Adam S. Montefiore

Six Wines for 60 Years

As Israel celebrates Yom Hatzmaut Independence Day for the 60th time, I have been given the task to look back and select a wine to cover each decade. This is not necessarily meant to be a list of the best wine, but the one that best represented Israel at the time, particularly overseas.

1948 -1958
This is a difficult choice. The main brands that continue from pre-state until today are not wines but brandies: both Carmel Extra Fine Brandy and Stock 84 have survived the 60 years of statehood and are still on the shelves. However, if I had to choose a wine to be representative of the period from 1948 to 1958, it would have to be a sweet wine, which is what people then drank. Then there were wines sold by names which have since been protected, like Port, Sherry, Malaga & Tokay. A big seller representing Israel overseas at this time was Palwin (short for Palestine Wine) Israels oldest wine brand, but this was exclusively sold in Britain. So my choice would be Alicante, which was then a sweet red wine made by the Alicante Grenache variety.

1958 -1968
Adom Atik and Carmel Hock were produced by what was then known as Carmel Mizrahi. Hock was the biggest selling Israeli table wine in the 1960s. It was the semi dry wine Israelis used to drink as a spritzer adding soda water. Adom Atik, a red wine, was the biggest selling table wine in export markets, sometimes exporting surprising quantities to the non kosher market, in particular to Sweden. Well into the 1980s international wine books would still refer to Adom Atik when writing about Israel. Once these two wines symbolized Israeli wine. Today they are still sold to the older generation who became used to them over the years. The wine revolution has left them way behind, but historically they are of interest because they have been available throughout Israels 60 years.

1968 -1978
The wine of this decade was Carmel Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1976. This was Israels first serious varietal, aged in barrel & bottle like an quality international class wine. It was a wine that had a long life being drinkable, if well cellared, for up to 20 years. It was the first wine to picture Baron Edmond de Rothschild, the founder of the modern wine industry in Israel, on the label. It was also labeled as a varietal. In the coming years more and more Israeli wines would follow this new world trend. The biggest selling wine during this period was Grenache Rose as Israeli consumers started to move from sweet to semi dry wines. However it was the 1976 Special Reserve which heralded the great leap forward.

1978 – 1988
The award here goes to Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 1984. The 1985 won more prizes and was arguably both a better quality and more long lasting wine, but the 1984 was the first Israeli wine to win a truly major international award. It won the Gold Medal at The International Wine and Spirit Competition in London in 1987. Furthermore it also was awarded the Winiarski Trophy for the best wine in the competition. This wine heralded the advance of the Golan Heights Winery, which brought the new world technological revolution to Israel, setting new standards for Israeli wine. It was the first wine Israel was mentioned overseas as a country capable of making world class wines.


1988 – 1998
The wine of the 1990s was the Castel Grand Vin 1992. This was the wine discovered by Serena Sutcliffe MW of Sothebys, who described it as the finest Israeli wine she had tasted. The success of Domaine du Castel heralded and encouraged the small winery boom and they were the first of the new wave boutique wineries to receive international recognition. There were other great wines like Margalit Special Reserve 2003, the Yarden Katzrin 1990, Israels first super de-luxe wine and Yarden Blanc de Blancs, a Trophy winner, but Castel built on the foundations to become Israels best known small winery. Incidentally, the largest selling wine of this period was Emerald Riesling, a semi dry wine which introduced many of Israels future connoisseurs to wine.

1998 – 2008
The wine of the last ten years would have to be Yatir Forest 2003. This was the red wine finishing in first place in the first tasting conducted by Robert Parkers Wine Advocate. Receiving 93 points would be regarded as a very respectable score for any winery. No other wine from the Eastern Mediterranean region had achieved this and it also equaled the best score ever awarded for a kosher wine by the Wine Advocate. Yatir was one of a number of new quality small wineries, which opened in the first years of the new century. The tasting was a watershed for Israeli wine desperate to shed its kosher image and to be regarded as a quality wine producing country in its own right. The most awarded wines of this period have been two dessert wines – the Yarden HeightsWine1999 and the Carmel Shaal Gewurztraminer 2004. The largest selling brands are Carmel Selected and Mount Hermon. There are many quality wines of every description, at every price point in the Israel of today. However Israels quality will best be judged abroad by its red wines and Israel has waited a long time for a tasting of this status by the most important and influential wine critic in the world. So Yatir Forest is the choice.

Israel has a winemaking history going back 5,000 years and a modern wine industry since Carmel was founded in the 1880s by Baron Edmond de Rothschild. However it is fair to say that the quality revolution has occurred only in the last 32 years. 1976 was not only the year of Carmels famous Special Reserve, but also the year vineyards were first planted on the Golan. It is heartwarming to see the massive strides made by Israeli wine since then.


