Adam S. Montefiore


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.



Do you know that until the last quarter of the 20th century, woman winemakers were regarded with suspicion. In the Catholic ‘old world’, of France, Italy and Spain, the superstitious wine folk would not allow women to become part of the winemaking process, because it was thought a menstruating woman could make the wine go bad. This lack of respect for the female species lasted far longer in wine than is realized, even in enlightened countries.

The breakthrough in the United States really began forty five years ago, to an extent that the exclusion of women is no longer an issue. In Israel things have taken longer.

Kosher wine producers also disdained woman winemakers for a different reason. They believed in gender separation, so the idea of allowing a woman winemaker to upset the concentration of the orthodox workers was unacceptable and simply unheard of.

They echoed views deeply imbedded in the wine trade throughout the ages. In the great wine cultures of Egypt, Greece and Rome, it was the men that made the wine. In the wine tastings held by the Greeks and the Romans, men drank the wine. Women were only present if needed for alternative entertainment.

In any case, the wine trade for years was very sexist and chauvinistic. Wine tasting and talking about wine is a very man thing based on years of a tradition which in many instances excluded women. Even today most of the wine writers, sommeliers and wine folk are men.

Two new findings made people think again. Firstly, some serious studies proved that women are in fact better tasters than men. They have better natural palates. Secondly came the realization that women purchase most of the wine in supermarkets, which is most of the wine full stop!

There were early cracks in the glass ceiling though. In 1986 Tali Sandowski became the first female winemaker in Israel when she joined the Golan Heights Winery. After gaining her first degree, she relocated to UC Davis, got her winemaking degree and then returned to Israel. She remains at the Golan Winery until today as their longest serving winemaker. In the 1990’s Carmi Lebenstein became the first woman in an executive position when she became Marketing Director of Carmel.

Since the beginning of the 2000’s, four of the largest ten wineries (Carmel, Binyamina, Galil Mountain & Golan Heights) have had woman CEOs, and there have been many woman winemakers like Irit Boxer Shank of Barkan Winery, Orna Chillag of Chillag Winery and Meital Damri of Carmel Winery (ex Midbar). Others like Roni Saslove, Naama Sorkin and Yael Sandler worked at Saslove, Dalton, Saslove and Binyamina wineries respectively before moving on. So the prejudice is just not there anymore. That is not to say that woman winemakers abound! However there are more women in the wine trade than ever before, and not just winemakers, but in a variety of roles. For instance Michal Akerman, the viticulturist of Tabor Winery and Sharona Belogolovsky, the owner & manager of Vitkin Winery. Then there is Ruti Ben Israel, the sommelier who opened Carmel’s Center for Wine Culture, organized the first wine festival for the Mount Carmel region and now is involved with the Shefaya School winery. There are others.

The latest addition to the women wine folk is Nitzan Swersky. She followed a much trod route into wine. She did not have a wine background, but started with a barman’s course, which pricked her curiosity. Then she did a wine course at Haim Gan’s Ish Anavim. At roughly the same time she was sent by Segal Wines on an incentive and learning trip to Sicily and Tuscany. She was hooked!

I first met her when I was on a stand at the Vin Italy Exhibition twelve years ago, showing Carmel wines and Handcrafted Wines of Israel, a consortium of some of Israel’s finest boutique wineries, to the world. She was studying oenology at the University of Milan (after studying Italian) and volunteered to help on the stand. Most young volunteers use an invitation to a wine show to visit as many stands as possible and taste as much as possible, but to avoid anything like hard work. What I remember of Nitzan, was she worked harder than all of us put together, hardly ever leaving the service counter let alone the stand. She was pretty, petite, vivacious and the visitors tasting Israeli wine for the first time loved her perky character.

She completed her studies returned to Israel. Then she travelled to Spain to do a second degree (after studying Spanish….of course!) and then to South Africa to gain experience. There she worked at Mulderbosch Winery, a very fine, well known winery, where she learnt a great deal from Mike Dubrovich, who was a mentor figure for her.

Next time I saw her she was part of the winemaking team at Barkan Winery, who she joined in 2011. Here she worked at what was then Israel’s second largest winery as an associate winemaker. It was an invaluable experience, but was also far removed from the hands on, handcrafted winemaking that she preferred. She decided big winery winemaking was not for her, but still got two harvests there under her belt.

What she did in the meantime was marry and she had a family in super quick time. Now she has four children aged 8, 6, 3 and one year old, so fulfilling the life’s dream of a happy marriage and a house full of children. However she had still not satisfied the wine dream and assuaged the passion to make wine.

In 2014 this busy mum found time to put the nappies and lunch boxes to one side for a few moments to fulfill her dream and make not only a wine, but her own wine.

She called it Ahat (feminine for Ehad, one.) She decided to make a white wine only. Why Because white is ‘in’ and coming back after twenty years of reds dominating the tastings of the wine intelligentsia. I agree with her. White wines are so much more suitable for our hot, humid climate. There is so much more variety in white wines than red, and they go better with food. In this decision she echoed similar decisions by excellent Sphera Winery and the small Zimbalista Winery. I have little sympathy or understanding for the wine snob who says: “I only drink red”, as though to emphasize he is more of a maven because he only drinks the ‘real stuff.’

Nitzan knew she did not want to make wine from more mainstream varieties like Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. So she made a wine which was a blend of Roussanne and Viognier, two reasonably new immigrants to Israel, which are both suitable for the Mediterranean climate. The grapes come from Givat Yeshayahu in the Judean Hills.

Only 2,000 bottles were made of the Ahat White 2014. There is something strikingly individual about the beautiful label in a botanical drawing style. The wine has a nose of grapefruit, and green apple with tropical notes. It coats the mouth. The oak treatment is noticeable but it supports rather than masks the fruit and the wine finishes with a soft but refreshing acidity. The fruit stays with you right through from the first sniff, until the long, balanced finish. It retails at 120 shekels. This is worth buying if you can find it, but it is also a marker that Ahat Winery is one to follow and look out for in the future.

It was interesting to hear that the grape variety she would most like to work with is Chenin Blanc. This is a variety making a comeback here, and some practitioners, like Sea Horse and Shvo Vineyard are making great, but very different Chenin Blancs. It is a wonderfully versatile variety with a great deal of potential here.

She is generous in her praise of winemakers who have helped her. She mentions Yiftach Peretz (Binyamina) and Ido Lewinsohn (Recanati), who were on the same Milan degree course, and then goes on to give credit to Avi Feldstein (Feldstein Winery), Eran Pick MW (Tzora) and Doron Rav Hon (Sphera), in her words “each for something different.”

I can’t help thinking that Nitzan Swersky is wonderful role model. She has learnt her trade, had a family and now makes the most individual and personal expression of a wine that is possible to make. The busy mother, rushed off her feet in the normal day, has found time for wine. She is a an example to young mothers and aspiring winemakers everywhere, and I salute her!

The Jerusalem Post Heb

Woman’s World

The Jerusalem Post Heb

It’s a woman’s world