Adam S. Montefiore


Wine has brought me in touch with many worlds. Firstly, most obviously, is the world of Agriculture. Wine is an agricultural product. The place where the vineyards are situated and the way the vines are grown, is crucial to the quality of the final wine. In the trade we talk about growing wine, not grapes. You can’t make good wine from bad grapes.

Then there is the Science and Art of winemaking. Each winemaker veers either towards one or the other. Some wines are made more technically and others are made with artistic freedom but in the end it is a combination of both that makes winemaking so fascinating.

The wine trade is known as the world’s second oldest profession, so it also puts you in touch with History. (This is a family newspaper, so we won’t go into the oldest profession!) The story of our sliver of land from the earliest Biblical times until today, may effortlessly be told through the story of wine. Thucydides wrote that man became civilized when he began to cultivate the vine. Californian wine icon Robert Mondavi used to quote Petronius’ statement that ‘Wine is life.’ It is true that it permeates through everything.

With history comes Archaeology. In the Eastern Mediterranean where wine culture was born, there are ongoing archaeological finds to support the evidence of the long history. Findings of cellar caves, amphorae and goblets, let alone all the numerous wine presses, paint the picture that wine is as old as history itself.

Gastronomy is also a world I have entered thanks to wine. There is a holy trinity of wine, people and food. Wine is not made to be tasted alone, but to accompany food with friends and family. If one of the legs of this three legged stool is missing, then it is just not the same experience. The stool collapses.

With appreciation of fine wine, comes the appreciation of good food. Together, you reach the mathematical impossibility of one plus one equals three. One enhances the other, but neither is a whole without its partners. Pity the poor person, who goes from formal tasting to tasting, as many wine lovers do. They think they are experiencing wine, but they are missing the point.

Then, last but not least, there is the world of Religion. Wine is of fundamental important to both Judaism and Christianity. As Jews, every Sabbath and every festival holiday is sanctified by a glass of wine. At Purim we are entreated to drink a great deal, at Passover we have to drink four glasses, Shavuot is a time for a cheese and wine party and Succot is really the wine harvest festival. Need I go on. For Christians, the Communion centers on this exalted beverage. Wine is one of the building blocks of Western Judeo-Christian society.

When Israeli wine grows up, it wants to market itself as an Eastern Mediterranean wine in the wider wine world. It should be sold alongside the wines of Greece, Cyprus, Turkey and Lebanon on the shelves and wine lists. Jews may buy it because it is Israeli. Christians may be interested because it is from the Holy Land. The wine anorak will be interested because to them it is a new, slightly exotic wine country. The sommelier will take a look because he may see Israel as the quality producer of the Eastern Mediterranean wine region. However kosher The k word is barely mentioned because it is too much associated with the image and quality of sweet sacramental Kiddush wines.

We should be humble. Until recently even tiny Cyprus produced more wine than Israel. We are not as important as we sometimes think. There is something like thirty five countries making more wine annually than Israel. Gallo of Sonoma, the largest winery in the world’s ‘boutique winery’, makes more wine than the whole of Israel put together. There is even one single vineyard in Monterey, California that yields more tons at harvest all the vineyards of Israel.

We look enviously at New Zealand wine. They are a relatively small country, which succeeded in making quality wines, creating a quality image, whilst maintaining the highest average price for wine sold in the UK and USA. Israel is chronically bad at selling itself. In this aspect, the failures in foreign policy and diplomacy are no different. One prominent politician once said ‘we don’t need hasbara because our story is so good.’ How wrong he was.

We are far away from doing a New Zealand. Even Lebanon and Turkey have generic bodies marketing their wine brand overseas. Israel Apart from the short lived Handcrafted Wines of Israel that I founded and managed thirteen years ago, there is nothing. It is each winery for itself and Brand Israel suffers.

The largest 12 wineries have well over 90% of the wine market and they all produce kosher wines. However most of the small boutique, domestic and garagiste wineries are not kosher. Therefore we have the paradox: most Israeli wine is kosher but the majority of Israeli wineries are not.

I for one am proud to produce kosher wine that Jews everywhere can drink, and it would be crazy from a marketing point of view to make wine that over 20% of your captive audience can’t touch. So for combined reasons of religious belief, a feeling of Klal Israel and economic expediency, making kosher wines is in vogue. Even some top quality small wineries like Flam, Tulip and Vitkin, that previously produced non-kosher wines, have reverted to becoming kosher. Furthermore, Pelter founded a new sister winery called Matar to enter this market.

All this is helped by the fact that the quality of Israel’s kosher wines is so good. After all we want to be good Jews AND make quality wine! Well, Israeli wine, that ‘happens also to be kosher’, is good enough to score 94 points in Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, to gain four stars in Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine book, to win the Decanter International Trophy or the award of Best Winery at Vin Italy.

