Adam S. Montefiore


Biblical Heritage

The art of winemaking is thought to have begun somewhere in the triangle between the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and the Sea of Galilee. From there the vine travelled south through Phoenicia and Canaan to Egypt, which became the first great wine culture. The Egyptians particularly prized the wine of Canaan. So Canaan must have been one of the earliest countries to make wine – and this was over 2,000 years before the vine reached Europe.

The Israelites’ interest in winegrowing is a continual theme throughout the Bible and Talmud. Wine was seen as a symbol of happiness and out of all the books of the Bible, only the Book of Jonah contains no reference to it.

Of the seven species with which Eretz Israel was blessed, the vine was first amongst the fruits (Deut. 8:8).

The first mention of wine in the Bible is Noah, who built the ark to prepare for the flood. After the water subsided, he planted a vineyard and then got drunk on the resulting wine. (Genesis 9:20-21).

When in the Book of Numbers, Moses sent the spies to scout out the ‘Promised Land’, they returned with a bunch of grapes, so large that it had to be carried on a pole, to illustrate that ‘this was a land flowing with milk and honey’. This image has been used today as the logo of both Carmel Winery and the Israel Government Tourist Office.

Isaiah’s song about vineyards (Isa. 5) gives a detailed account of planting a vineyard through to the harvesting of its grapes. He likens God to an owner of a vineyard and Israel to the vineyard. Ezekiel (17:1-10; 19:10-14) also regards the vine as symbolizing the people of Israel and all the prophets use vines as a symbol of the happy state. The prophet Michah’s vision of peace on earth was “… every man shall sit under his vine and fig tree and none shall make him afraid.”

Sixteen times the Bible mentions corn, wine and oil as representing the principle produce of the country, the base of the economy and chief blessing of the soil (Deut. 7:13).

The trilogy of wine, oil and bread is again mentioned in Psalm 104, which praises God for providing for his people:

He causes the grass to grow for the cattle,

and herb for the service of man

that he may bring forth food out of the earth

And wine that gladdens the heart of man

And oil to make his face shine

And bread that strengthens man’s heart.

It is a celebration and thanksgiving of what were considered the staples of a healthy life: meat, milk, plants, wine , olive oil and bread.

There is no quality wine producing country in the present day that can boast such a rich history of wine production and wine culture as Israel. Almost everywhere, archeological finds have been unearthed in abundance. Coins, amphorae, wine presses, wine goblets all bear witness to a wine history, which continued unbroken until the Moslem conquest in 636 C.E.

Wine in Ancient Times

Many wine presses have been discovered throughout Israel, giving a guide as to the winemaking practices more than 2,000 years ago. Visit any modern winery in Israel and they will show you the ancient wine press nearby. In the Ha’aretz Museum in Tel Aviv, they have a number of different wine presses from different periods to illustrate how they changed and developed over the years.

Grapes were crushed underfoot in a shallow, limestone basin. Fermentation was natural and immediate. The wine went through a couple of rudimentary filtration channels, where twigs with thorns were placed to trap stems and skins and then the wine were transported in new goat skins, which were ideal because they could expand if there was any secondary or continuing fermentation. They were then left to age in the pottery amphorae, often in cool, dark caves.

Most of the wines were either red or a mixture of red and white grapes, resulting in a muddy brown color. Many were flavored with honey or raisons to make them sweet or herbs and spices like cardamom and saffron to make them palatable. There was a large consumption of wine, far greater than today, because it was safer than the water.

However wine was not just for drinking but also for medical purposes, for cleaning out homes and for dyeing cloth

There was a very advanced wine trade. Different amphorae were exported with an inscription stating where the wine had come from. The vineyards of Galilee and Judea were especially prized as were wines with names like Sharon, Carmel, Gaza, Ashkelon and Lod. The most exciting recent find was two wrecked Phoenician ships found off the coast of Israel. Their cargo was wine contained ceramic amphorae most likely being exported to Egypt.

Religious Connection

To Jews there is no communal, religious or family life without wine. Each Sabbath starts with an act of blessing, the Kiddush or “Sanctification” is chanted over a cup of wine: “Blessed are you O Lord, Our God……for creating the fruit of the vine.” Most Jewish families will own a “Kiddush Cup” in the form of a silver goblet or beaker. Four glasses of wine must be drunk at Passover (or grape juice for children), two at weddings, one at circumcisions. At a funeral in ancient times a bereaved was offered ten glasses of wine, the “Cup of Consolation”. Wine is used to sanctify festivals, Bar Mitzvahs and births. At the Festival of Purim, Jews are entreated to drink enough so they are unable to tell the difference between “Cursed be Haman” and “Blessed be Mordechai”. Traditionally a Jewish boy will have his first taste of wine at his circumcision when only eight days old, and part of a ritual at a wedding is for the groom to stamp on and shatter a wine glass. The joy of wine is introduced to each act of worship.

For the Kiddush ceremony in the Jewish home and in synagogues, sweet red (and usually fortified) wine is traditionally used for two reasons: one, as an open bottle will last until the next week, and two, for children a sip of sweet wine is both palatable and a treat!

The association between wine, Israel and Judaism creates an unique bond between wine and the Jewish people. Also the Christian use of Altar or Communion wine, stemmed not only from the Jewish faith but also from the high profile of wine in the Holy Land at this time. The Last Supper was nothing more than the Jewish Passover meal. The positive imagery of wine continued in the New Testament. When Jesus changed the water into wine at the wedding feast at Cana in Galilee, they were not to know that 2,000 later, that the Galilee would be producing some of Israel’s finest wine.

Wine writer Andrew Jefford wrote in the Evening Standard Wine Guide: “The Land of Israel staggers beneath its burden of history and myth, and much of that intoxicating scripturally sanctified baggage is wine-sodden. What Christian would not like to drink the wine of Cana or Galilee after a thoughtful afternoon amongst the splintery, fissured olives of Gethsemane. What Jew would prefer a French kosher wine to one from the land which (according to the Book of Numbers) Moses’ spies returned bearing an enormous cluster of grapes suspended from a pole”

Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in both Israeli and international publications.



The Middle East & Eastern Mediterranean was the cradle of the world’s wine culture, and Canaan must have been one of the earliest countries to enjoy wine, over 2,000 years before the vine reached Europe. The oldest grape pips found in the regions of modern Turkey, Syria and Lebanon date back to the Stone Age period (c. 8000 B.C.E.).

Noah Plants Vineyard

The art of winemaking is thought to have begun in the area between the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and the Sea of Galilee. Indeed, the oldest pips of ‘cultivated’ vines, dating to c. 6000 B.C.E., were found in Georgia. The biblical Noah was the first recorded viticulturist who, after the flood, “became a husbandman and planted a vineyard.” As The Book of Genesis relates, he was also the first person to suffer from drinking too much!

The vine then traveled south, through Phoenicia and Canaan to Egypt, the world’s first great wine culture. It is known that the Egyptians particularly prized the wine of Canaan.

Moses’ Cluster of Grapes

In the Book of Numbers, the story is told of how Moses sent spies to check out the Promised Land. They returned with a cluster so large, that it had to be suspended from a pole and carried by two men. Today both Carmel Winery and the Israel Government Tourist Office use this image as their logo. The grapes were chosen to symbolize how the land flowed with milk and honey. The vine was one of the blessings of the Promised Land promised to the children of Israel.

In recent years excavations have uncovered ancient presses and storage vessels that indicate a well-developed and successful wine industry existed in the area. Grapes, grape clusters and vines were frequent motifs on coins and jars found from ancient times. Coins have been found commemorating the victories of the Hasmoneans and Bar Kochba with grapes featured as a symbol of the fertility of the country. Many wine presses and storage cisterns have been found from Mount Hermon to the Negev.

