Top of the line

The local wine industry’s most influential wines and people.

Eli Ben Zaken (photo credit: Courtesy)
Eli Ben Zaken
(photo credit: Courtesy)
I have been pondering which have been Israel’s most influential wines over the last 25 years. I list a personal choice of a top 10. This is not a list of the best wines, but each one contributed to the advance of Israeli wines in some way and has been a stepping stone in the improving image of Israeli wine.
The first two wines are mentioned for their influence on the local Israeli market, and the remainder are those wines that have drawn attention to Israel through awards or recognition.
Selected Emerald Riesling (1989- 1999) – Freddie Stiller/Israel Flam
This was by far Israel’s largest-selling wine of the 1990s in the days when most of the consumption was white wines.
Aromatic, spicy and semi-dry, it performed the same job in Israel as Liebfraumilch in the UK and Lambrusco and White Zinfandel in the US in that it introduced many new drinkers to the joys of wine. It is still one of the leading white wines in terms of sales, but its dominance has been eclipsed somewhat by the rise of Gewurztraminer and Moscato.
Mount Hermon Red (2000 to today) – Victor Schoenfeld
This wine was originally sold under the Golan brand, then Yarden, and has recently settled under the name Hermon.
Mount Hermon Red, the largest-selling wine of the 2000s, represents the move to red wine consumption in Israel.
Light, fruity, easy drinking with mouth-filling flavor, it showed that red wines could be made in a non-astringent style, almost like white wines.
It was the forerunner of a new style of red wine and remains the largest-selling Israeli wine.
Yarden Katzrin 1990 – Peter Stern/Victor Schoenfeld
Yarden Katzrin was Israel’s first super deluxe red wine. The first vintage was 1990. It was Israel’s first $50 bottle of wine, and later vintages were Israel’s first $100 bottle of wine. Usually made by a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc, it is produced only in especially good vintages.
This wine took Israeli wine onto a new plane.
Castel Grand Vin 1992 – Eli Ben-Zaken
This wine was famous because it was Eli Ben-Zaken’s first vintage, but it was also the one “discovered” by Serena Sutcliffe, master of wine and head of Sotheby’s Wine Department.
She referred to it as the best Israeli wine she had ever tasted. This encouraged Ben-Zaken to build his beautiful winery, and it inspired the whole boutique winery revolution in the 1990s.
Margalit Cabernet Sauvignon 1993 – Yair Margalit
Yair Margalit gained a reputation as the first really international class boutique winery, being founded in 1989. He was Israel’s bestknown winemaker at this stage. However, it was the 1993 wine that was regarded as his greatest. The wine drew attention to the quality of a smaller, less commercial style of winery and gave notice of the boutique winery explosion that was to follow. Recent tastings show that the wine is still going strong.
Yarden Blanc de Blancs N.V. – Victor Schoenfeld
In 1996, this champagnemethod sparkling wine became the best bottle-fermented sparkling wine, winning the trophy at the IWSC in London.
The wine was then nonvintage, but today it is made as a vintage sparkling wine.
This showed that Israel could triumph on the world scene with alternative wine styles.
The Yarden Blanc de Blancs won the same trophy on two subsequent occasions as well.
“C” Blanc du Castel 1999 – Eli Ben-Zaken
Although Israel as a country became known mainly for its red wines, this was the first white wine to be noticed. It became a Decanter “best new release,” giving rare focus to Israel’s white wines. Later vintages were the first Israeli dry white wine to receive high scores in both the Wine Spectator and Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.
Yatir Forest 2003 – Eran Goldwasser
The flagship wine of Yatir Winery is made from Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, grown in the high-altitude Yatir Forest vineyards in the southern Judean Hills. This wine finished in first place in the first tasting of Israeli wines held by Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate. It was awarded 93 points, which at that stage equaled the highest score ever given for an Israeli, kosher or Eastern Mediterranean wine by Robert Parker, the world’s most famous wine critic.
Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 2004 – Victor Schoenfeld
This was the first Israeli wine listed by the Wine Spectator as one of the top 100 wines of the year. It was a big breakthrough for Israel to be recognized on this prestigious list. The Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon has been the most consistent winner of international awards over the years, and it was appropriate that this was the first Israeli wine to make it onto the Wine Spectator’s prestigious list.
Carmel Kayoumi Vineyard Shiraz 2006 – Lior Lacser
Carmel Winery’s single vineyard Shiraz from Kayoumi Vineyard won not only the Regional Trophy in the Decanter World Wine Awards, but it was the only Israeli wine ever to go on to win the International Trophy, beating the finest French Syrah, Australian Shiraz and southern Rhone blends such as Chateauneuf du Pape. Decanter referred to it as a sensational result.
Recanati Wild Carignan 2012 – Gil Shatzberg/Ido Lewinsohn
The Recanati Special Reserve won more prizes, but this wine was the first Israeli wine to be selected by Berry Brothers & Rudd, arguably the world’s most famous and historic wine retailer. The 2011 also scored 92 points in the Wine Advocate.
This wine represents the return to Mediterranean varieties in Israel and the revival of traditional varieties.
These may not be the best wines Israel has produced – even though many of them are – but their influence in spreading the word of the quality and variety of Israel wines cannot be underestimated.
I have also allowed myself to select five of the most influential people of the last quarter of a century, carefully avoiding selecting anyone from my own company.
Daniel Rogov, the wine writer and critic who worked for Haaretz and The Jerusalem Post and wrote his annual guide to Israeli wines, was the most prominent media figure in Israeli wine. Since he died in 2011, he has never really been replaced. He was the voice of the Israeli wine renaissance.
Uri Shaked, importer, distributor and retailer, brought international standard wine retailing to Israel with the opening of Derech Hayayin in 1993 and the development of the chain of wine stores. His family company also set the standards for the importing and distribution of wine.
Segev Yerovam was CEO of the Golan Heights Winery from 1988 to 1998 and the first manager of Galil Mountain. He set the standards for winery management in the 1990s for the whole industry: attention to detail, pursuit of excellence in wine quality, the importance of aesthetics in wine, wine tourism and wine education and the production of quality and innovative wine events.
Yair Margalit, winemaker and wine educator, owned the first quality boutique winery in modern times. He acted as consultant to other producers at the start of the boom, wrote the standard reference work for making wine in small wineries and turned his hand to education. Wine courses at the Technion and the Tel Hai Cellar Master course were massive contributions to the development of wine culture.
Avi Ben-Ami, sommelier and events organizer, was Israel’s most celebrated sommelier, working in Israel’s finest restaurants. He then devoted himself to organizing Israel’s most professional wine-tasting competition and the most respected wine trade show.
Those are 10 wines and five people that have positively influenced Israeli wine during my first 25 years in Israel.
I now look forward to my next 25 years with optimism and anticipation. 
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in Israeli and international publications. [email protected]