Adam S. Montefiore


Farewell to Rishon Le Zion Wine Cellars. This summer after 125 years of continuous use, the historic winery will close its doors. It was Israel’s first commercial winery and for most of that time it was Israel’s largest winery

The story of the winery was the Zionist dream come true. It operated in three different centuries, the 19th, 20th and 21st, under the Turks, the British and the State of Israel. It represents both the story of Israel and the story of Israeli wine.

The first modern experimental vineyards were planted in Rishon Le Zion in 1882. This was the year that Baron Edmond de Rothschild sent an agronomist to survey the land and decided to build the water tower that can still be seen in the park across from the winery. After visiting, he decided to build wineries and plant vineyards and create an Israel wine industry.

When the foundations of the new winery were set in 1889, the Sultan was concerned about the amount of building materials entering the site. (Remember this was the Ottoman Empire.) He demanded building stop immediately. He feared the Jews were building a fortress. Some diplomatic smooth talking and a gift in the right direction allowed the building to continue.

The accounts books of the period are on display at Carmel’s sister winery, Zichron Ya’acov Cellars. They are written in French (this was before Hebrew became the accepted language.) In it there is an entry entitled baksheesh, with a list of the bribes given. In those days they were recorded. Today they come in unmarked envelopes.

During the first vintage in August 1890, all the wine turned to vinegar. The French agronomists did not appreciate how hot it is in August. So the second year they imported an ice machine from Egypt, and put blocks of ice in the large fermenting barrels to bring down the temperature. The next year they made do with spiral pipes which they put inside barrels and pumped cold water through them. Both of these measures were only moderately successful.

So in 1893, Rothschild realized he had no alternative but to build the deep underground cellars to keep the temperatures cooler. He built six cellars at Rishon, each fifty meters long and the task was finished in 1896. The cost of building Rishon Cellars was 6 million francs. This was more than it cost the Rothschild family to buy Château Lafite, the famous Bordeaux winery.

However, Rishon Le Zion Wine Cellars was a state of the art winery and very large even in world terms. The winemaker was from Bordeaux, the cuttings from Château Lafite and the viticulturists were France’s finest. The first ever telephone used in Israel was at Rishon. It enabled the manager of the winery to speak with his cellar workers. Also the first time electricity was ever used was at the winery.

David Ben Gurion, Israel’s first prime minister, worked at Rishon Le Zion Cellars in 1907. It is said he led the first strike there and he may have even been fired in the end. Even then as a young man he was very competitive. He bet his fellow workers that he could tread the grapes longer than they could. He did it for three consecutive days and won his bet, but the smell of fermenting wine made him feel so nauseous, he was not able to enjoy wine for years afterwards.

The name of Rishon Le Zion, or ‘Richon’ spelt the French way, Carmel and Palwin were the first brands of the company. However in the early days, Rishon would appear more prominently on the label than the other two.

The first wine to gain recognition was the Carmel No. 1, which won gold medals at the prestigious Paris Exhibition of 1900. In those days wines were identified by numbers. It was the first Israeli wine to win a major award.

Levi Eshkol, Israel’s third prime minister, managed the vineyards surrounding the cellars in 1915. Early photos show vineyards, not houses, up to the walls of the winery. It was like a true French Château! Unfortunately, money was more important than aesthetics and real estate was more profitable than vineyards. The vineyards were grubbed up and houses replaced them. It was the close proximity of the residential area which was one of the pressures that caused the winery to close. However the last vineyard did not leave Rishon until well into the 1970’s.

In 1934 Israel’s first brewery was opened adjacent to the winery. It was called Palestine Beer Breweries. Its first brand was Nesher (Eagle) which still exists. Israel’s best selling beer Goldstar was first made at Rishon in 1950.

There was a wall between the brewery and winery and workers used to barter before Shabbat “give me a bottle of bottle of wine and I will give a couple of beers.” Folklore says the winemaker and brew master used to meet after work, and drink until the early hours!

Of course, the only people drinking beer then, were the British. When they left, beer sales plummeted and the brewery closed in 1960. All that is left is the eagle embossed in the stone step at the entrance to what was the Brewery offices, and then became Carmel’s Accounts Department.

Only in 1957 did James Rothschild, the son of Baron Edmond, donate Rishon Cellars to Carmel SCV, the parent company. Thus the Rothschild involvement with Rishon lasted from 1882 to 1957. James Rothschild also donated the money to build the Knesset and started a foundation called Yad Hanadiv, which still supports Israel.