Inscriptions and seals of wine jars illustrate that wine was a commercial commodity being shipped in goatskin or pottery from ports such as Dor, Ashkelon and Joppa (Jaffa). The vineyards of Galilee and Judea were mentioned. Wines with names like Sharon, Carmel and from places like Gaza, Ashkelon and Lod were famous. The earliest storage vessels originated in southern Canaan and were known as Canaanite Jars. Today they are better known by their Greek name, ‘Amphora.’

King David’s Cellar

The Kings of Judah were said to have owned vast vineyards and stores for wine. King David’s wine holdings were so substantial that his court included two special officials to manage them. One was in charge of the vineyards and the other in charge of the cellars. This may have been Israel’s first sommelier!

At this time the Jewish devotion to wine was clearly shown in their developing literature, lifestyle and religious ritual. Indeed, anyone planting a new vineyard was exempt from military service, even in national emergency.

In about 1800 B.C.E. there was a communication which reported that Palestine was “blessed with figs and with vineyards producing wine in greater quantity than water.”

The Book of Isaiah gives very clear instructions of how to plant care for a vineyard, even to the point of suggesting the wine press is close to the vineyard.

Micha’s vision of peace on earth and harmony among men was illustrated with, “and every man will sit under his vine and under his fig tree and none shall make him afraid.”

The wine produced was not just for drinking but also important for medical purposes, for cleaning out homes and dyeing cloth. It was also used as a currency for paying tribute.

Winemaking in Ancient Israel and was at its peak during the period of the Second Temple. It was a major export and the economic mainstay of the era. However, when the Romans destroyed the Temple, Jews were dispersed and the once proud industry forsaken. The Arab conquest from 600 C.E. and Mohammed’s prohibition of alcohol caused many remaining vineyards to be uprooted,

The Crusades

The Crusaders briefly revived the cultivation of grapes in the Holy Land and grapes were planted in places like Bethlehem and Nazareth. The revival was short lived, but the Crusaders did return to Europe with many noble grape varieties which had their origins in the Middle East. Varieties such as Chardonnay, Muscat and Shiraz are said to come from the region.

On the founding of the Ottoman Empire, the Middle Eastern wine industry was finally obliterated because of the decline in wealth of the whole region and the wars and epidemics which greatly reduced and weakened the populations. Communities which had supported the wine industry finally departed. Prices of wine rose, consumption fell. Hashish, and later coffee, replaced wine as affordable intoxicants.

By Adam Montefiore. He works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in both Israeli and international publications.



Mid 1800’s

Wine in modern times in Israel did not begin with the Golan Heights Winery in the 1980’s. Or even with Carmel Winery in the 1880’s. It began in the Old City of Jerusalem in the mid 19th century, with a Karliner Hassid called Rabbi Mordechai Avraham Galin, who made aliyah from White Russia in 1835 and settled in Safed. When he was made Rosh Yeshiva of Tiferet Israel, he moved to Jerusalem. In those days the Jewish community was very poor. For this reason, his son, Rabbi Yitzhak Galin decided to open a winery, in order to gain an income.

He married the daughter of Aaron Shor, the owner of a wine store and decided to adopt her surname in order make use of the permit they had from the Turkish authorities, allowing him to open a winery. Shor Winery was opened in the Jewish year 5608, which corresponds to 1847-48 and the first harvest coincided with Sir Moses Montefiore’s third visit to Israel.

Moses Montefiore was a wine lover and connoisseur, drinking a bottle of wine every day. He believed that Jews should work for a living, not just live off charity and recommended agriculture as a trade. He outlined his agricultural vision in 1839. Daniel Rogov, the late esteemed wine writer wrote: “The inspiration of Rabbi Shor was Sir Moses Montefiore, who visited the Holy Land on numerous occasions, and while here encouraged the Jews to work the land and plant vines.”

The winery was situated in a cellar in Haggai Street alley backing on the Western Wall. Family members relate that a row of wine barrels were placed along the part of the Holy Wall adjoining the winery, so that forgetful workers would not touch it by mistake!

Efrat was another company operating in the Old City. The Teperberg family came to Israel from Odessa, via Austria. Since 1852 they were retailers and distributors of wines & spirits, specializing in the Christian market. In 1870 Zeev Zeida Teperberg founded Efrat Winery. This winery continues today under the family name Teperberg and it is the largest family owned winery in Israel.

The wineries used to receive grapes delivered on donkeys from Hebron. This may have included local white varieties like Hallili (aka Hevroni), Sallati, Marawi, Sharwishi, Dabuki, Jandali, Halbani, Romi, Hadari and Hamdani. Or red varieties like: Zeitani, Singeli, Karkashani, Razaki, Shemi, Karashi and more.

Most of the wine was sweet, simply because a sweet wine was more likely to last. The main market was for the Jewish community wishing to make Kiddush. There was also a Christian market seeking Altar or Communion wine from ‘the Holy Land.’

In 1870 the Mikveh-Israel Agricultural School was founded, southeast of Jaffa. The school, under French patronage and managed by Charles Netter from Alsace, emphasized the new importance of agriculture. They were the first to use European varieties, like Carignan from the south of France. Many of the new wave of immigrants who “returned to Zion” towards the end of the nineteenth century, learned the rudiments of agriculture at the school, before planting vineyards elsewhere.

Late 1800’s

In 1882 Jews from Russia and Romania set up the new villages of Rishon Le Zion & Zichron Ya’acov. They sought financial assistance from Baron Edmond de Rothschild. He was a banker and art collector, who lived in Paris, and he was also owner of Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux, one of the most famous wineries in the world. He not only offered support but commisioned a report to survey the agricultural possibilities in what was a barren land. One of his expert horticulturists, summoned from the Palace of Versailles to visit Palestine, recommended vineyards as being the solution in 1882. The first experimental vineyards were duly planted.

Initially efforts were made to plant wheat and potatoes, but these did not succeed. However the vineyards thrived. So the farming villages formally decided to turn to grapes in 1884. They planted varieties like Alicante (Grenache), Carignan, Espart (Mourvedre), Bordolo (Cinsault), Brachet and Petit Bouschet.

In 1887 Baron Rothschild visited for the first time and fell in love with the Mount Carmel area, which he thought was Israel’s Tuscany or Provence. He then decided to create a wine industry. Rothschild brought in the best agronomists from France, winemaking expertise from Bordeaux and the finest equipment money could buy to ensure his project was a success.

He was determined to make a great Bordeaux style wine. So he sent cuttings of Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec, taken from Lafite’s vineyard. When the scourge of phylloxera hit the vineyards in the 1890’s, they circumvented the problem by bringing cuttings from a nursery in Kashmir. These became known as ‘the Indian vines’.

Even though Rothschild’s view was visionary, his dream for a quality Bordeaux style wine was not realized in his lifetime. The growers did not like the low yields of these varieties and there was no real market for a fine Palestine wine. When the diseased Bordeaux varieties had to be ripped out, they were replanted with varieties like Carignan, Alicante, Clairette & Ugni Blanc.

In the meantime, Rothschild built Israel’s first commercial wineries at Rishon Le Zion in 1890 and at Zichron Ya’acov in 1892, and sent a Bordeaux winemaker to take charge. Charles Mortier, winemaker of Chateau Lafite, was a consultant. The wineries were very large by world standards and extremely advanced for their time. The first time electricity and the telephone were used in Israel was at the Rishon & Zichron wineries.

