I have asked Adam Montefiore to answer some of the most frequently asked questions about Israeli wine. Since making aliyah 20 years ago, he has been a passionate advocate of Israeli wine and has witnessed or participated in many of the positive changes that have occurred. He is therefore well qualified, on behalf of wines-israel, to answer the following 20 questions.
1. DOES ISRAEL REALLY PRODUCE WINE
AM: “It is always a surprise to me how many people have no idea that Israel produces wine. We have to give the message that Israel has been producing wine for over 5,000 years and was doing so over 2,000 years before the vine even reached Italy and France.
We talk about the ‘New’ and ‘Old’ World of winemaking. Well, Israel belongs to the ‘Ancient’ World. No-one who knows stories from the Bible should be surprised that Israel is a wine producer.”
2. ARE ALL ISRAELI WINES KOSHER
AM: “Not all Israeli wine is kosher. In fact the majority of smaller wineries in Israel do not produce kosher wine.
As the larger wineries produce kosher wine, it is also true to say that most of the wine produced in Israel is kosher.
However, Israeli wine should be judged as any other wine. Whether it is kosher or not is a detail that should only interest the religious Jews it is intended for.”
3. AREN’T ALL ISRAELI WINES SWEET LIKE MANISCHEVITZ
AM: “Israel makes sparkling wine, red and white table wines, dessert wines and fortified wines like any other wine producing country. These wines are quality wines in every regard and bear no relationship to the sweet sacramental wine mentioned.
Kiddush wines are a separate category and they should be separated from regular wines that happen to be kosher both on the retail shelves and in the minds of the consumer.”
4. IS THE MIDDLE EAST A SUITABLE PLACE TO MAKE WINE
AM: “Many people think Israel is a land of sand and camels and in political talk, Israel is always referred to as being part of the Middle East. However Israel is in fact a Mediterranean country. The climate of most of the country is Mediterranean, much of the food is Mediterranean, and so it should not be a surprise that Israel produces wine and olive oil like other Mediterranean countries.
Israel is in fact part of the Eastern Mediterranean which includes Greece, Turkey, Lebanon & Cyprus. These countries were the cradle of the grape and where wine culture was born.”
5. HOW CAN A KOSHER WINE BE GOOD
AM: “Winemaking for kosher and non kosher wine is the same. So there is no reason why a kosher wine should not be a world class wine. If a kosher wine is not good, it is because it has been badly made, not because it is kosher.
Robert Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide No.7 says it best: ‘The… more important issue is what significance a kosher certification has for the non kosher consumer…The simple answer is that no one should avoid wines simply because they have a kosher certification….Kosher designation seems irrelevant.’
Obviously this statement does not include Kiddush wines, which are a totally separate category or Mevushal wines, which is a different discussion.”
6. AREN’T KOSHER WINES MORE EXPENSIVE
AM: “Let’s put it this way. Making kosher wines is certainly not cheaper than making non kosher wines. However in Israel the framework and infrastructure exist. A regular orthodox work force is readily available. The Mashgiach can dual as a regular worker. The people working in Israeli wineries are trained regulars, and used to working with wine and the winemaker. Making kosher wine in Israel is less expensive than anywhere else.”
7. WHY ARE ISRAELI WINES SO EXPENSIVE
AM: “I don’t accept that Israeli wines are so expensive. Unfortunately most of the discussion about price relates to trophy wines, which are usually produced in tiny amounts, and are only available on a very strict allocation. These can be expensive, but have given Israel an unfair name for expensive wines.
I agree that Israel does not have the volume of production or the low prices to take worldwide supermarkets by storm, where heavy discounting is the norm. It is costly to make wine in Israel. Manpower is not cheap and water is both scarce and very expensive.
However visit an Israeli supermarket. There, most of the wines sold are under $12 and many of them are excellent for the price. ”
8. WHY IS THERE NO VARIETY IN ISRAEL
AM: “I don’t agree with the question. There is immense variety in Israel despite its small size. Like many long, thin countries (ie. Italy & Chile), Israel has many different micro-climates. There is a long list of different grape varieties being used here and wineries themselves vary in terms of the equipment they have and style of wine they produce.
Most of the medium to large wineries have internationally trained winemakers, who have studied at UC Davis , Adelaide University or the leading wine schools of France & Italy. They also have work experience in many of world’s most famous wine regions and are modern in outlook and up to date in the latest technologies of winemaking. So far from being dull, Israeli wine has enormous variety and offers an exciting number of options to the consumer.”
9. WHY ARE THERE NO INDIGENOUS VARIETIES IN ISRAEL
AM: “It is disappointing that we don’t have indigenous varieties and slightly strange when you consider nearby Cyprus, where there are so many. It appears that the long period of Muslim rule was not kind to those grapes varieties that were suitable for making wine.
