Wine Talk: Almost Israeli

The presence of Carignan in Israel preceded even Baron Edmond de Rothschild – but the debate over which grape is better for Israel is still going strong.

Grapes 311 (photo credit: OFER ZEMACH)
Grapes 311
(photo credit: OFER ZEMACH)
Carignan has been the backbone of the Israeli wine industry for nearly 130 years, being present since the 1880s. When the first tentative steps in viticulture were taken in 1882 by a small number of farmers in the Rishon Lezion area, they planted some local Arab varieties but also a grape they called “Corignan.”
So the presence of Carignan in Israel preceded even the involvement of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, the founder of the modern Israel wine industry.
However, when the Baron came on his first visit in 1887, he insisted on concentrating more on Bordeaux varieties such as cabernet franc, cabernet sauvignon and malbec.
This was the beginning of a debate that is still going on today: Which are better for Israel, Bordeaux or Mediterranean varieties? In the 1890s and into the first decade of the 20th century, the Mediterranean varieties won the argument. Carignan returned to the fore and became the mainstay of Israeli wine. By the 1970s Carignan even reached 55% of all grapes planted in Israel.
Why was Carignan so popular? Firstly it was ideal for Israel’s Mediterranean climate.
It was versatile and could be used to make grape juice, sweet kiddush wines and dry red table wines, and growers could get very high yields. Quality was not then an issue.
Since then, the country has gone through a well-documented quality revolution. The Bordeaux varieties have returned, fulfilling the original vision of Baron Edmond de Rothschild.
Today, the finest wine from most Israeli wineries is either a Bordeaux-style blend or varietal cabernet sauvignon.
At the beginning of the 2000s, winemakers began to look differently at their productive Carignan vineyards. Individual plots in old vineyards were identified and yields were drastically reduced. The stage was set to produce some goodquality, old-vine Carignans.
The pioneer in the revival of Carignan was Carmel. Of the smaller wineries, Vitkin also gave a focus to this variety.
The Carignan vine is considered to be most at home in the area around Zichron Ya’acov, with vineyards planted in the bush style in the valleys of the southern Mount Carmel. The wines now produced range from light, fruity, spicy Beaujolais style to dark, impenetrable, full-bodied monsters.
Carignan has been here so long it is almost Israeli. It may not be as grand as some of the more classic varieties, but Israel is awash with cabernets and merlots. The curious wine lover will be delighted to taste something different.
Twenty years ago, Carignan on the label would signify the cheapest and worst wine in a winery’s portfolio. Today an old-vine Carignan might just about be the most interesting wine there is. If you have a guest looking for the authentic taste of Israel, these are the wines to offer.
Up to NIS 40
Reches Red (Ridge) 2009
A fruity, easy-drinking red from the Mount Carmel region made from 65% Carignan and 35% Shiraz. Raspberry and cherries. Mouth-filling flavor.
Tishbi Junior 2010
Made from Carignan. Beaujolais- style wine made from the last harvest. Young and juicy, fruity. Strawberry and bubble gum. Serve chilled.
NIS 40 to NIS 70
Barkan Reserve Carignan 2007
Full-bodied Carignan blended with a little cabernet franc. Gold medal winner in France. Generous oaky notes and ripe fruit character give an impression of sweetness.
Sea Horse Gaudi 2008 (not kosher)
An innovative blend with Carignan the dominant variety. Mediumbodied wine with red fruit notes, and a spicy backdrop.
BEST QPR (quality to price ratio)
NIS 70 to NIS 100
Carmel Appellation Carignan 2007
An attractive berry fruit nose, a whiff of violets and a hint of Mediterranean herbs. Made from 40- year-old vines. Well balanced, long finish. Heron on the label.
Vitkin Carignan 2008 (NK)
Concentrated and quite powerful. Leading with plums and blackberries with good tannins and smoky backdrop. Made in Kfar Vitkin by Vitkin Winery.
Somek Carignan 2005 (NK)
This is a good Carignan from a small garagiste winery in Zichron Ya’acov. The wine is very oaky, full-bodied with a good concentration of fruit.
Above NIS 100
Avidan Prio 2007 (not kosher)
Blend combining 40% Carignan, 30% Grenache with cabernet and merlot. A nose of raspberries and cherries, with well integrated spicy notes. Complex and interesting, but expensive and rare.

Carmel Mediterranean 2007
A delicate, feminine wine made mainly from Carignan, Shiraz and Petite Sirah. Red fruit nose, with layers of complexity and silky tannins. A connoisseur’s wine.
Chillag Carignan 2007 (not kosher)
Not yet released, but this will be a monster. Orna Chillag, who trained in Italy, is one of Israel’s foremost women winemakers. Only a few hundred bottles made.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and writes about wine in both Israeli and international publications.