The winery always ordered some limousin oak barrels for maturing its brandy, which was far more popular in those days. Wine was then traditionally aged in large old oak barrels. However in 1976, the winemaker, Freddie Stiller, decided to take some of the small oak barrels from his brandy program and age his wine it. The result was the legendary Carmel Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1976. It was the first Israeli wine aged in small oak barrels and Israel’s first wine of international quality. It was a remarkable wine that lived for twenty years and was a forerunner of the quality revolution to follow.

As mentioned, Rishon was always very associated with brandy. It had four beautiful old copper pot stills provided with German reparation money after the founding of the state. It was housed in the spirit tower, where a continuous still was also situated. The Extra Fine Brandy was one of the first brands of the winery, when they began to distill excess grapes in 1898. The famous 777 brandy was originally branded as Rishon 777.

In 1998 the Carmel 100 Brandy won the outstanding award of Best Brandy Worldwide in the prestigious International Wine and Spirits Competition in London. This was a brandy that was aged in oak barrels in the legendary brandy cellar, with its original wooden slatted roof that in places allowed the rain to leak through. Here the aromas of the angel’s share (brandy lost to evaporation) will be remembered by all who entered this paradise.

Back in 1887 Baron Rothschild demanded that the farming villages plant Bordeaux varieties because he wanted to make a really fine wine. Most of his agronomists were against it, but the Baron’s wish prevailed. The grape varieties were planted, but the experiment ultimately failed, because of complaints by the growers, vineyard disease and there was no demand for expensive wine.

However in 2006 Carmel launched its first Carmel Limited Edition. The historic Rishon winery building is illustrated on the label. This was a prestige wine blended at Rishon which was made from the five main Bordeaux grape varieties. It took over 100 years, but the launch of this wine, which received a score of 91 points from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, meant that Baron Edmond de Rothschild’s vision for a Bordeaux style wine finally came true.

The last regular harvest was in 2010 and by 2011, the Zichron Ya’acov Cellars had been totally refurbished and was equipped to receive the grapes that previously arrived at Rishon. In 2013 Carmel Winery was bought by a consortium of international and Israeli investors, headed by Kedma Capital. The new owners decided to close Rishon Cellars finally and to build a new state of the art winery at Alon Tabor in the Galilee to bring the winery into the 21st century.

The last product out of Rishon is a prestigious new high quality brandy called Rishon XO. It was blended from brandies from 15 to 30 years old, matured in Rishon’s brandy cellar. Only a couple of thousand bottles were produced. It will be worth sipping this and contemplating the history of a place full of content, stories and folklore, that will always forever remain a central part in the history of Israeli wine.

Fortunately the old winery buildings and cellars will be preserved. Hopefully the memories will keep the cellars alive.



When the Baron Edmond de Rothschild’s French agronomists planted grapes here in the early 1880’s, they recommended varieties from the South of France which they assumed would grow well here because of similarities of climate. Carignan, Grenache and Mourvèdre were all planted in those pioneering days.

In 1887 Baron Edmond de Rothschild went against the advice of his agronomists and insisted on planting Bordeaux varieties like Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc and Malbec. He even sent cuttings from Château Lafite in Bordeaux. This was the start of the debate whether to use Bordeaux or Mediterranean varieties. It is still going on today.

Initially, the Mediterranean varieties won out and went on to become the dominant varieties for the next 90 years. This was epitomized by Carignan which became the mainstay of Israeli wine. However the most planted grape between the 1940’s and 1960’s was Grenache. For that period there was even more Grenache planted than the ever present Carignan.

However the only wine the Grenache really became known for was its legendary Rosé. When Carmel launched Israel’s first varietal wines, (a varietal is a wine named after the dominant grape variety), there was a Sauvignon Blanc (dry white), a Semillon (semi dry white), a Cabernet Sauvignon (red) and… a Grenache Rosé.

The Carmel Grenache Rosé though, was reasonably dark colored (like a bottle of red wine diluted with a glass of water) and it was semi dry bordering on medium, in terms of sweetness. Yet it was fantastically popular, bringing many new drinkers to wine. Sandwiched in between Carmel Hock and Selected Emerald Riesling, it was Israel’s largest selling wine and was at its peak in the seventies and eighties.

Then, came the new world wine revolution initiated by the Golan Heights Winery. They chose Bordeaux varieties rather than Mediterranean. Hence Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Sauvignon Blanc received more focus.

Gradually Grenache disappeared from the Israeli wine scene, and the rosé style of wine it was associated with, became thoroughly out of fashion. That is until today. Rosé is back and so is Grenache.