However, we need to understand there is massive over production throughout the world. More serious wine producing countries than Israel are struggling to sell their wines. Supply swamps demand. Over 90% of wines sold, retail at under $10 a bottle. Most Israeli wines sold in export are over $10 bottle! It is well-nigh impossible for Israel to really compete in the mass market because of high price and small quantities.

It is therefore a great benefit that kosher Israeli wineries have the kosher market. Who else will drink all these wines from the vineyards we keep planting, as though the market is certain and selling wine is the easiest thing in the world. If you look at it like this, the kosher wine market is not only a benefit, it is also a blessing and necessity!

The kosher wine laws are the oldest in the world. The agricultural laws (Orla, Shmitta etc) are from the Bible, as is the prohibition against using wines used for idol worship, and the other laws building a fence around wine come from the Babylonian exile 2,500 years ago. There is a whole range of Jewish religious laws with respect to wine, but they are spread out all over the place. It is hard to know where to begin. That is until now.

A new book is shortly to be published which will be of interest both to the Talmid Chacham and to the wine lover drinking kosher wines. It is by Rabbi Daniel Yaakov Travis and is called Wine and Wisdom.

His introduction explains the benefits of the book better than I can. He writes: : “Wine connoisseurs have developed a taste for fine wines….I encourage them to take their expertise one step further and to add the halachos of wine drinking to their repertoire of knowledge……In depth knowledge of the halachos of wine reframes the entire wine drinking experience. …… I am confident that anyone who appreciates fine wine will find this sefer enhances the spiritual joy of wine drinking.”

I could not put it better myself. The book is fascinating and beautifully illustrated. Wine and Wisdom is published by Feldheim in the USA at a price of $24.95. It will cost 79 shekels in Israel.



The history of Israeli wine may be told through three grape varieties, which were dominant during different periods. The first was Alicante Grenache, before 1948, then Carignan after the founding of the State of Israel and now, Cabernet Sauvignon in the 2000’s.

When the settlers of the First Aliyah planted grapes, the experts chose varieties from the South of France because of similarities of climate. In fact it Alicante was the dominant variety until the 1960’s. Now it is being revived here using its more familiar name, Grenache.

The next dominant grape was Carignan, which has been ever present since the 1870’s when it was planted at Mikve Israel. It was appreciated because of the high yields it could deliver and its flexibility. It could be used to make red grape juice, Kiddush wine or red table wines.

Without doubt, wine drinkers have drunk far more Carignan than they are aware of. I remember Daniel Rogov z”l, saying of a prominent winery’s so called Cabernet Sauvignon, “that was the finest Carignan I have tasted!” In the 2000’s this variety was revived and reborn thanks to the efforts of Vitkin and Carmel wineries and lately, Recanati too.

However today, the number one variety in Israel is the regal Cabernet Sauvignon. Baron Edmond de Rothschild insisted on bringing it to Israel in the 1880’s, but it took 100 years to catch on. The Carmel Special Reserve 1976 and Yarden Cabernet Sauvignons of 1984 and 1985 showed the wisdom of the Baron’s decision, and the quality revolution began. These days there is enough Cabernet planted, that if it says Cabernet Sauvignon on the label of even the inexpensive wines, then it is likely to be correct.

Israel is not known for one particular variety in the same way as California is known for Zinfandel, Argentina for Malbec and New Zealand for Sauvignon Blanc. Nor has Israeli ever had real indigenous varieties, or so we thought. That was before Dr Shibi Drori’s groundbreaking research to isolate and identify indigenous grape varieties in Israel. So far they have found 120 local varieties, of which twenty may be suitable for winemaking.

At the same time, there have been some fascinating new wines released recently, each from local varieties. The Cremisan Hamdani Jandali white blend and Cremisan Dabouki entered the market a few years ago and they were followed more recently by the Recanati Marawi. If these are added to the Segal Argaman, it is clear we better become used to some new names.

The Cremisan Monastery, which has been making wine since 1885, was the first to come out with a wines from local varieties. Their blend of Hamdali and Jandali was an unusually good wine in the white Rhone style. These are two varieties that are grown primarily in Bethlehem and Hebron by Arab growers. Over eighty five percent of the Palestinian vineyards are situated in the Bethlehem and Hebron areas.

I remember once visiting Hebron and thinking I was in Spain, with vineyards everywhere, though they are used only for table grapes, syrup or raisins. The Hamdani and Jandali were developed over time as table grapes. They are tasty which is why they survived when wine grapes were grubbed up.

The Jandali is the more aromatic with flowery aromas, but lacks a middle palate. The Hamdani has citrusy, lime and grapefruit aromas with a lengthier finish. It has more depth, the ability to stand up to barrel aging and better potential. They show well together in a blend.