Rothschild then built deep underground cellars at Rishon le Zion & Zichron Ya’acov in order to keep the wine at a steady temperature. The project was begun in 1893 and finished in 1896. The deep underground cellars, which were 50 meters long, were more successful in maintaining a steady temperature. The cellars at Rishon Le Zion cost the Baron 6 million francs and at Zichron Ya’acov the cost was 5 million francs. (By comparison, the purchase of Chateau Lafite only cost the Rothschild family 4 million francs!)

In 1895 the Carmel Wine Co. was formed by E.Z. Lewin-Epstein, one of the founders of Rehovot, to market the wines of Rishon and Zichron overseas. The first export office was opened in Warsaw in 1896, followed by Austria (1897), Germany, Britain (1898) and America (1900). The company in Britain was known as “Palestine Wine Co.”, hence the brand ‘Palwin.’ Carmel became Israel’s first exporter and first brand.

There were also some wineries run by monasteries. The Latroun Monastery, founded in 1890 by Trappist Monks from France, produced wines under the name Domaine de Latroun, sourced from their own vineyards. It is situated just off the Tel Aviv – Jerusalem Highway. They used French varieties like Gewurztraminer and Pinot Noir before other Israeli wineries.

Cremisan Winery was founded by Cremisan Monastery at Beit Jalla, situated not far from Bethlehem. It was founded by Salesian Monks from Italy in 1895. They managed to keep alive some of the original local varieties alive such as Jandali, Hamdani and Dabuki amongst the whites and Baladi, amongst the reds.

The Templars from Germany also greatly contributed their agricultural skills to the Holy Land’s development. They were advanced agriculturally and in 1893 they opened their winery in the Sarona district of Tel Aviv, in between the Kyria and Montefiore Quarter. They were the first to bring German varieties to Israel, such as Sylvaner. However they returned to Germany at the onset of World War II.

Early to Mid 1900’s

In 1902 the name Carmel Oriental was first used to denote the company marketing wines to places like Beirut, Damascus, Constantinople, Alexandria as well as Jaffa & Jerusalem. Carmel even had a branch in Cairo. When Hebrew became the accepted language, the company name was translated to Carmel Mizrahi.

The first major award to be given to an Israeli wine was the Gold Medal presented to Carmel No.1 at the famous Paris Exhibition of 1900. Carmel shared the winner’s podium with some of Bordeaux most famous Chateaux!

In 1906 the management of the wineries at Rishon le Zion and Zichron Ya’acov was deeded to the growers, who founded the “Société Cooperative Vigeronne des Grandes Caves, Richon-le-Zion and Zichron Jacob Ltd.”. The registration of the name in French was in recognition of the Baron’s contribution. The cooperative included vineyards in all the new farming villages funded by Rothschild, both Rishon Le Zion and Zichron Ya’acov Wine Cellars, and two marketing companies. Carmel Oriental took care of the ‘domestic market’ of the Ottoman Empire and Carmel Wine Co. was for export markets. The cooperative was to stay in operation for 107 years.

Two future Israeli prime ministers worked in the wine trade in the early years. Israel’s first prime minister, David Ben-Gurion, worked at Rishon le Zion Cellars in 1907. Levi Eshkol, Israel’s third prime minister, managed the original vineyards, then surrounding the cellars at Rishon in 1915.

The wine business expanded and sales increased particularly during the First World War, when German, British and Australian troops passed through the country. When the war was over though, the industry lost its principal markets: Russia, because of the Revolution; the United States because of Prohibition and Egypt and the Middle East because of Arab nationalism. Many vineyards were replaced with citrus groves, almonds and olive trees.

In 1925 the British decreed that businesses had to move out of the Old City. This and the Arab riots of 1929, encouraged Shor Brothers to move to a new home in Beit Israel, near Meah Shearim. Efrat moved to .

In 1934, Baron Edmond de Rothschild passed away. He remains were later reinterred in the beautiful Ramat Hanadiv Gardens, on the southern slopes of Mount Carmel, overlooking the sea and the winery & vineyards he loved so much.

During this pre-state period, Carmel was the dominant winery. Rishon Le Zion and Zichron Ya’acov were, by far, the two largest wineries in Israel. Carignan and Alicante were the main planted varieties. Most vineyards were concentrated in the valleys surrounding Zichron Ya’acov & the central coastal plain around Rishon Le Zion and Rehovot.


Adam Montefiore. He works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in both Israeli and international publications.



1950’s/ 1960’s

During the Second World War, the wine industry began to grow again. By the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, there were fourteen wineries in existence. Eliaz Wine Cellars (1952) and Askalon-Carmei Zion (1950) were founded in the early years of the state. Eliaz was named after Eliezer Seltzer, who was killed in the War of Independence. It was founded in a failed perfume factory in Binyamina. Askalon was founded by the Segal family, who had previously opened a distillery in the Sarona settlement.

James Rothschild, son of Baron Edmond, took over his father’s interests in Palestine. In 1957 he arranged to donate the Rishon le Zion and Zichron Ya’acov Wine Cellars to Carmel. Thus the involvement and interest of the Rothschild family in the Israel wine industry extended from 1882 until 1957.

In 1957, the Israel Wine Institute was formed in cooperation with the industry and government. It was initially managed by an agronomist and oenologist from France. Initially, many wines were generically named, but in 1961 Israel was a signatory of the Madrid Pact and names such as Port and Sherry disappeared from the domestic market place.

The main wineries at this time were Carmel Mizrahi, Eliaz , Friedman-Tnuva (forerunner of WEST -Stock), Askalon, and Mikveh-Israel. The main areas of vineyards were the valleys surrounding the southern slopes of Mt. Carmel, and the central Judean Plain & Judean Foothills.

By the 1960’s, Carmel, controlled over 90% of the vineyards in Israel. Most of the red wines were based on Carignan, and medium dry white wines were made from Semillon. Carmel Hock, Grenache Rose and Adom Atik, were the most popular table wines. In 1971 Israel’s first varietal wines – a Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc – were released in the export market by Carmel.


In 1976 Carmel made a legendary Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve, which was Israel’s first international style quality wine. It was the first wine aged in small oak barrels and aged in bottle before release. It was to be the forerunner of the quality revolution.

In the 1970’s Professor Cornelius Ough, from the University of California at Davis, changed the course of Israeli wine. After visiting the Golan Heights, he reported back that the Golan Heights would be a perfect site for growing high quality wine grapes. The first vines were planted there in 1976.


This set the stage for the quality revolution which began in 1983 with the founding of the Golan Heights Winery, which immediately sought the assistance of Californian winemaker Peter Stern. He was to be the winemaking consultant for the next twenty years.

The Golan Heights Winery re-invented Israeli viticulture and brought New World winemaking techniques to Israel, using the cooler climate vineyards of the Golan.

When Yarden wines were exported to America by the Golan Heights Winery, they were referred to as Israel’s first world class wines. In 1987 at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in London, the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 1984, won not only a Gold Medal, but also the Winiarski Trophy as the best red wine in the Competition. It was the first of many international awards.

Tishbi Winery was founded in 1985. Jonathan Tishbi, whose great grandparents planted vineyards for Rothschild in the 1880’s, became the first vineyard owner to decide to build his own winery.


In 1990 Barkan took over the Stock – WEST winery (previously known as Friedman Tnuva), which had gone bankrupt. The new owner grew their business to become the second largest winery in the country.

The boutique winery revolution began in the 1990’s. Tzora Kibbutz and Dalton followed Tishbi’s example of adding a winery to established vineyards. Yair Margalit and Eli Ben Zaken decided to establish their own wineries, resulting in Margalit Winery and Domaine du Castel respectively.

