowne Plaza Hotel. The dinner was the kickoff of a wine weekend for enthusiasts that included guided tastings and lectures on wine.
The big winners had some surprises. The Grand Champion Trophy for the Best International Wine in Competition went to Vinarstvi Czech Sauvignon Ice Wine 2010 from the Czech Republic. Ice wine, made using frozen grapes, is a sweet dessert wine.Israel’s Grand Champion Trophy for the Best Israeli Wine in Competition went to Barkan Winery for the Barkan Superieur Pinotage 2007. That wine also won the Best Kosher Israeli Wine, and the winery won the Best Israeli Winemaker. Pinotage is a grape well-known in South Africa.
Winemaker Irit Boxer-Shank is thrilled with the accolades. “It’s only the second time we made this wine and I knew it was something special,” she tells The Report. “I think it will help many wine drinkers move beyond Cabernet and Merlot.”
Some critics say that wine competitions, in general, and Terravino, in particular, give out too many prizes. Wineries pay $160 to enter their wines and are responsible for shipping the bottles to the competitions. Since there are so many categories and so many different medals, most of the wines win some kind of prize. Organizer Haim Gan disagrees. “There are dozens of wines that didn’t win anything,” he says.
At the boutique Bazelet Hagolan winery in Kidmat Tzvi on the Golan Heights, almost a dozen framed winning certificates from Terravino are behind the bar in the winery’s tasting room. The owners are clearly proud of their awards and believe it will help sales. But other wineries prefer to stay away from competitions. “I never enter these things,” one winemaker, who does not give his name, tells The Report. He says he prefers to remain anonymous rather than be known as the “bad guy,” who comes out against competition. “My test is the market. People buy all my wine so why do I need to bother with competitions?”
Israeli wine goes back thousands of years. Archaeologists have discovered more than 3,000 ancient wine presses, some dating back 4,000 years. The Greeks used to send soldiers to buy wine and olive oil from the Holy Land, according to archaeological evidence and recorded documentation.
Islam forbids drinking alcohol or even touching it, and during the Ottoman Empire the local wine industry languished. It was reborn during the 1880s when French Baron Edmond de Rothschild encouraged the fledgling Yishuv (the pre-State Jewish community) to begin producing wine. But the industry really took off in 1983, with the establishment of the Golan Heights Winery, today one of the country’s leading wineries, producing more than six million bottles annually, almost one-third of which is exported. Compared to major European wine producers like Italy and France, however, Israel still has a long way to go in terms of developing a wine culture. In France, wine consumption is 45 liters per person per year, in Italy it is 42. Israelis, in contrast, drink only five liters per person per year.
Israeli wine also suffers from a branding problem – the kosher stamp. To many consumers abroad, kosher equals sweet wine that can resemble cough syrup. Today, many wine drinkers abroad still do not know that Israel is producing excellent wines that are worth trying whether or not they are kosher.
Israel produces many varietals (types of grapes) that are made internationally. But there are also varietals that are unique to the Middle East. “The future of Israeli wine is not Cabernet or Merlot,” Gan says. “We need to promote an Israeli-style wine, with Israeli varietals. It should reflect the Mediterranean climate and soil we have here.”Turkey, he says, produces 800 varietals of grapes and Greece produces 400. In Israel there are only two unique native varietals – Emerald Riesling and Argaman. Until now, Emerald Riesling has been used in cheap, budget wines and Argaman has been used mainly for color.
“The world of wine has become more international,” Gan tells the Terravino guests. “Excellent wines can come from anywhere, and these days, excellent wine is coming from Israel.”