In the 19th century, the Shor and Teperberg wineries in the Old City of Jerusalem used these varieties to make wine. The grapes were delivered to the Old City on donkeys. A 16th century scholar, Rabbi Menahem di Lonzano, mentioned them as varieties of wine in Jerusalem. Some even say there is a mention of them in the Talmud, dating back to 220 AD. Whatever the folklore, these are old varieties that were used to make wines long before any problems between Israelis and Palestinians came to the fore.

The Recanati Marawi 2014 was launched a few months ago. Marawi is a synonym for Hamdani. Simply, around Jerusalem and Bethlehem the variety is known as Hamdani and when in the past it was grown in the Judean foothills and southern coastal plain it was known as Marawi.

The berries are large, grown at 900 meters elevation on what is known as a Hebron style pergola. They are dry farmed, with no irrigation. The wine was barrel fermented in old, used barrels and aged sur lies (on its lees.) Only 2,500 bottles were produced.

The wine has lemony, honey, peach aromas a certain mineral texture, but despite their efforts, it is somewhat lacking in acidity. However it was without question the most interesting new wine of 2015 and attracted the interest of the international media, including CNN and the New York Times.

Amar Kardosh, once export manager of Cremisan, was quoted as saying: “As usual in Israel, they declare that falafel, tehina, tabouleh, hummus and now Jandali grapes are Israeli …..these are Palestinian grapes grown in Palestinian vineyards.” A Holy Land indigenous grape, Palestinian grower and Israeli winemaker is the reality, and I see it as a beautiful cooperation.

There can be no such complaints about Dabouki which has been grown from the Mount Carmel region, down to the Judean plain for centuries. There are also vineyards in Bethelem and Hebron. The Dabouki variety is said to have originated in Armenia. It means ‘sweetness’ in Arabic.

It was mainly used for distillation of brandy and local Arak producers, like El Namroud, still use it for producing their base wine before distillation and the addition of anise. Similarly the Lebanese variety Obeideh was far more associated with Arak than wine, until Chateau Musar used it in a white blend.

Now, Avi Feldstein has made a varietal Dabouki from fifty year old vines in the Mount Carmel area. He has aged the wine on its lees in tank, stirring them periodically (bâtonnage in French), in order to improve flavors and complexity. Cremisan Monastery also produce a Dabouki from Bethlehem vineyards. The wines tend to have a floral tropical nose, a medium body, a broad mouth feel, rather like a fat Chardonnay and a rounded finish. The Feldstein version is enticing. I finished my glass without realizing.

Local red grapes are not so successful. Cremisan Winery sell a Cremisan Balady from an indigenous variety. It certainly is not at the standard of the white varieties. The red is light, thin with a pronounced acidity. However in the research conducted by Shibi Drori, there are some potential red varieties with names like Balouti and Zeitani that offer more hope for the future. As it is, the most Israeli red wine variety that you are likely to meet is Argaman.

Argaman, which means deep purple in Aramaic, was a grape created by Professor Roy Spiegel at the Volcani Institute of Agriculture. It was the result of a cross between Carignan, the work horse grape of Israel, with the Portuguese variety Souzoa. It was created in 1972, experimented with in the eighties and planted commercially in the early nineties.

The first wines were notable for their color but had little sophistication. The grape was planted in the hot coastal regions, mainly in the Judean Shefela, and used primarily for blends.

In 1999 a winemaker who liked challenges, saw unfulfilled potential in this variety. This was Avi Feldstein, then of Segal Wines. He planted Argaman in the Upper Galilee at the Dovev vineyard, at an altitude of over 700 meters above sea level. He saw himself as a viticultural Professor Higgins, who could coax something from this Eliza Doolittle variety, overcoming the genetical make up with the right care in the vineyard and winery.

By correct pruning, skilled canopy management and drastically reducing yields, he ended up with far better fruit than was produced in the hot coastal plain. Recognizing a lack of tannin in the grapes, he fermented them on Merlot skins.

The result was an excellent wine which was deep colored, with ripe red berry fruit. It was rich and plummy on the palate with a well weighted, even balanced finish. The Segal Rechasim Argaman 2007, even won a major gold medal in one of France’s main competitions. As such, the much maligned grape was able to take a bow.

Avi Feldstein is now independent but is still fascinated by Argaman. He is now making it from Givat Nili vineyards. He is still the creative experimenter, this time drying the grapes to increase the concentration.

So wine lovers, be on the lookout for some authentic Levantine wines from local varieties. Wines like Marawi, Dabouki, Hamdani Jandali and Argaman are well worth seeking out and tasting for interest and education. Who knows they might herald a new dawn for Israeli wine. One day, producing wine from Israeli varieties that have been here hundreds of years, may even become the norm!