Adam S. Montefiore


The Israel wine industry was really built in the coastal area of Israel, where most of the initial vineyards were planted. Basically vineyards where planted where it was most practical, instead of where the wine potential was best. It was easier for the farmers of the new villages, to plant vineyards near their homes, groves, fields and animals, and that was what they did. So the southern Mount Carmel and the central Judean Plain was where Rothschild’s growers grew their vines. This was more or less the case for 100 years.

When I made aliyah to Israel twenty five years ago, the only place said to make quality wines was the plateau of the Golan Heights. The story goes that when Professor Cornelius Ough from the University of California at Davis visited Israel in 1972, he observed the successful apple industry there and immediately pinpointed the Golan as being suitable for quality wine grapes. The vineyards were first planted in 1976 and when the Golan Heights Winery was formed in 1983, it put the Golan on the wine map as a quality wine producing area

there and immediately pinpointed the Golan as being suitable for quality wine grapes. The vineyards were first planted in 1976 and when the Golan Heights Winery was formed in 1983, it put the Golan on the wine map as a quality wine producing area.vinyards

The high altitude, up to 1,200 meters above sea level, volcanic soil and basalt stone made it the only serious wine producing area in the country. Those who then worked in the wine industry and wine media implied it was the only possible quality wine region in Israel. The success of the Yarden brand in international competitions helped fuel the superlative image.

It was not until the mid to late 1990’s that the Upper Galilee was also added to the quality equation as far as Israeli wine was concerned. Dalton was the first winery established there in 1993 in partnership with an established vineyard. Avi Feldstein, then winemaker of Segal Wines (before it was purchased by Barkan), was one of the first individuals give focus to the quality potential the Upper Galilee. Soon it was realized that the Upper Galilee with its gravelly and terra rossa soils, dense forests, high stony peaks and plunging streams, was particularly good for red wines.

Of course there had been clues previously. The Carmel Special Reserve 1979 was the first quality wine produced from Galilee vineyards. More significantly, the wine that put the Golan Heights Winery on the map was its Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon. Yet one of the finest components of this wine came from the Ramat Naftali vineyard in the Upper Galilee!

In no time, wineries from all over Israel were sourcing their best fruit from the Upper Galilee. Examples were Carmel & Barkan amongst the large wineries, and Recanati, Margalit and Flam amongst the others. By the beginning of the 2000’s, those talking about quality wine regions in Israel began to mention the Golan Heights and Upper Galilee in the same breath.

Another wine region to become noticed was the Judean Hills & Foothills. The pioneer here was Tzora Vineyards founded in 1993 and the legendary grower winemaker, the late and much missed Roni James. He was determined to create wines which reflected the local terroir. Castel Grand Vin was the first wine to have the Judean Hills (Haut Judée) written on its labels as a statement of pride in the appellation. Up to then, only the Golan wines were identified by growing region.

When you take stock now of the awards and high scores from critics at the highest level, it is clear that the Judean Hills does not suffer in the quality stakes in comparison with the Golan and the Galilee. Witness the success of Castel, Clos de Gat, Tzora and others. Apparently the Judean Hills is also one of our best quality regions!

Next the Negev came to the fore. The wine presses at Avdat and Shivta provide evidence of a large wine industry in ancient times and recently the Negev has also come alive again. Carmel was the pioneer in 1988 planting its Ramat Arad Vineyard. The first Negev wine in modern times was their Ramat Arad Merlot 1992.

The Sde Boker Winery first began to make wine on a tiny scale in 1998. When Yatir Winery was formed at Tel Arad it became the first winery situated in an area surrounded by Bedouin and camels. Its Sauvignon Blanc and initial Merlot were from the Ramat Arad vineyard, but eventually they focused on their Yatir Forest vineyards, which lie more in the southern tip of the Judean Hills, than the Negev.

However vineyards planted elsewhere began to make the desert bloom. Barkan and Tishbi in particular started using pioneering vineyards at Mitzpe Ramon and Sde Boker. I still get excited when I travel south and see a green vineyard in the midst of a brown, desolate desert. Next time you fly to Eilat, look out of the window. The patches of green vineyards would make David Ben Gurion proud.