We do have Argaman, a variety first planted in the early 1990’s. It is across between Souzao and Carignan and was intended to replace Carignan as a blending grape. However its quality is poor, and Carignan has made a comeback.
Apart from this, the nearest we have are Emerald Riesling and Muscat of Alexandria.
Emerald Riesling, a cross between Riesling and Muscadelle ,was created at UC Davis in 1948, the year the State of Israel was founded. It has only really succeeded in Israel, producing ‘less expensive’ semi dry wines. Muscat of Alexandria, responsible for many dessert wines here, is a grape indigenous to the Eastern & Southern Mediterranean.
We do have indigenous food grapes like Dabuki and indigenous olives like the Souri, but we have to make do with the main international wine grape varieties here. However we can comfort ourselves. It is also true that even those countries that do have indigenous grapes, like Italy, Greece & Portugal, seem to be planting more & more of the noble varieties too. ”
10. WHY BUY ISRAELI WINE
AM: “For those religious Jews who buy Israeli wine for its kashrut, Israel produces outstandingly the best quality and largest range of kosher wines in the world.
For the wine lover & connoisseur, Israel wine represents something different, something new, and is seen even as slightly ‘exotic.’
For the sommelier, wine store owner or supermarket buyer, Israel represents the finest wines from the Eastern Mediterranean. Many restaurants and wine shops want a representative from our region on their wine lists or shelves.
Certainly Jews buy Israeli wine because it is from ‘Eretz Hakodesh’ or they want to drink ‘blue & white’ and support Israel. There is nothing wrong in that as the Italian in New York will often drink Italian wine. Religious Christians are also supportive of Israeli wine, because it is wine from The Holy Land.”
11. WHY SUPPORT ISRAEL CONSIDERING THE POLITICAL SITUATION
AM: “The political situation is always an issue, and this is a regular question, particularly from European countries.
Our problems are often not considered by those who are basically against the Israeli position, whatever it is. However sometimes we are continuing with normal lives under intolerable circumstances.
During the second intifada a bus full of people exploded next to an Upper Galilee vineyard during the wave of suicide bombings and the resulting carnage affected the vineyard. The vineyards on the northern border are often turned into closed military zones by the Army due to safety & kidnap fears and wine growers are prevented from tending to their vines. The 2006 harvest was nearly ruined by the rocket attacks by Hezbollah into the Galilee. Vines were damaged, wineries in the area were closed and winemakers were prevented from visiting vineyards. This year the rocket attacks in the south from Hamas caused some winery workers to have to put their children in bomb shelters before going to work. This is not a regular situation for most of the wine producing world.
What do we do We concentrate on making wine and try not to mix wine with politics. There is nothing more peaceful or productive than planting vineyards and making wine. This should be encouraged and it is always disappointing if the wine industry is singled out for political purposes.
Tim Atkin, a Master of Wine, visited Israel in 2008. He makes the point far better than I can. He wrote, in the London Observer: ‘In such a climate, tending vineyards and producing wine is an act of courage and of optimism. I have enormous admiration for the majority of Israel’s winemakers…. Surrounded by anger, dogma, devastation, deprivation, mutual suspicion and….politics, they offer the possibility of hope for a better future.’ ”
12. HOW MANY BOTTLES OF WINE DOES ISRAEL PRODUCE A YEAR
AM: “In my estimation about 35 million bottles of wine (and this includes sacramental wine). This is more than Lebanon but less than Cyprus. It is not much and puts Israel at something like number 35 in the list of wine producing countries! Gallo’s so called boutique winery, Gallo of Sonoma, and one particular vineyard in Monterey, California, both produce more wine than the whole of Israel! When you go to Vinexpo and see countries like Brazil, Mexico & Uruguay with a larger stand than Israel, you begin to understand Israel’s place in the wine world.”
13. WHAT IS THE CONSUMPTION OF WINE IN ISRAEL
AM: “Believe it or not there are no official figures and the statistics submitted to the OIV have been incorrect for years. My educated guess is that consumption for wine only, taking out the figures for grape juice, is less than 4 liters per head, which is not a figure to shout about. Clearly we have a great deal work – and potential!”
14. DOES ISRAEL HAVE A SIGNATURE WINE OR GRAPE VARIETY YET
AM: “Clearly our finest wines seem to be Cabernet Sauvignons or Bordeaux style blends. These tend to be the wines receiving the most compliments from major wine critics. Clearly red wines blends from Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Cabernet Franc are so far our most successful wines. Malbec is the latest newcomer and Petit Verdot is proving highly influential in some prestigious blends. There are also some promising varietal Cabernet Francs.
