Israel is reopening and premiering as the world's wine destination

There are more than 50 wineries in the Jerusalem area alone, with some of them built in areas where wine was made thousands of years ago.

 The vines at Bravdo winery. (photo credit: LAURA BEN DAVID)
The vines at Bravdo winery.
(photo credit: LAURA BEN DAVID)

As Israel reopens to tourists as the pandemic eases, the Tourism Ministry is looking for new ways to market Israel. The Jewish state has long been a religious and historical destination, but it is rarely thought of as a wine destination. That honor goes to places like Tuscany or Bordeaux. Yet according to Anat Aviya Naya, wine tourism brand manager for the Tourism Ministry, Israel has a lot to offer both the serious oenophile and the casual tippler.

“We have a culture and a history of wine here,” Naya said. “We have more than 300 wineries in Israel, and the wine we are making gets rave reviews in the whole world.”

There are more than 50 wineries in the Jerusalem area alone, with some of them built in areas where wine was made thousands of years ago. At the Bin-Nun Winery in Kfar Bin-Nun in the Ayalon Valley, ancient winepresses dot the area between the vines.

“You peek under the ground and history is there,” said Talia Yashuv of the Hebrew University’s Institute of Archaeology. “We are going back to a land that knows how to grow vines.”

The cofounder of the Bin-Nun Winery, Dr. Danny Yaniv, is a physician who also has a passion for wine.

 Lina Slotzkin with the amphorae. (credit: LAURA BEN DAVID) Lina Slotzkin with the amphorae. (credit: LAURA BEN DAVID)

“You get a feel for the ancient landscape,” he said holding a glass of the winery’s Reserve 2019, a Bordeaux-style blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Syrah and Petit Verdot. “We are standing in an area where they used to make wine 3,000 years ago.”

He also points out an ancient mikveh ritual bath that was used for purification.

While the Israeli wine industry has ancient roots, there was a winemaking gap of hundreds of years when the Muslim Ottoman Empire was in charge here. It was only in the late 1800s (the Carmel Mizrahi Winery was established by Baron Rothschild in 1882) that Israel’s modern wine industry began. And in truth, it was only in the 1990s, with the Golan Heights Winery, that Israeli wine could compete on an international scale.

Israeli wine still has a marketing problem, and Israeli wine is often placed in the kosher aisle next to the cloyingly sweet Manischewitz wine. While most – although not all – Israeli wine is kosher, almost all of it is a dry wine made from international grapes like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Israelis tend to prefer red wine, even though the Mediterranean climate is more suited to whites and roses.

At the Bravdo Winery in Karmei Yosef, science is king. The winery was started by two professors, Ben Ami Bravdo, who today is 88, and Oded Shoseyov. The winery began with just 2,400 bottles in 2001, became kosher in 2009, and today makes 100,000 bottles. It is an estate winery, meaning all of the grapes are grown in vineyards owned by the winery. The marketing manager is Bravdo’s daughter, Hadar Bravdo Elroy.

“Excellent wine is an outcome of excellent agriculture,” she said. “The soil here is limestone-rich with chalk, and there is a big difference in temperature between day and night.”

She said they use Israeli-innovated drip irrigation to irrigate the vines. The Sauvignon Blanc I tasted was crisp and minerally, more in the style of France than California.

Some wineries in Israel offer a glimpse of ancient winemaking techniques. In Kadma Winery in Kfar Uriah, which is halfway between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem, founder Lina Slotzkin uses techniques from her native Georgia. The wine is fermented and aged in clay jars or amphorae that are imported from Georgia. Wine has been made this way for thousands of years.

In fact, Israeli archaeologists recently discovered the remains of a huge Byzantine winery in Yavne, which included a factory to manufacture the clay jugs where the wine is fermented. Slotzkin says that the oldest amphorae in Georgia date back 80,000 years.

“The fermentation in a clay jug is slower, gentler, and more even, so it takes much longer,” she said. “In a regular winery, fermentation can take 20 days, here it takes six weeks.”

These are just three of more than 300 wineries in Israel. Most welcome visitors and offer tastings. Many also have restaurants or offer specialty cheeses as well. Israel is known for its religious sites and its history. Now Israeli officials hope it will be known for its wine as well.