Dr. Yair Margalit was a chemistry professor, who studied winemaking in California, opened his boutique winery in 1989. Eli Ben Zaken was self taught. By a stroke of good fortune his first wine got noticed by Serena Sutcliffe MW, head of the Sotheby’s Wine Department. Both Margalit and Castel showed that smaller wineries could also make world class wines.

The 1990’s really saw the coming of age of the Israeli wine market. During these prosperous years, Israel went through a cultural revolution in terms of food & wine.


The larger wineries reacted to the boutique winery boom. The traditional, historic wineries of Israel: Carmel Mizrahi, Efrat, Eliaz and Askalon were renamed Carmel Winery, Teperberg 1870, Binyamina Winery and Segal Wines respectively, and they started a revolution of their own, deciding to re-brand, and focus on quality table wines.

The large wineries also invested heavily. Carmel built two new small state of the art wineries, Kayoumi Winery in the Upper Galilee and Yatir Winery in the Northeast Negev. They closed production at Rishon Le Zion and totally refurbished their Zichron Ya’acov facility. Golan Heights Winery opened a new winery called Galil Mountain, situated on the border with Lebanon. Barkan built a new advanced winery at Hulda and planted alongside it the largest vineyard in the country. They also bought Segal Wines. Teperberg built a new winery at Tzora.

Large commercial concerns entered the wine business. Tempo Beer Industries, the country’s largest brewery, purchased Barkan-Segal. The country’s largest beverage company, The Central Bottling Co., aka Coka Cola Israel, purchased Tabor Winery. The supermarket company Hezi Hinam bought Binyamina Winery. A Recanati, from the famous industrialist & philanthropist family, founded the Recanati Winery. An international consortium of investors from Israel, USA, UK and France purchased Carmel.

The international recognition Israel started receiving for its wines was a major step forward. The Wine Spectator’s New York Wine Experience, open by invitation only to the leading 250 wineries in the world, invited Yarden to participate. French critics Bettane & Dessaume selected Castel as one of the wineries featured in their book “The World’s Greatest Wines.” Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book awarded a maximum four stars to Castel and three to four stars to Yatir. The Wine Spectator chose Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon as one of their Top 100 Wines of The Year.

The Wine Advocate, owned by Robert Parker, the world’s most influential wine critic, began regular tastings of Israeli wines. In the first tasting Yatir Winery scored 93 points, then the best score for an Israeli, kosher or Eastern Mediterranean wine. Since then Castel, Margalit, Clos de Gat and Yarden have each also achieved this score.

In wine-tasting competitions, Israeli wines have also been to the forefront. Yarden, Barkan & Recanati wines, in particular, have been prolific in collecting gold medals worldwide. In particular, three awards have stood out. Vinitaly gave the Trophy for ‘The Best Winery’ to the Golan Heights Winery. The Decanter World Wine Awards awarded the prestigious International Trophy to Carmel Winery. The Wine Enthusiast awarded the Best New World Winery Award to The Golan Heights Winery.

Today there are 40 wineries harvesting 50 tons or more, 250 boutique wineries and many more garagiste or domestic wineries. The largest wineries in Israel are: Carmel, Barkan, Golan Heights, Teperberg, Binyamina, Tabor, Tishbi, Galil Mountain, Dalton & Recanati. The main grape varieties planted are Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Merlot & Shiraz/ Syrah. Israel has 5,500 hectares of wine vineyards. The main wine growing areas are the Upper Galilee, Golan Heights, Mount Carmel, Judean Plain & Judean Hills.

Israeli wine has certainly arrived!

By Adam Montefiore. He works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in both Israeli and international publications.



Israel is an Eastern Mediterranean country, part of what some will call the Levant and others, the Near East. It is a sliver of a country bordered by the Mediterranean Sea to the west, and surrounded by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt to the north, west and south.

Israel is land of 20,770 square kilometers (7,992 sq miles). It stretches a mere 424 kilometers (263 miles) from north to south. The population is 8 million. Ancient names like Galilee, Nazareth, and Jerusalem reek with Biblical history. There are also the modern cities of Tel Aviv and Haifa built on the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, which are fruits of modern Israel. The country boasts mountains like Mount Hermon on the Golan Heights, Mount Meron in the Upper Galilee and the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth.

The country may be divided into three distinct parts. There is the coastal plain, the hilly or mountainous region that runs down the spine of the country and the Jordan Rift Valley, which is part of the Syrian – East African Rift. The fertile part of the country has a standard Meditirranean climate: long, hot, dry summers and short, cool, rainy winters. There will be occasional winter snow on the higher elevations, particularly the Golan Heights, Upper Galilee and Judean Hills. There is also a semi-arid area and the Negev Desert, which covers more than half the country.

The Mediterranean Sea is the most important element in Israel’s climate. The winds, rain and humidity usually come from the west. Israel has a standard Mediterranean climate: humid, hot summers and warm, wet winters. Rain is limited to the winter months. Annual precipitation ranges from 100 mm. in the south to 1,100 mm. in the north. Average annual temperatures are 15 oC to 20 oC. In the coldest month of January, the average temperatures range from 5 – 12 oC and in July/August 22-33 oC.

Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in both Israeli and international publications.



Israel, like many long thin countries, has a surprising number of microclimates. It is possible to ski in the morning on Mount Hermon in the north, and in the afternoon to go scuba diving to see the Coral Reef in the Red Sea resort of Eilat. Likewise it is possible to be in the central mountains at 1,000 meters altitude, and a short time afterward to fall away to the Judean Desert, where the Dead Sea, the lowest point on earth at 400 meters below sea level, is situated. One can visit the hot, humid Sea of Galilee, where you will be surrounded by date palms and banana trees. Climb ten minutes on to the Golan Heights and cool climate produce like apples, pears and wine grapes are grown. It is a country of variety, extremes, but all on a small scale. Israel would comfortably fit into Wales or New Jersey

The official Israeli wine regions were decided in the 1960’s long before the Israel wine industry took its current shape. The country is divided into five regions; Galilee, Shomron, Samson, Judean Hills and the Negev. There are ongoing talks to change and update these to fit in with the realities of today, but until the decisions are made, these remain the regions registered by the TTB in America and the European Community. The Shomron and Samson areas are the traditional wine regions of Israel. These are coastal regions where the bulk of vineyards were originally planted and they formed the basis of Israeli wine for a hundred years or so. With the quality revolution, new vineyards were planted in the cooler areas of the Golan Heights, Upper Galilee, Judean Foothills and Judean Hills. These are proving to be Israel’s best quality wine producing areas, where most of the new vineyards are being planted.

Galilee – The Galilee, Galil in Hebrew, is the best appellation, situated in the north of Israel. This comprises Israel’s two finest quality wine growing regions, the Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights. These are high altitude, cooler climate vineyards planted comparatively recently. The Golan Heights is really a different geographical region to the Galilee – but in wine law, it is registered as a sub region of the Galilee. The Upper Galilee is a mountainous area of forests, plunging peaks and stony ridges. It is Israel’s most beautiful vineyard region. The soils are heavy, but well drained. They tend to be a mixture of volcanic, gravel and terra rossa soils. The Kedesh Valley, Naftali and Dishon vineyard areas are 350 to 450 meters above sea level. They are close to the northern border with Lebanon, not so far from the Bekaa Valley, the heart of the Lebanese wine industry. The vineyards of Kayoumi, Kadita, Ramat Dalton and Ben Zimra, nearer Mount Meron, range from 650 to 1,000 meters above sea level. Most of the vineyards in the Upper Galilee were planted only since the mid to late 1990’s. The annual precipitation in the Upper Galilee (and Golan) is from 800-1,000 mm. Winter temperatures can be from 0-15 0C whilst in the summer the range is from 12-30 0C.

