Drunk on Zion: Israeli wine revolution is a sign of divine favor - opinion

I remain drunk with conviction that the Israeli wine revolution is a sign of divine favor; what Jewish tradition calls a siman muvhak – an undeniable, stark indication of support from the Heavens.

 THE WRITER and his wife, Bonnie (center), with friends, attend this week’s Israel Museum Wine Festival. (photo credit: David M. Weinberg)
THE WRITER and his wife, Bonnie (center), with friends, attend this week’s Israel Museum Wine Festival.
(photo credit: David M. Weinberg)

Last November, I wrote a column in these pages about the “redemption” involved in Israel’s modern wine revolution. I argued that there are biblical and Zionist echoes in every glass of good Israeli wine.

“Over the past century, the Land of Israel has awakened, giving forth fruit to its indigenous people, the Jewish People, as it returns to and renews its ancient homeland. Consequently, drinking Israeli wine is a deep profession of faith. It is a celebration of the People, Land, and God of Israel reunified.”

“Over the past century, the Land of Israel has awakened, giving forth fruit to its indigenous people, the Jewish People, as it returns to and renews its ancient homeland. Consequently, drinking Israeli wine is a deep profession of faith. It is a celebration of the People, Land, and God of Israel reunified.”

David M. Weinberg

Israeli wine-washing

Well, Al Jazeera didn’t like this. In April, a columnist for the Qatar-sponsored, Islamic radical Al Jazeera accused me of being “drunk on Zionism” and “wine-washing the occupation.” (By “occupation,” Al Jazeera means of all Israel.)

“Israel is using its wine industry to distract from its other domestic pastimes like ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and the periodic massacre of Palestinians,” bleated the sour writer.

“Israel is using its wine industry to distract from its other domestic pastimes like ethnic cleansing, apartheid, and the periodic massacre of Palestinians.”

Al Jazeera columnist

I plead guilty to the former charge. In fact, the tagline of my website is now “Drunk on Zion.” I also am proud to be the first Israeli accused (as far as I know) of the new crime of “wine-washing.” I consider this a badge of honor!

(I suppose that wine-washing is akin to pink-washing and green-washing, which are terms that allege Israel promotes its openness to LGBTQ+ rights and its environmental prowess as methods of obscuring its “occupation” of Palestinians.)

 DESERT VISTA.  (credit: MEITAL SHARABI) DESERT VISTA. (credit: MEITAL SHARABI)

The wine revolution is a sign of Divine Favor on Israel

In any case, I remain drunk with conviction that the Israeli wine revolution is a sign of Divine favor; what Jewish tradition calls a siman muvhak – an undeniable, stark indication of support from the Heavens.

The professional wine publications seem to agree. The upcoming October 2022 issue of the prestigious Wine Spectator magazine features Israeli wines on its front cover, predicting “an exciting future for this emerging wine region.” (The magazine published a similar story in September 2016: “Surprising quality from an emerging region.”) The new tasting report highlights an Israeli focus on grape types (varietals) that are indigenous to the Rhône Valley and on white wines.

A superb selection of Israeli wines

WITH THE SUMMER wine festivals coming to an end, and the High Holy Days nearing, it seems apt to survey a selection of superb Israeli wines.

Picking-up on Wine Spectator’s lead, let’s focus on the trend to move away from the classic varietals from Bordeaux in France (like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) and instead craft wine from grapes native to Spain, Portugal and the Rhone Valley in southern France – like Chenin Blanc, Grenache, Mourvèdre, Syrah, Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional and Roussanne. Many Israeli winemakers feel that these grapes are best suited to Israel’s Mediterranean climate.

Pierre Miodownick’s Domaine Netofa Winery specializes in Rhône varietals. Netofa’s Latour, Tel Qasser Moursyr (both full-bodied Syrah/Mourvèdre blends), and Netofa’s Dor Syrah wine are remarkable – all grown in the lower Galilee near Mount Tabor.

Even Teperberg, the country’s oldest winery which makes outstanding Cabernets, Merlots, and Bordeaux blends (think of the winery’s “Essence” and “Inspire” series of wines), now has crafted a GSM (Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre – the classic Rhône Valley blend). Teperberg’s youngest winemaker, American immigrant Dani Friedenberg, has produced his own unique wines under the Teperberg label including an excellent Grenache.

More beautiful expressions of this Rhône trend: Yaacov Oryah’s Eye of the Storm (a GSM blend), Spirals of Smoke (GSM and Carignan), and A Dream of Espamia (Tempranillo, Grenache, and Carignan); Bachoushe Winery Carpenter (GSM and Carignan); Gush Etzion Winery Spring River GSM; and the MAIA Red (a satisfying blend of Carignan, Syrah, and Mourvèdre, known as CSM). MAIA is an acronym for Mediterranean Approach Israeli Art, a boutique sub-label of Tulip Winery.

The Maresha Estate Winery in the Lachish Valley makes a unique Syrah/Pinotage blend called Guvrin Stream (spice, licorice, high acidity and high tannins – perfect for pairing with steak).

Another grape called Barbera (native to Piedmont in northwestern Italy) is showing very well in Israel too. The two outstanding examples of this are from the Ramot Naftaly and Lueria wineries in the upper Galilee.

FINALLY, I’d like to highlight three boutique wineries from Israel’s south. Many people don’t know this, but the Yatir forest area in the southern Hebron hills is as high in altitude as the Golan Heights (800 sq.m. above sea level), is well-watered with winter rainfall, very hot during the day, and very cool at night – perfect conditions for grape growing.

Bruno Darmon’s and Yaacov Bris’s La Forêt Blanche winery, located in Beit Yatir with grapes sourced in the Hebron hills, offers several outstanding, very “chewy” blended wines (chewy, meaning they have texture and substance in the mouth, almost like food). These include the young 2020 Talpiot Red (a blend of Cabernet, Shiraz, Petit Verdot, and Merlot); the new world style 2019 D’vir Cabernet-Shiraz-Merlot blend; and the flagship 2018 Ya’ar Levanon single vineyard Cabernet.

Elad and Nava Movshovitz’s Drimia Winery in Sussiya makes a wonderful flagship wine called Sfar (meaning edge, or borderline, since the Hebron hills are on the edge of the Negev desert). This is a Cabernet-Petit Verdot blend with grapes grown in the Yatir forest. Drimia Shiraz is spicy and well-crafted too.

Eli Shiran’s eponymous winery, based in Kiryat Arba, draws on grapes from all parts of the country including Petit Syrah from Galilee and Petit Verdot from Gush Etzion, producing a delicious wine called The Conductor. Song of the Birds is a GSC (Grenache, Syrah, and Carignan). Shiran also makes numerous white wines from Chardonnay, Semillon, Viognier, and Riesling.

Shiran likes to mix things up, breaking conventional rules, trying different blends every year. This year, observing shmita, the Biblical sabbatical year, Eli Shiran did not make any wine. Good on you, Eli!

The author’s columns over the past 25 years are archived at davidmweinberg.com. He studied oenology through the London-based International Wine & Spirit Education Trust, and leads food and wine tours for koshertravelers.com. His next guided tour of wineries in the southern Hebron hills and northern Negev is September 11-12. Readers are welcome to share this column on social media sites with the hashtags: #Zionistwinewasher, and #DrunkonZionism.