Now with Midbar Winery, situated at Arad and Ramat Negev Winery (Kadesh Barnea), straddling the Negev, and numerous boutique and domestic wineries in between, fine wine has returned to keep the wine presses of Shivta and Avdat company.

The major coming area of the last few years is what I call the Central Mountains. In the beginning there was the Gush Etzion Winery founded in 1998. Arguably one wine lit the fuse that showed the potential here. It was the Har Bracha (Mount Bracha) single vineyard Merlot, produced by Carmel from the 2002 vintage. Since then a new wine region has sprung up with new vineyards planted on these shallow soiled, high altitude limestone hills. Wines, vines and wineries may today be found from Har Bracha in the north to Hebron in the south.

As far as the coastal vineyards are concerned, there is nothing left at Rishon Le Zion, where the first experimental vineyards where planted in 1882. Apparently, real estate has proved more profitable than viticulture. The early photos of Rishon Cellars show what might have been. There are vineyards surrounding the winery, just like a French Chateau. There were even vineyards in the town until the 1970’s. However nothing remains.

So I was especially interested to see that Zichron Ya’acov & Mount Carmel were making a comeback. This was historically were it all began, but never considered the finest region quality wise. I was recently taken by Yair Margalit, one of the icon figures of Israeli wine, to see his new vineyards in Zichron. He has chosen this area to plant his impressive new vineyard to take his winery into the 21st century. What a shot in the arm for the most traditional wine region in Israel!

Finally, whereas the Western Galilee has always nurtured wonderful olive groves, it has never gone into the vineyard business like the Upper Galilee (Merom Hagalil and Kedesh Valley) or the Lower Galilee (Kfar Tabor). However, today the promising Stern Winery and impressive Kishor Winery are breathing wine life into the Western Galilee too. Both are well worth a visit.

So the message is that not only Am Yisrael Hai but also Cremai Yisrael Hai – the vineyards of Israel are alive and thriving, and woe betide anyone who tries to claim a pocket of Israel as the only place where quality wine can be. How wrong we were, twenty five years ago. The Biblical Prophet Amos said: “I will restore the people Israel….They will plant vineyards and drink their wine.” Now, over 2,700 years later, we can firmly announce that this was a prophecy that came true!


The Battle of The Blends

We often tell prospective wine lovers, ‘Know the grape and you will know the wine.’ We then recommend they first learn about the seven classic varieties, (Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Pinot Noir, Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Riesling), before progressing to others.

These days, to know the varieties is not enough, because generic blends are becoming more popular. At wine tastings you will be told: ‘this is a Bordeaux style blend’ or ‘a Mediterranean style blend,’ with very little explanation.

Most wineries seem to have a wine they describe as a Bordeaux blend. Its most basic form is Cabernet Sauvignon blended with Merlot. The muscular Cabernet with the softer Merlot is a natural marriage and this is the most popular blend in wine.

The more traditional Bordeaux blend is one using the five main grape varieties of Bordeaux. This mainly includes Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc and to a lesser extent, Petit Verdot and Malbec.

The idea of making a blend in the first place, is to show off the qualities of various varieties whilst at the same time diminishing the deficiencies. All this is in the search for greater balance and complexity. The wine expert Steven Spurrier, immortalized in the film ‘Bottle Shock’, once described a Bordeaux red as being an ideal blend, because ‘the Cabernet Sauvignon provides firmness, the Cabernet Franc fragrance, the Merlot flesh, the Malbec spice and the Petit Verdot grip.

The idea of this blend, like any other, is to be better than the sum of its parts. Or to put more numerically, one plus one equals three.

Incidentally, different wineries have different ‘Bordeaux blends.’ For instance, Yarden Katzrin is a blend of just Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The Yatir Forest is made from Cabernet Sauvignon, Petit Verdot and Merlot. The Castel Grand Vin and Carmel Limited Edition are blends of all five varieties. The only common denominator with these Israeli Bordeaux style blends is that Cabernet Sauvignon seems to be the dominant variety.