The main wineries in the Upper Galilee are Galil Mountain, Dalton and Adir, and Carmel’s Kayoumi Winery.

The area of vineyards in the Lower Galilee is situated at Kfar Tabor, near Mount Tabor. Here elevations are 200 to 400 meters. Soils vary between volcanic and limestone. Precipitation ranges from 400 – 500 mm a year. Tabor Winery is the main winery of this area. However, only just over 10% of the Galilee’s vineyards lie in the Lower Galilee.

The Golan Heights is a volcanic plateau rising to 1,200 meters above sea level. The area benefits from cool breezes from the snow covered Mount Hermon. The area may be divided into three: The southern Golan overlooking the Sea of Galilee is 350 meters above sea level. The soils are basaltic clay. The middle Golan is 400 – 500 meters altitude. Then there is the Upper Golan which rises from 750 to 1,200 meters. Soil is more volcanic tuff and basalt. The Golan was first planted with in 1976, but in the 1990’s became a major wine growing region in volume not just quality.

The main winery situated on the Golan is the Golan Heights Winery, situated at Katzrin. Other prominent local wineries are Chateau Golan, Pelter, Bazelet Hagolan and Odem Mountain.

Shomron – Shomron is Israel’s most traditional wine growing region first planted by Baron Edmond de Rothschild in the 1880’s. Mount Carmel, Ramat Manashe and the Shomron Hills are part of the Shomron Region.The main concentration of vineyards is in the valleys surrounding the winery towns of Zichron Ya’acov and Binyamina, benefiting from the southern Carmel Mountain range and cooling breezes off the Mediterranean Sea. Elevations rise from 0 to 150 meters above sea level. Soils vary from calcareous clay, terra rossa, limestome and chalk. The climate is typically Mediterranean. Annual precipitation is 400 – 600 mm.

The Carmel’s Zichron Ya’acov Wine Cellars, Binyamina, Tishbi and Amphorae wineries are all situated in close proximity.

There are also new vineyards being planted in the central mountain region of the Shomron, known as the Shomron Hills. Here the shallow soils on a limestone base and the high altitude, between 700 to 850 meters, prove ideal for growing wine grapes. The sparse stony hills look very Biblical.

These mainly supply the small wineries nearby like Gvaot, Shilo and Tura.

Samson – Samson is not a geographical place, but the wine region is named after the Biblical figure, that frequented the area.

The central coastal Judean Plain and Judean Lowlands, south east of Tel Aviv, is a large part of the Samson Region, where vineyards were planted in Rothschild’s time. The area is from 0 to 100 meters above sea level and it is a hot, humid region. Summer temperatures range from 20 to 32 0C. Annual precipitation is 350-400mm. Alluvial soils mix with sandy, clay loams. There is also a fair bit of terra rossa. Many of the vineyards for large volume wines come from here.

Wineries in this region include the historic Rishon Le Zion Wine Cellars, Barkan Winery at Hulda, Bravdo at Karmei Yosef and the Latroun Monastery.

The second part of the region is the Judean Foothills, which is the fastest growing region in terms of newly planted vineyards and new start-up wineries. These are the rolling hills with limestone soils and clay loams, which may be experienced on the drive to Jerusalem. Elevations are higher, from 50 to 200 meters above sea level and average rainfall is up to 500 mm a year. Winter temperatures are from 5 to 20 0C, whilst those in the summer range from say 18 to 30 0C.

Wineries in this area include Clos de Gat, Ella Valley, Flam, Mony, Teperberg and Tzora.

Judean Hills – The Judean Hills is a quality but underdeveloped wine region ranging from the mountains north of Jerusalem, through Gush Etzion to Yatir Forest, south of Hebron. Warm days and cool nighttime temperature characterize the region which in places is 500 to 1,000 meters above sea level. The soils are thin, limestone and stony. The higher mountains receive snow in the winter. Annual precipitation is 500 mm. Average winter temperatures are 0-18 0C, whilst summer temperatures can rise from 15 to 30 0C.

Psagot, Domaine du Castel, Gush Etzion, Ramat Hebron & Sea Horse wineries are situated in this region.

Negev – The Negev is the desert region that makes up half the country. Vineyards have been planted in the higher areas in the northeast at Ramat Arad, a semi arid area, which is 500 meters above sea level, with annual precipitation of 150 mm. a year. Here the soils are loess.

Yatir Winery and Midbar Winery are situated in the north east Negev.

Also in the central Negev Highlands, in particular Sde Boker and Mitzpe Ramon, where soils are sandy loam. The Negev Highlands range from 700 to 1,000 meters elevation. Rainfall is 50 to 100 mm. a year. Temperatures range from very hot during the day (15-40 0C in the summer) to cooler evenings and cold nights. The vineyards are sometimes shrouded in mists during the morning hours. The dryness and lack of humidity keep diseases to a minimum.

Kadesh Barnea and Carmei Avdat are two of the wineries from the Negev.

By Adam Montefiore. He works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in both Israeli and international publications.




Israel is famous for its agriculture. Israeli farmers are leaders in innovations and new technology, always pushing the frontiers of knowledge and challenging existing pre-conceptions. This technology and drive is also present amongst the country’s wine growers.

Israeli vineyards tend to be in an ongoing battle with the elements. On one side there is a chronic lack of water and what there is can be very expensive. Israel’s once proud citrus industry is a shadow of what it once was as the country has reverted to hi-tec instead of agriculture. However vineyards use less water than many other fruit crops. This has been a significant factor in the decision by farmers to plant new vineyards.

Secondly, Israel in terms of sun hours is like North Africa. The coastal area can be hot and humid. The main vineyards of Israel lie at a latitude between 31.5 to just over 33 o N.

This why many of the newer vineyards are at higher altitudes where temperatures are cooler, allowing a longer growing season. The fastest growing regions in terms of new vineyards being planted are the Judean Foothills, Judean Hills, Upper Galilee and Golan Heights. Many of these vineyards rise from 400 meters to up to 1,000 meters above sea level.

However the Israeli sun and combination of hills and mountainous areas with soils of limestone, terra rossa and volcanic tuff, make this small country a winemaking paradise.

Due to the total lack of rain during the growing season, drip feed irrigation is essential. This was pioneered by the Israelis in the early 1960’s and is now used in agriculture all over the world. Precipitation is therefore is not important for the vine’s growth, but rainwater absorption in the soil is important as are the storage reservoirs, which need to be filled by the winter rains.

The preferred aspect of an Israeli vineyard is a north facing slope with vines planted east to west. The cooling Mediterranean winds from the west, are then able to penetrate the rows of vines. This has a cooling effect, provides ventilation, which reduces humidity and brings down average temperatures.

Most vineyards planted in the last twenty years conform to a standard. There are 1.5 meters between vines and 3 meters between rows. The usual vineyard density is 2,220 vines per hectare. There is a distinct preference for mechanical harvesting. This means a vineyard may be night harvested in a few hours, at the optimum time, and brought to the winery in the cool temperatures of the early morning.

Canopy management is crucial in a hot country like Israel. It is important to reduce the vigor of the vines, but protect the grapes from over exposure. The objective is to let the light in, but provide protection from the sun. Most vineyards are cordon spur pruned in a VSP – vertical shoot position.

However some of the older vineyards are planted in the goblet, bush vine format. In the Judean Hills some of the vineyards are planted in stone lined terraces. Some of the older vineyards don’t need irrigation. The roots of the vines have dug deep into the stony soil over the years, to receive the water required. These vines are hand harvested.