However Israel has also won major recognition for Sparkling wines, Dessert wines and Chardonnays. Furthermore our other white wines have improved no end, and our Sauvignon Blancs, Gewurztraminers and White Rieslings show far more varietal character than was the case ten years ago.
The future may well be Mediterranean varieties. Shiraz and Viognier are already showing some success, and grapes like Mourvedre and Grenache are being planted (or replanted because they have been in Israel before.)
It is too early to judge if Israel will become known for a particular grape variety. Certainly Carignan is a candidate. It was one of the first varieties planted in 1882/3, and has been the mainstay of Israeli wine for 120+ years because it was suitable for the Mediterranean climate and was capable of high yields . Recently it has been reborn with a combination of old vine vineyards, very low yields and a new determination to make a quality wine. Another candidate is Petite Sirah, which came to Israel in the 1970’s. Certainly Carignan and Petite Sirah provide Israel with more ethnicity than Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot!
15. SHOULDN’T ISRAEL FOLLOW AUSTRALIA’S EXAMPLE IN MARKETING THEIR WINES
AM: “The export success of Australian wines is admirable, but it has little relevance to Israel because of the difference in size and scale. Also the success of Chile, South Africa and Argentina is irrelevant to Israel. They all have the volume, marketing budgets, government support , competitive prices and the ability to heavily discount to allow sustained campaigns in supermarkets. Israel is lacking in each of these requirements.
A country like New Zealand which is relatively small and tends to have a higher average price than the other countries mentioned, is a more realistic role model. What we can learn from Australia is the importance of the country as a brand. It is as important to market Brand Israel as it is to market the brands of the individual wineries.”
16. TO WHICH COUNTRIES ARE MOST ISRAELI WINES EXPORTED
AM: “North America is by far the largest market for Israeli wines. America and Canada together account for over 50% of Israeli exports. The next largest market is Western Europe, where England, France, Germany and Holland are the main importers of Israeli wine.
17. HOW MANY ISRAELI WINERIES ARE THERE”
AM: “Again there are no official figures. I estimate there are 30 commercial wineries. In ‘Rogov’s Wine Guide 2009’’ there are 138 wineries are listed, but many of these are small wineries or garagistes. There are many more home based wineries, producing under 10,000 bottles of wine a year.”
18. ARE KOSHER WINES SUITABLE FOR VEGETARIANS AND VEGANS
AM: “Israeli Kosher wines are suitable for vegetarians, though only one or two wineries to date, bother to confirm this on the back label. If egg whites are not used for fining, then they are also suitable for vegans and I don’t know of an Israeli winery that uses egg whites.”
19. WHERE CAN I FIND OUT MORE ABOUT ISRAELI WINE
AM: “One of the best sources of information in English is Israel Preker’s website
www.wines-israel.com<span style=”vertical-align: bottom;”> (http://www.wines-israel.com)</span>
Apart from this there are three books I recommend.
‘Rogov’s Guide To Israeli Wines’ published by Toby Press, is an annual guide to the wines of Israel. Wines are rated and scored by Daniel Rogov, wine and food writer of Haaretz Newspaper, and Israel’s number one wine critic.
Another book, which is more a tourist guide to the wineries, is ‘The Wine Route of Israel’, published by Cordinata.
The third book is ‘The Bible of Israeli Wines’ by Michael Ben Joseph, published by Modan. Ben Joseph an ex El Al pilot, wrote the first serious books on Israeli wine in Hebrew & English.
20. ARE ISRAELI WINES ANY GOOD AND DOES ISRAEL HAVE ANYTHING TO OFFER THE WINE WORLD
AM: “I suggest anyone interested looks up Israel in Robert Parker’s Wine Buyer’s Guide No 7, Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book 2008/9 or Tom Stevenson’s Wine Report 2009. Their comments & recommendations count for far more than anything I can say.
There have also been recent features in the Wine Advocate, Wine Spectator and Decanter magazines.
There is no doubt that Israel is making its best wine for 2,000 years. That is not to say we have arrived or are the best, but if you compare where we were 10 or 20 years ago, the rate of improvement has been astonishing. It is matched by a pursuit of quality, and a hunger for success, which will ensure the improvement curve continues upwards. Anyone visiting Israel’s wineries is always struck by the passion, professionalism and dynamism of the Israeli wine scene.
Israel is well-known for its technology, its creativeness and agriculture are amongst the best in the world. For instance drip feed irrigation found in most new world wine countries, was an Israeli invention. Many countries are observing how Israel copes with high temperatures and a lack of water with interest. Whether it is the meteorological stations on the Golan or planting successful vineyards in the middle of the desert, Israeli viticulture is as up to date as tomorrow.”