Interestingly in Israel, the relatively unknown Petit Verdot is becoming more and more influential in blends, sometimes featuring more than Merlot. The reason is that Petit Verdot, (‘the little green one’), often does not ripen in Bordeaux and it is now used less there, but there are no ripening problems here under the Israeli sun. Also the Cabernet Franc is usually a cooler climate variety. However in Israel, the extra ripeness achieved here can offset and balance the green, herbaceous character that not everyone likes. Both are finding a place here.

For the last 25 years the Bordeaux varieties and Bordeaux style blends have been symbols of the new ‘best in Israel.’ Lately though, there is now a discernible trend back to Mediterranean varieties, which is where we began over 130 years ago.

Winemakers noticed in the bad vintages, when the hamsin hot winds reign supreme, that certain varieties cope better with the high temperatures than others. They have realized that Israel is an Eastern Mediterranean country and that maybe Mediterranean varieties would be suitable here. This was something Baron Edmond de Rothschild’s agronomists knew in the 1880’s.

Furthermore, there is ongoing pressure from wine people everywhere, eager to know if there was an Israeli identity, style or grape variety. Customers are tired of endless Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots which though good, are also available from Chile, Australia and everywhere else. Israeli wine producers are asked all the time “where is Israel’s individuality” and “what is Israel’s speciality”

No individual Mediterranean variety has yet taken off to such an extent that the answer to the question is obvious. Shiraz, Carignan and Petite Sirah have their followers. However, something called ‘the Mediterranean blend’ has. It is the new trend here.

The Mediterranean blend is a wine made with any number of Mediterranean varieties. The red wine grape varieties may be Carignan, Grenache, Marselan, Mourvèdre , Petite Sirah and last but certainly not least, Shiraz or Syrah.

These Med blends are edgy, less fruit forward, less jammy, less immediately accessible in the glass but no less complex. The wines have ripe fruit and spicy aromas, often with a meaty taste and a chewy, leathery texture.

The southern Rhone Valley is host to the most famous Mediterranean blend, Chateauneuf du Pape. This is the big Daddy of Mediterranean blends with up to thirteen varieties in the final wine. Languedoc Roussillon in France and Priorat in Spain are other regions where the med red blend thrives.

I suppose the whole category is symbolized by the classic trio of Grenache, Syrah and Mourvèdre. The Grenache supplies the perfume and bulk, the Syrah fruit and spice and the Mourvèdre texture and tannin. The Australians sharper on marketing than most, were the first to write this as GSM on the label, and it has stuck.

As far as Israel is concerned, Syrah is new here in the last 20 years. Mourvèdre was here when they first planted Mediterranean varieties in the 1880’s, but did not stay, whilst Grenache is an old friend, just returning.

The wineries leading the way with Mediterranean blends are Chateau Golan from the Golan Heights with their Geshem (a play on the initials GSM) and Sea Horse in the Judean Hills.

Carmel Mediterranean is a blend of six varieties, mainly Shiraz, Carignan and Petite Sirah, not quite up to the number of Chateauneuf du Pape, but on the way! The other leaders of the move to Mediterranean wines are Shvo Vineyards, with a GSM blend plus Barbera, and Lewinsohn Red, a blend of Syrah, Carignan and Petite Sirah.

This brings about the question: What is better, a blend or a varietal wine (made from a single variety) Many people are accustomed to thinking that blends are cheap. This is surely because the cheapest wine in most wineries is often a blend of all the leftovers. It is usually found in a dumpy bottle on the lowest shelf of the supermarket or alternatively it may be the wine that meets you on the table at a function, with a label you have never seen before.

However a blend may also be the pinnacle of the winemaker’s art. The winemaker, taking the place of the chef, will take ‘a little bit of this and a little bit of that’, to enhance the final product. This will entail selecting and separating fruit from individual plots in the vineyard or only using specifically chosen barrels after rigorous tastings, in order to create a jigsaw of tastes and flavors that is the height of complexity.

