Real Israel: Uncorking wine’s secrets

The Hebrew Language Academy has produced a new glossary of terms related to viniculture.

Worker at wine cellars 521 (photo credit: File photo: Esteban Alterman/Bloomberg)
Worker at wine cellars 521
(photo credit: File photo: Esteban Alterman/Bloomberg)
You can tell a lot about a culture by the way the language develops. In this case, you can discover a lot about both viniculture and the changes in Israeli drinking habits by the fact that the Hebrew Language Academy recently produced a dictionary of some 220 terms related to wine, from the way it’s grown to the way it’s consumed.
There’s no doubt that when it comes to wine, Israeli tastes have improved with age. In the not-so-distant past, the only real choice for those seeking kosher Israeli fruit of the vine was the standard sweet kiddush wine or basic grape juice. Now you can take your pick, with a huge variety of wines to suit all palates (and budgets).
The “modern” Israeli wine industry grew from the vineyards of Zichron Ya’acov, planted at the initiative of the Baron Edmond de Rothschild, just over 150 years ago, but its roots go back thousands of years. Grapes are one of the Seven Species, agricultural products mentioned in the Bible as fruit of the land. Mishnaic sayings include: “Do not look at the vessel, but at what is in it; there is a new vessel filled with old wine, and an old vessel that does not even contain new wine.” Rabbinic sages gave us precepts such as Nichnas yayin, yatza sod: literally, wine enters, a secret comes out (similar to the Latin in vino veritas).
Since wine is an essential part of Jewish ritual, hence the term yayin l’kiddush, rabbis had to be familiar with the process of wine-making to rule on what could be considered kosher. Rashi, the 11th-century sage, was a celebrated wine maker in northern France, and the 12th-century philosopher-physician Maimonides also gave guidance on the subject.
The words in the academy’s dictionary naturally reflect this history, including biblical terms such as eshkol for a bunch of grapes, and mashpe, a word derived from a term Rashi created from an old Hebrew root, for decanter.
The result is a cocktail of terms and influences, although the academy would prefer that you think of it as a mimzag (from the word lemazeg, to combine).
The dictionary has been produced with terms in three languages: Hebrew, English and French. If the French have a word for it, there’s no reason Hebrew speakers can’t have one of their own.
Not all the terms sound foreign to English-speakers; the academy believes that adopting outside influences is also a part of the way a language grows (one of the reasons its members justify keeping the name “Ha’akademia Lalashon Ha’ivrit”).
Thus, while aperitif translates into akdam (from the Hebrew word kodem, first/before), digestif neatly turns into eftar – which not only adopts the idea of “after,” but is based on Hebrew root letters that signify being rid of something – and grappa becomes gapta.
Some of the catchier terms include otzer yayin (literally wine curator) for sommelier and besomet (from the Hebrew root letters for perfume) for aroma.
The first taste of the new dictionary was released in time for Passover 2009, with a limited batch of words.
(Batch, cuvee in French, is called atzva in Hebrew). A wine taster, incidentally, is, according to the academy, a to’em yayin.
Many of the phrases are too specialized to be of much use on a regular basis, except for connoisseurs and wine snobs, but I’m looking forward to dropping terms like earthy wine (yayin adamati), plummy wine (yayin ribati) and elegant wine (yayin hadur) into my conversation at the dinner table. I also like the idea of an honest wine (yayin hagun).
English-speakers who find the Hebrew letter resh hard to pronounce with the correct rolling sound might find the word v’radrad not only makes them “blush”; it might make them go red (adom). In fact, without a glass or two to relax, they might be better off sticking with the more familiar and far-easier-to-say somek.
I advise caution, also, with a muscular wine (yayin shriri), and I wouldn’t want to say anything bad about an aggressive wine. I’ll just note it’s officially known as yayin az and has a stronger body and aroma than the ordinary table wine, called yayin shulhan in Hebrew (and known as “plonk” to many of us).
Incidentally, in case beer drinkers are feeling sour grapes, they can rest assured: Not only do many of the terms in the academy’s dictionary relate to their favorite beverage, but the word “beer” appears, keeping its already familiar form: bira.
THERE ARE some 250 wineries in the country, the biggest three being Carmel, Barkan and Golan Heights, and the cups of local companies run over with praise.
Israeli wines are definitely on the map when it comes to international competitions and guides. Prizes regularly go to wines from places ranging from the Golan and Upper Galilee (Yarden and Dalton) to the Negev, home to Yattir wines. Not only does international wine guru Robert Parker like the taste of Israeli wines, Israelis are becoming familiar with his name, too.
There is a noticeable change not only in the quality of wines being produced, but also where and how Israelis are drinking. Wine festivals are now common – the Israel Museum, for example, has turned its annual summer wine festival into an art form. Many wineries offer tours and tastings.
American-born hi-tech entrepreneur Elie Wurtman, who has lived in Jerusalem since 1977, when he was eight years old, is not content with just observing the revival of Israeli viniculture, he’s helping develop it through his family’s boutique winery, called Bat Shlomo after the moshava near Zichron Ya’acov where it is located.
He likens the changes in the industry to the hi-tech example, learning from Silicon Valley and Napa Valley, whence Bat Shlomo viticulture and enology specialist Ari Erle hails.
“Science has caught up with the industry,” Wurtman says. “It’s become more scientific and professional.”
Nonetheless, the industry relies on the personal touch. When asked how he got into it, Wurtman replies: “It was a combination of a love of wine and Zionism – the desire to revitalize the agriculture started by the Baron Rothschild by creating an exceptional product.”
While he notes that Israelis on the whole are not big drinkers, there is an emerging market for boutique wineries that can provide something special. His Bat Shlomo label produced 14,000 bottles in 2011, focusing on white wines – particularly Sauvignon blanc, which is the less usual choice of wineries in the area.
Every winery has its own story. A couple of years ago, I visited Tami and Babi Kabalo at the Bellofri farm on Moshav Kidmat Zvi on the Golan Heights, near Katzrin.
The Kabalos run a tourism enterprise with its own special flavor, part of which comes from the homemade cheeses and wines. Among the peculiarly Israeli experiences was a visit to the wine cellar – an old Syrian bunker now housing rows of bottles carrying the label Ein Nashut, the name of the Second Temple-period synagogue whose remnants can be seen nearby.
It might not be turning swords into plowshares, but developing peaceful tourism on the Golan Heights has to be better than growing the grapes of wrath. Particularly in view of the civil war on the other side of the border, I like to savor the biblical image of every man sitting under his vine and under his fig tree, without fear.
If you want to drink to that, raise a glass in the traditional toast: L’haim! To life!
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