Bud break is normally from the beginning to mid March and flowering in the two weeks in the middle of April. The main hazard is not frost or hail in the spring, or rain during the harvest, but the dreaded hamsin. These are warm winds that come from the Arabian Desert in the south east, drastically raising temperatures, sometimes up to 40 o C. The vines simply close down in order to survive.

Another unfortunate hazard unique to this area, is war. In 2006 when rockets rained into the Galilee in the Second Lebanon War, winemakers were not able to enter the vineyards in the crucial six weeks before harvest. Fortunately there was a ceasefire in time to save the harvest in the Upper Galilee.

Harvesting usually starts in mid to late July. The muscats and white grapes used for making sparkling wines are the first to be harvested. However the bulk of the harvest is from August, September to the early part of October. In a few instances the last Cabernet Sauvignon grapes in the northern Golan Heights may be harvested even in the first week of November. So Israel has a very long harvest period.

The most technically advanced viticulture is practiced on the Golan Heights by Yarden. Here there are meteorological stations strategically placed in the vineyards providing information on leaf wetness, soil temperature, humidity, temperature reporting back to the winery by the second. This is where technology and agriculture meet to provide the viticulturists with the maximum information possible.

Israelis are always keen to throw convention aside and attempt the impossible. Carmel were the pioneers in the Negev Desert planting vineyards at Ramat Arad. This was the perfect example of ‘making the desert bloom’. Since there have been experiments in growing vineyards in the deeper Negev, particularly at Mitzpe Ramon and Sde Boker. In one instance, saline water was drawn from deep, ancient, underground wells more than 650 meters below ground. Other, more successful experiments have involved the use of treated sewage water from a nearby army base. Israeli efforts to grow wine grapes in the desert are being watched with interest by other hot wine producing countries.

The only winery in Israel producing organic wine has unfortunately closed. There are though a number of wineries producing wine from organically grown vineyards.

The concept of organic or self sustainable vineyards is a growing trend in Israel.

Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in both Israeli and international publications.




Israel has no indigenous wine grape varieties, which is surprising because there is a local olive oil variety and table grape variety and there a numerous local varieties in nearby Cyprus. However it appears that when the Holy Land was under the jurisdiction of the Muslims, with first Mameluk rule and then the Ottomans, the growing of wine grapes and the making of wine was actively discouraged. Many of the indigenous varieties disappeared.

Yet the names of grapes used to make wine in the mid 19th century are known. They included varieties such as Hevroni, Dabouki, Marawi, Halbani, Sharwishi, Hamdani, Jandali amongst the whites and Zeitani, Karkashani, Razaki, Karashi, Baladi amongst the reds. Most were grown in the Bethlehem or Hebron areas primarily by Arabs and the names reflect their Arab origins. These varieties were sold to the few Jewish wineries, in particularly in the Old City of Jerusalem. However they are not used by mainstream wineries, apart from the Cremisan Monastery, which still uses them.

In 1870 the Mikveh Israel Agricultural School was set up under French management. They were the first to use European varieties in their own Mikveh Israel Winery, but also supplied cuttings for the first commercial vineyards in the country planted in the years 1882 to 1887. The main varieties were: Alicante, Carignan, Bourdales (aka Cinsault), Braquet (aka Brachetto), Esparte (aka Mourvedre) and Petit Bouschet. They wisely chose Mediterranean varieties considering the climate in what was then called Palestine.

Cuttings from Chateau Lafite

On his first visit to Palestine in 1887, Baron Edmond de Rothschild decided he wanted to make a serious Palestine wine. He made the decision to concentrate on Bordeaux varieties. His administrators in Palestine were against the idea, but his vision was supported by Professor Gayon from Bordeaux and Charles Mortier, the manager and winemaker of Chateau Lafite. This was why Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec came to be planted in the late 1880’s from cuttings supplied by Chateau Lafite.

However because of the threat of phylloxera, which was already devastating French vineyards, the vines were imported via Kashmir in India. However this precaution did not prevent the vines from succumbing to phylloxera and in the 1890’s they had to be replanted on American rootstock.

Eventually Rothschild’s vision for quality was put on hold as there was not then a market for a quality Palestine wine and the Israeli market became focused on the more inexpensive, value side of the market. This really meant cheap bulk wines and sweet sacramental wines. So the quality Bordeaux varieties were replaced mainly by

Carignan and Grenache, which dominated Israeli winemaking for most of the 20th century. The main white wine grape was Semillon, with varieties like Clairette and Ugni Blanc in a supporting role. The grape for sweet wines was Muscat of Alexandria.

In the early 1970’s the first varietal wines were exported by Carmel. The wines were called Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc, which were dry and Grenache Rose and Semillon, which were semi dry. In the 1980’s the Golan Heights Winery began an ambitious planting program which involved bringing many of the international noble varieties to Israel. The most planted varieties in Israel were Carignan for red grapes and Colombard for whites. At the same time Carignan was the most planted red variety in France and Colombard the leading white variety in California.

Though Carmel re-introduced Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc to Israel, the pioneering Golan Heights Winery were the first to launch, or re-launch the following varieties: Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Pinot Noir, Sangiovese, Gamay, Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, White Riesling and Muscat Canelli.

Red Wines

The three most heavily planted varieties are in Israel today are Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Merlot followed by Shiraz, Argaman and Petite Sirah. Most of the best red wines are either Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Shiraz varietals or Bordeaux blends based primarily on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot.


Argaman comprises 4% of the varieties in Israel. It is exclusively used for inexpensive blends. Its chief claim to fame is that it is an Israeli variety, even if a modern one. It was created in the early 1990’s as an intended replacement for Carignan. It is a cross between Carignan and the Portuguese grape Souzao, and its main benefit is it does provide good color. However, apart from this, it is undistinguished and not a great success. It is mainly grown in the central coastal and Judean Plain.


Widely grown in Italy and at its best in Piedmont, Barbera has become a fashionable ‘new’ variety in Israel. Though there is very little Barbera in Israel, what there is has been used to make Barbera wines. As to quality, the jury is still out.

Cabernet Franc

Cabernet Franc was originally planted by Baron Edmond de Rothschild in the late 1880’s. In those days it was preferred to Cabernet Sauvignon and requests were made to plant more Cabernet Franc than its more illustrious relation. However unlike its near namesake, it never took hold or created any interest until the last ten years or so. Cabernet Franc is used by some wineries as part of a Bordeaux blend and by others as an interesting, slightly exotic varietal. Recently a few wineries have chosen to specialize in it, seeing it as a variety with a future in Israel. It can grow successfully in drier conditions than Cabernet Sauvignon and ripens ealier. The results though are totally different to the cooler Loire Valley, but that is not to say the wines don’t provide a good alternative to the all conquering Cabernet Sauvignon. As a blending component, it adds complexity and still hold on to its characteristic herbaceousness in the hotter climate.

Cabernet Sauvignon

The king of vines in so many countries, it is the same in Israel. It was first planted by Rothschild in the late 1880’s, but never became dominant until use of varietal labeling came into vogue in the early 1970’s. Today the finest Israeli wines tend to be Cabernet Sauvignon varietals or Bordeaux blends.

There are more hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon planted than any other variety in Israel, which translates to about 21% of the total tonnage at harvest.

The best Cabernet Sauvignon is grown in areas with an altitude of 600 meters above sea level. The Upper Galilee and central to northern Golan Heights are arguably the best region for this most noble of noble varieties. The depth of colour, concentration of ripe fruit and tannic structure make this the most successful variety. The danger in Israel’s Mediterranean climate is that the wines do not become too jammy.