I suppose a varietal wine is like cooking an ingredient on its own. The taste and flavor is purer and more predictable. A wine from a single grape variety essentially expresses the characteristics of that grape. Cabernet Sauvignon will smell and taste like Cabernet Sauvignon. A blend though is similar to cooking a number of ingredients together. It may be more representative of the terroir, than any one variety. A varietal will be more angular, a blend broader.

I don’t want to mislead anyone by describing things in such black and white terms. In Israel, a varietal needs a minimum of 85% of the dominant varietal. So it may be called Cabernet Sauvignon, but 15% may be other varieties. So many varietals are in fact blends!

However if you wanted to know, which is better, the blend or varietal There is no answer. Some of the most inexpensive wines are blends, as are some of the most expensive wines in the world. And exactly the same may be said about varietal wines.

Of course there are numerous permutations. For instance the prizewinning Recanati Special Reserve is a blend of Bordeaux varieties and Mediterranean varieties, but that is fodder for another article. In the meantime the Bordeaux blend and Mediterranean blend have a high profile and will continue to battle for our affections in the years to come.



It was not so long ago, that the less expensive wines in Israel were made from a long list of grape varieties, which were known overseas, but had a ghastly reputation here. I am thinking of dry wines made from Colombard (aka French Colombard), semi dry wines made from Semillon or Chenin Blanc, rosés made from Grenache, reds from Carignan and Petite Sirah, not forgetting sweet wines from Muscat.

These varieties came to symbolize the old Israel where whites were often yellowing and oxidized on the shelves. Wines that were meant to be semi dry were most likely semi sweet. As for the reds, they tended to be astringent and lacking fruit. There was barely a semblance of varietal character in any of them.

When the wine revolution started in the 1980’s, these were pretty much everywhere, but they were initially superseded by the likes of Sauvignon Blanc, Emerald Riesling, and Cabernet Sauvignon and they were later joined by Chardonnay, Gewurztraminer, Merlot and Shiraz.

As the new grape varieties took over, the older grape varieties became less fashionable. Wine lovers in Israel would shy away from them as if they alone were responsible for the bad old days.

Fast forward to the 2000’s and we now have enough Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot planted so even the cheapest wines can be made with these varieties. With the new confidence gained from internationally trained winemakers making very good wines over a number of years, there has been a wonderful, praiseworthy trend of returning to the traditional varieties.

Looking at the same variety with new eyes, winemakers saw the potential to make a wine that is different to the new norm. Either by using older vines or by planting new clones, these varieties now symbolize something of interest to the wine lover and connoisseur. After all, who wants to drink Cabernet, Merlot and Chardonnay all the time

For example Carignan, the backbone of Israeli wine for 130 years and once a marker of mediocrity, was revived by Asaf Paz of Vitkin Winery using older vines and greatly reduced yields. Petite Sirah was given a place showing its quality and individuality by Lior Lacser at Carmel Winery.

A minerally single vineyard Semillon was launched by Naama Sorkin of Dalton Winery. Sam Soroka decided to harness the natural acidity and flowery aroma of Colombard by producing a great value, refreshing varietal wine at Mony Winery. Grenache is another returnee. The late and much missed Tzina Avidan of Avidan Winery and Uri Hetz of Chateau Golan were the pioneers, and this is a variety with a long way to go here.

Even the humble Muscat has been revived, because of the success of a different style of wine using Muscat grapes, called Moscato. It is all the rage. The pioneer was Victor Schoenfeld of the Golan Heights Winery with Golan Moscato from the Muscat Canneli grape. Now ‘Moscato Madness’ has arrived in Israel and versions can be found under brand names Buzz, Hermon, Selected and Teperberg.

However the latest arrival, or should I say returnee, is Chenin Blanc (pronounced Shenin). This variety will be remembered in the early 1990’s for producing semi dry wines, but it played a second fiddle to Emerald Riesling in those days. Emerald Riesling had no international pedigree, apart from dubious beginnings in California, whereas Chenin Blanc was well regarded, but trends are a funny thing. Emerald Riesling was not only the new thing in Israel, but the largest selling wine. Interest in Chenin Blanc fizzled out, and Chenin Blanc on the label became almost undesirable.