The finest Israeli wines today still use Bordeaux varieties in blends with Cabernet Sauvignon as the dominant variety. However, there is now a discernible trend back to Mediterranean varieties. The pioneers of this change have been Carmel and Recanati of the larger wineries and Chateau Golan, Lewinsohn, Sea Horse, Shvo Vineyards and Vitkin of the smaller wineries. Each decided to focus on varieties that were maybe less fashionable 10 years ago, but today they are leading a new path in Israel.

Winemakers noticed in the bad vintages, when the dreaded hamsin (hot winds) reigns supreme, that certain varieties coped better with the high temperatures than others. They realized what those original agronomists understood. Israel is an Eastern Mediterranean country and that maybe Mediterranean varieties would be suitable here.

Only in the late 1990’s was Shiraz (aka Syrah) planted for the first time. It was noted that the variety grew successfully everywhere in Israel. Wines like Carmel Kayoumi Shiraz, Clos de Gat Sycra Syrah and Yarden Yonatan Syrah have already received international recognition. Some believe the variety will challenge Cabernet Sauvignon in future.

Now others are coming back. These include Grenache and Mourvèdre, and there are new varieties here, like Marselan, a cross between Grenache and Cabernet Sauvignon.

Grenache is one of the most planted varieties on the planet. It is known as Garnacha Tinta in Spain, Cannonau in Sardinia and Grenache Noir in France. In Israel first time round, it was known as Alicante Grenache, which confused everyone because there was another grape variety called Alicante Bouschet. Almost everywhere else, it is known simply as Grenache.

It appears in Spain and all over southern France. It is a variety at its best as the most prominent grape variety in the famous Châteauneuf du Pape blend in the Southern Rhone, and in Priorat in the Catalonia region of Spain. It is also often part of the Rioja blend, where it plays a less distinguished role. The variety has also come to notice in California and Australia, particularly in the Barossa Valley. They sometimes make impressive varietal Grenaches there.

It is at its best in a hot climate, when planted in bush vines close to the soil. It blossoms when the vines are older. Grenache’s main weaknesses are a lack of color and acidity and a potential for too high alcohol. This is why it is usually used as a blender. In a blend, its deficiencies can be covered up and its qualities come to the fore. So more often than not, it will be blended with Tempranillo in Spain, and Syrah in France.

The wine is likely to be paler than most red wines, sometimes gaining a rusty red hue. There will be an attractive aroma, of raspberries and strawberries and a certain ripe sweetness. It has been referred to as the hot climate Pinot Noir. You can understand why it is always popular for the production of rosé. The Tavel Rosé in the Rhone and other Rosés in the south of France are as likely as not to be made from Grenache.

It is also successful as the variety for some of the delicious fortified wines of Roussillon. The danger has always been in the trend to use Grenache has a workhorse grape, where it is uninspiring. However with careful selection, a little age, old vines and low yield Grenache produces something less fruit forward, but meatier and spicier and altogether more complex.

To sample Grenache in Israel today, look for a wine called Geshem produced by Chateau Golan. The ‘G’ represents the Grenache. The Shvo Vineyards Red has Grenache in the blend and Sea Horse Winery has Grenache as a component in a few of their wines.

There is also a new rosé produced by Yatir Winery made primarily from Grenache. It is considerably paler, more elegant, drier and more complex than its forebear. However all these are from young vines and the road is long.

As far as good Grenache from older vines is concerned, may I direct you to the Capcanes winery, which is known as Celler de Capcanes. It is situated in Monsant, which surrounds Priorat. It is only 20 miles from the Mediterranean Sea and not so far from Barcelona. Their Peraj Petita Rosa is a fine example of a Grenache Rosé.

The Peraj Petita (60% Grenache) and Peraj Ha’abib (35% Grenache) are great value wines for their quality and they show Grenache’s contribution in a blend. They are produced from vineyards which are babies at more than 50 years old.

Finally there is the Flor del Flor de Primavera. This is a 100% Grenache from vineyards ranging from 85 to 105 years old! Drinking these wines is a pleasure and an education.

These Capcanes wines mentioned are great examples of Grenache and they are kosher too. They may be found in the major kosher wine markets around the world, and in Israel too. Worth seeking out.

So Grenache is back. Many wineries are planting it. That is an investment for the future. We will see the benefits as the vineyards age and the vine trunks become thicker and more gnarled. Wine is the perfect antidote for the ‘I want it now’ generation. Let’s wait for another 25 years to see how it turns out!