However the variety appears most successful as part of a Bordeaux style blend, usually blended with Merlot.


Israel’s wine industry was built on the back of Carignan which was appropriate because it is a Mediterranean variety and high yields are possible. Less than 20 years ago, Carignan represented 40% of the grapes planted in Israel. Today with all the new plantings of quality varieties, the percentage of Carignan has dropped to 15% as Israel has focused more on making wines of quality. The variety is mainly used in the production of inexpensive supermarket blends, sweet sacramental wine and even grape juice.

However a few enterprising wineries have, by drastically reducing yields, and selecting older vineyards, managed to make old vine wines of character and distinction.

The traditional region for Carignan is the southern part of Mount Carmel, which overlooks the Mediterranean. The best quality old vine Carignan comes from the small enclosed valleys of Meir Shefaya, just north east of Zichron Ya’acov. The wines show aromas of cherries and raspberries, with a backdrop of Mediterranean herbs.

As its use in Israel spans the history of the modern Israel wine industry and its uses have turned out to be so versatile, the simple Carignan grape may turn out to be the variety associated more than any other with Israel.


Merlot was introduced to Israel in the 1980’s. It tends to grow well throughout the country, but never reaches the quality of the best Cabernet Sauvignons. Merlot in Israel is harvested relatively early because it ripens easily. Yields are good and its soft, mild character make it the perfect partner for Cabernet Sauvignons. Most wineries produce a varietal Merlot, which is normally bolstered by 15% Cabernet Sauvignon, but it plays a more significant role in the so called Bordeaux blends.

A great deal of Merlot was planted in the 1990’s and it now represents a 14% of the total.

Petite Sirah

Petite Sirah (sometimes spelt Petite Syrah) came to Israel in the 1970’s and was primarily used in cheap blends. It is a cross between the Syrah and obscure variety Peloursan, and is known as Durif in France. However there is nothing petite about the wines. It is an underrated grape producing powerful, almost black colored wines and is more tannic than Cabernet Sauvignon. Recently the variety has been used to good effect by using old vine vineyards up to 40 years old to produce blockbuster wines. Petite Sirah grows best in the Judean Foothills. It appears that like in California and Australia, this variety has found a niche in Israel for those looking for something other than Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. It is a variety that has a small but loyal following.

Petit Verdot

Petit Verdot is a grape sparingly used in Bordeaux, where it has difficulty ripening in some years. However there are no such problems in Israel, where its structure and color are making it an important part of the premium blends of some major wineries. It appears to do well in a wide variety of places in Israel, whether in the coastal regions, the Judean Hills or Upper Galilee. Whilst appreciating its usefulness as a blender, most winemakers have so far proved reluctant to produce it as a single varietal feeling it lacks the depth to stand on its own. Interestingly though, it has replaced Merlot as the second most dominant variety after Cabernet, in some of the country’s finest Bordeaux blends.

Pinot Noir

Pinot Noir first came to Israel with the Latroun Monastery. The wines were very light, but definitely with a Pinot Noir nose. In the early 1990’s it was planted more for commercial use and was mainly used in sparkling wine. However it is a grape too fickle for the hot, humid Israeli climate and without doubt is not suited to Israel. The northern Golan Heights, up to 1,200 meters above sea level, is the best region for this variety.


Sangiovese was introduced to Israel on the Golan Heights. This famous Tuscan variety rarely performs well outside Italy and even in Italy sometimes gives variable results. So it is not a surprise that it is not a great success in Israel. Most is planted on the Golan. The majority is used in lesser expensive blends.

Shiraz/ Syrah

Shiraz is a fairly recent new immigrant having come to Israel in the late 1990’s. Wines produced from the French clone tend to be called Syrah and from the Australian clone, Shiraz. Whatever its origin, Shiraz is the more commonly used name in Israel. Though now with only just over a 8% share, it is still a minor player. However it is widely regarded as a grape for the future being ideal for the Israeli climate. The best regions for this variety are the Judean Foothills, Judean Hills and Upper Galilee. In fact it shows good results everywhere. As many of the vineyards are quite young, the Shiraz character is becoming more pronounced as the vines become older. This could challenge the Cabernet Sauvignon as Israel’s finest grape variety in the future.

There are other varieties being planted, trialed or released by individual wineries. These include Malbec, which is returning after 100 years, Tempranillo, and Pinotage, which Barkan have won prizes for. Most eagerly awaited are Mediterranean varieties such as Mourvedre and the return of virus free and a better clone of Grenache. There is even Zinfandel in Israel. Much goes into White Zinfandel Blush wine. However it rots easily, often before ripening, but two wineries in particular have persevered to produce Zinfandel wines.

White Grapes.

The main white varieties for the finest white wines are Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. There are also White Rieslings, Gewurztraminers and Viogniers. The main varieties in numbers of hectares are Colombard and Emerald Riesling followed by Muscat of Alexandria, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay.


Chardonnay was first launched in Israel in 1987. Since then is well regarded as being the variety for the finest white wines in Israel.

The finest region for Chardonnay was always considered to be the northern Golan Heights, but some of the finest Chardonnays are now being produced in the rolling hills between the Judean Foothills and the Judean Hills. Without doubt the oaky, high alcohol, ‘peaches and cream’ Chardonnays are proving less fashionable. The part use of stainless steel to reduce the influence of oak in order to preserve green apple aromas and produce better food wines, is the new ‘in’style.


French Colombard came to Israel in the 1970’s. Since then it has become Israel’s most heavily planted white variety, though at 5% of the total, it is far less than it was. The variety is grown at its best in the southern Mount Carmel around Zichron Ya’acov. It produces aromatic wines with excellent acidity, but is usually used in inexpensive, fresh fruity white wine blends.

Emerald Riesling

Emerald Riesling arrived in Israel in the late 1970’s. In the 1980’s and 90’s, it became by far Israel’s largest selling wine. Many new wine lovers were seduced by the very flowery, aromatic nose and spicy finish of these semi dry, sometimes medium, wines. The Emerald Riesling performed the same job that Liebfraumilch did in the United Kingdom and Lambrusco did in America. Those heady days have passed, but Emerald Riesling is still has its place.

Emerald Riesling was the result of an attempt by the University of California at Davis to produce good yields from a Riesling in a hot climate. It was a cross between the German Riesling and Muscadelle and was created in 1948, ironically the year of the foundation of the State of Israel. In the end it did not take off anywhere – apart from Israel.


Gewurztraminer was planted on the Golan Heights by the Golan Heights Winery. It certainly needs the colder climate of the northern Golan to reach the optimum Gewurztraminer nose. It provided a welcome newcomer for those looking for higher quality semi dry white wines. However though good international wines they will never be a match for cooler climate Gewurztraminers from Alsace or New Zealand. By far the most successful Israeli use for the Gewurztraminer grape is in the production of luscious dessert wines. Some examples are genuine world class wines, which win a host of awards.

Muscat of Alexandria

An indigenous grape of the Eastern Mediterranean is the Muscat of Alexandria. It is part of the large Muscat family. This is a big berried grape also used elsewhere to make raisins and table grapes. In Israel it makes a sweet, aromatic, grapey dessert wine. The best area for the Muscat is the central coastal Judean Plain.

Sauvignon Blanc

There has been a revolution in Sauvignon Blancs in the last few years. It was a variety Israelis did not master until recently. That is not to say Sancerre and New Zealand will be quaking in their boots. Israel will never achieve the grassiness of a Sancerre or the concentration of tropical flavors of a New Zealand Sauvignon. However by planting at higher altitudes, harvesting early and using cold fermentation in stainless steel, the best represent good international standard wines in a fresh, crisp style. They certainly represent better food wines than many Israeli Chardonnays and are suitable to the Israeli climate.