Improved with Age

The story of kosher wine is a journey from sweet sacramental wines to world class single vineyard wines. There are now so many kosher wineries of every possible wine style. Virtually every wine producing country produces kosher wine and in Israel alone, over 90 percent of the wine produced is kosher. Yet up to twenty five years ago, most of the kosher wine was sweet red wine and a quality kosher wine was rare.
Of all the kosher wineries, Carmel perhaps best symbolizes the history and development of kosher wine. Theirs was the wine our grandfathers and great grandfathers drank. Founded in 1882 by Baron Edmond de Rothschild, an owner of Chateau Lafite, the famous Bordeaux winery, the history of Carmel matches the story of Israel. Carmel was Israels first exporter. Carmel and Palwin were first sold in England in 1898 and remain Israels oldest brands, known in every Jewish home.
Rothschild built the wine cellars at Zichron Yaacov, south of Haifa and Rishon Le Zion, south of Tel Aviv, which remain until today, the largest wineries in Israel. The wines were mainly sweet, red and inexpensive as demanded by the market.
The first serious quality wine in the kosher world was the Carmel Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve 1976. This was a beacon followed by the kosher wine world as it started, to produce international quality wine. In the 1980s and 1990s the Golan Heights Winery in Israel and Baron Herzog in California led the charge from sweet to dry.
In the last ten years, Carmel began its own programme of renewal and rejuvenation, which reflected the quality revolution in Israel. The first move was to plant new vineyards in the higher altitude, cooler climate areas of Israel. These vineyards in the Upper Galilee, Golan Heights and Judean Hills were managed directly by the winemakers and the growers payment schedules were changed to incentivize quality.
In 2003 and 2004 Carmel built new state of the art boutique wineries close to key vineyards, at Ramat Dalton, in the Upper Galilee in the north, on the coast within the existing Zichron Yaacov Wine Cellars and they launched Yatir Winery, at Tel Arad in the south. These wineries permitted the winemakers to isolate various vineyards, or even special plots within vineyards, so they could make small quantities of handcrafted wines.
Next Carmel recruited some new young, highly qualified winemakers. Lior Laxer, who studied in Bordeaux and Burgundy became chief winemaker of Carmel Winery and Sam Soroka, who studied in Australia took charge of the Zichron boutique winery. Eran Goldwasser became winemaker of Yatir Winery. The three of them are amongst the finest talents in Israeli winemaking today.
The new management took further steps to promote quality. Production was halved and Carmel stopped production of all non grape products like spirits, olive oil and gourmet food products in order to concentrate on wine.
The results have been impressive. In the now famous tasting by Robert Pakers Wine Advocate, the worlds most influential wine publication, Carmel had four wines scoring 90+ points, more than any other Israeli winery.
The Appellation series of regional wines was launched with modern attractive labels showing Israeli fauna. Al Hashulchan, an Israeli food and wine magazine, referred to it as the best value label in Israel. The Appellation Merlot was a double gold medal winner but the Appellation Carignan Old Vines was the best example of the new attitude. The Carignan grapes had previously been used for Kiddush wine, but by drastically lowering yields and selected two special old vine vineyards, small quantities of an award winning wine was produced.
Carmels has a range of Single Vineyard wines. The Kayoumi Cabernet Sauvignon won the gold medal as Israels finest Cabernet Sauvignon in two consecutive years in Eshkol Hazahav, Israels premier wine competition. The Shaal Gewurztraminer Late Harvest dessert wine scored 95 points from Howard Goldberg of Decanter and The New York times. The highest score awarded to any Israeli wine by an international critic.
Top of the range is the Bordeaux blend, Carmel Limited Edition, which scored 93 points and was ranked by Israeli critic Daniel Rogov as one of the finest Israeli wines. It was selected by Tom Stevensons Wine Report as one of the most exciting wine finds of the year. This wine was in a sense fulfilling the vision of Baron Edmond de Rothschild, the founder of the modern Israeli wine industry. His dream was to make a serious Israeli wine from Bordeaux grape varieties.
Yatir Winery, launched in 2004, is now regarded as one of the very finest boutique wineries in Israel. Situated at Tel Arad in the north east Negev, the vineyards lie in Israels largest forest Yatir Forest, in the southern Judean Hills. The winery is owned by Carmel but managed independently. Yatir finished in first place in recent tastings of Israeli wines in both Robert Parkers Wine Advocate (93 points) and the Wine Spectator (92 points).
The final piece in the jigsaw was closed in 2008 when Enotria, one of the finest wine importers, chose to represent both Carmel, the historic winery of Israel and Yatir, the hottest boutique winery, in the United Kingdom. Their interest was more in the quality end of the general market, rather than in the kosher market.
So Carmel has travelled the journey experienced by kosher wines the world over. New technology, international expertise and a new drive for quality have combined to turn this most conservative sector, into a dynamic market brimming with variety and quality.

(This article was first published in The Jewish Chronicle, London)