Chenin Blanc really reaches greatness in only one particular region, the Loire Valley in France. The main things to say in its favor are that the variety always has a very good acidity and it is incredibly versatile giving the winemaker many options. Along with the German Riesling, it makes wines of every style from bone dry to unctuous sweet and even sparkling. It is also used for fortified wines.

Unlike the Riesling, its calling card is not immediately obvious. In dry steely wines, talk will be notes of green apple and flint. Sometimes it will appear to be not so different from Sauvignon Blanc, but without the in your face aromatics. In light, semi-dry versions the description will trip to floral notes and riper versions in hotter climates will inevitably be more associated with tropical fruit. The great, luscious dessert wines will be rich honeyed wines with hints of honeysuckle, which will age for ever.

The most famous Chenin Blancs are Savennieres, which will always be dry; Vouvray, which cover the full spectrum from dry to sweet; Coteaux du Layon which are always sweet and Cremant de Loire, sparkling wines. All are from the Loire Valley.

In the New World and Israel, the Chenin Blanc is less distinguished. In South Africa though, it is the main white variety. There it is also known as Steen. It makes some very good wines as well as basic shelf fillers, but it never reaches the greatness that it achieves in the Loire.

In Israel, Chenin Blanc is experiencing a comeback precisely because of that much sought natural acidity. There are not many Israeli wineries making Chenin Blanc, but those that do illustrate a broad range of wines, but there is no one style which shouts out Chenin Blanc.

Zeev Dunie of the Sea Horse Winery is the pioneer of Chenin Blanc, being the first to return to using it. He calls his Chenin Blanc ‘James’ in memory of Ronnie James of Tzora Vineyards where he and so many others were first enthused about winemaking.

Shvo Vineyards is owned by Gaby Sadan, one of Israel’s finest winemakers. When he chose to plant Chenin Blanc in his start up Upper Galilee vineyard, people took notice. This alone was enough for many to take another look at the variety.

Pierre Miodownik has chosen Mediterranean varieties and Chenin Blanc as the varieties for his Domaine Netofa winery. No Cabernet, Merlot or Chardonnay for him! He makes two Chenin Blancs.

Assaf Kedem spent time in South Africa and what he learnt there influences him to this day. His Assaf Winery is at Kidmat Zvi on the Golan Heights. He produces a Chenin Blanc to pay homage to the Steen wines he came know well from there.

Tal Pelter is one of Israel’s most celebrated winemakers. However, Pelter Winery, situated on the Golan Heights, is not kosher. So he has founded a new winery called Matar by Pelter, which is kosher. The wines have stylish labels and the Chenin Blanc may be recognized by its unusual and attractive powder blue capsule.

So Chenin is back! We are following its second coming very carefully and with great interest.

The main Israeli Chenin Blancs are as follows:

Sea Horse James 2013 (NK)
This comes from an old vine vineyard in the Judean Plain (Gedera to be exact), which is in the Samson Wine Region. The wine is barrel fermented and aged. The result is a fragrant wine with notes of peach and pear wrapped in a sweetish texture (though it is a dry wine), with a clear acidity which comes to light in the finish. Certainly not an obvious Chenin Blanc, but a great wine nonetheless.

Shvo Chenin Blanc 2011
This wine has an understated nose of greengage and nectarine, slightly grassy in the background, with rippling minerality and a delicate herbaceous character on the palate and a long balanced finish.

Netofa White 2014
The unoaked 2014 is crisp, with delicate tropical fruit notes and good acidity from a Lower Galilee vineyard. It is truly refreshing and a great summer wine.

Netofa Latour White 2013
is part oak aged giving more complexity and broadness in the mouth. Out of the two I preferred the purer, simpler version.

Assaf Chenin Blanc 2013 (NK)
The Assaf Chenin Blanc 2013 is in a more blowsy style. It has an attractive flowery nose, prominent acidity and a slight bitterness on the finish, which gives it a refreshing quality.

Matar Chenin Blanc 2013
is very dry, with pronounced acidity, with more green apple than any soft fruit influences. It is lean and refreshing. It comes from Mitzpe Ramon in the deepest Negev.