Considering there is so little Viognier planted, there are a surprising number of Viogniers on the market. They appear to produce good wines in the Mediterranean climate with the attractive apricot, pear aroma associated with the variety. There is a variety in the production styles. Some are dry, others semi dry and some are oak aged and others are fermented and stored only in stainless steel tanks.

White Riesling

This variety is often known as Johannisberg Riesling within Israel and White Riesling in export markets. It makes a welcome change to the more rustic Emerald Riesling. It is grown at its best in the northern Golan Heights or Upper Galilee.

The finest Rieslings in Israel are usually made in an ‘off dry’style, hovering between dry and semi dry.

Other whites in Israel include the Semillon and Chenin Blanc. Both have been a long time in Israel but resulting wines in the past were poor and they are not planted in the most advantageous regions. So they have become unfashionable. Muscat Canelli (aka Muscat de Frontignan) has also arrived and produces dessert wines with a more delicate aroma than the Muscat of Alexandria, but as yet is only sparsely planted. Most interesting is the experimental plantings of those Mediterranean varieties Marsanne and Roussanne.

Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in both Israeli and international publications.



The ‘K’ word is problematic for Israeli wineries producing wines of international standard, that just also happen to be kosher. Many wine consumers are quick to assume the word ‘kosher’ is a derogatory statement of quality. However the results of tastings and competitions have proved a point. Kosher wines can be world class, receive good scores and win international awards. Mark Squires, a specialist on Israeli wines, wrote in the Wine Advocate: “No one should avoid wines simply because of Kosher certifications.” He went on to say that being kosher was generally irrelevant to the judgment whether a wine was good or not.

Not all wines produced in Israel are automatically kosher. In fact there are more wineries producing non kosher wine in Israel. However more than 90% of the Israeli wine produced is kosher. This is because, without exception, the largest wineries only produce kosher wines.

What is a Kosher wine

Adhering to the Jewish Dietary Laws (kashrut) is essential for all orthodox Jews. The word ‘kosher’ means ‘pure’. Kosher wine laws were established in ancient times, so an observant Jew could avoid drinking ‘Yayin Nesech’ – a wine used by non-Jews to make libations for idol worship and ‘Stam Yayin’ – ordinary wine made by and for non-Jews. Customs learnt over a number of years continue, making these the oldest of all wine laws.

At The Winery

For wine to be certified as kosher, the following regulations need to be followed at the winery.

1. Only religious Jews may handle the product and touch the winemaking equipment from the time the grapes arrive at the winery. The definition of a religious Jew for this purpose is one who is ‘Shomer Shabbat’ – who observes the Sabbath. Therefore a Jewish winemaker who is not orthodox is not allowed to draw samples from the barrels. It can be frustrating for a hands-on winemaker, but though it is a nuisance, it does not affect quality.

2. Only kosher items or substances may be used in the process. Yeasts, fining & cleaning materials have to be certified as kosher and must not be derived from animal by-products. Examples of fining agents not permitted, include gelatin (animal derivative), casein (diary derivative) and isinglass (because it comes from a non kosher fish.) Kosher wine is perfectly suitable for vegetarians – and if egg white is not used for fining, also for vegans,

In The Vineyard

Kosher wines produced in France, Italy & California, only have to observe these two criteria. In Israel – ‘Eretz Ha’ Kodesh’ (The Holy Land), kosher wine producers also have to observe the following agricultural laws which date back to the agrarian society in Biblical times:

a. Orlah . For the first three years, fruit from the vine may not be used for winemaking. The flower buds are removed to prevent fruit formation. In the fourth year the vine can bear fruity and a winemaker is permitted to use the grapes.

Interestingly most wine growers will anyway choose not to use fruit for the first few years for quality reasons.

b. Kilai Ha’Kerem – Cross breeding. Growing other fruits between the vines is prohibited. In southern Europe, a domestic winery may train its vines high, and grow its vegetables underneath. This would be prohibited, but anyone interested in quality has abandoned this practice anyway.

c. Shmittah – Sabbatical Year. There is a law recorded in the Bible which states that every seventh year, the fields should be left fallow and allowed to rest. However because of economic realities, a special dispensation is given to relieve farmers of this requirement and the land is symbolically sold to a non Jew for the duration of the seventh year. The idea of resting the land or introducing a nitrogen cycle is a common practice in today’s agriculture.

d. Terumot & Ma’aserot. This is a symbolic ceremony when over one percent of the production is poured away in remembrance of the ten per cent tithe once paid to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Both Shmittah and Terumot & Ma’asarot are the hardest to explain, being almost seen as voodoo-type practices by outsiders. In fact both give a strong message of social justice and egalitarianism. The concept of giving the land and its workers a one year sabbatical and reserving part of the harvest for the poorer strata of society, was a socially progressive idea in Biblical times. These practices address the most profound issues of spirituality v.’s materialism, but remain mainly symbolic.

There are only three basic categories of kosher wine which will appear on a back label:

Kosher. Permissible for Jews, who observe the Jewish Dietary Laws.

Kosher for Passover. Wine that has not come into contact with bread, grain or products made with leavened dough. Most kosher wines are also “Kosher for Passover”.

Kosher le Mehadrin. Wine for which the rules of kashrut have been stringently approved.

So far it may be seen, there are rules full of ritual & tradition. Notice though, there are no regulations affecting the quality of the wine and standard winemaking procedures are followed in the harvesting, fermentation, maturation, blending and bottling.

The issue of Mevushal Wine is more controversial.

Yayin Mevushal.

‘Mevushal’ wines must be flash pasteurized to 175 degrees fahrenheit or 80 degrees centigrade. The requirement relates to wine handling and service, but is only relevant to orthodox Jews and is usually only required in the context of kosher catering. If a wine is mevushal, a non-observant waiter is permitted to serve the wine, to a strictly religious person. Usually it is the lesser expensive wines used in kosher banqueting that may be mevushal, but without doubt, the best quality Israeli kosher wines are those which are not mevushal.

Kiddush Wines

The category that has done untold damage to the image of kosher wines are the infamous Kiddush or Sacramental wines. Often tasting like sugared water, the importance to the consumer has always tended to be price and religious certification rather than quality. These wines are usually made from a mixture of must and wine, a mistelle, and often from Labrusca varieties. They are often used by Jewish communities or families to make kiddush – the blessing over wine on Friday night.

The custom grew because a sweet wine lasted from week to week and the children also liked it. Also Christian communities seeking wine from The Holy Land will also use similar wines as Altar or Communion wines. Interestingly sales of kiddush wines are in decline as religious families turn to grape juice or table wines instead.

Finest Kosher Wines In The World

The kosher certification provides a similar quality assurance to the ISO systems. All raw materials like yeasts, barrels and fining agents have to be prepared under the strictest quality and hygiene standards. Origin and traceability are key. No winemaker may use anything in the winemaking process, which is not thoroughly checked and approved beforehand.

Israeli wine represents for the religious Jew the largest range and best quality kosher wines in the world. Some of Israel’s finest prestige wines, which are leading the charge for Israel wines to be considered truly world class, are also kosher.

For the rest of the world, Israeli wines represent high quality, from an exotic region in the Eastern Mediterranean, and it is of secondary importance if the wine is kosher or not. The objective for wineries producing kosher wines remains ‘to make the best possible wines…. that just happen also to be kosher!’

Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine in both Israeli and international publications.