Adam S. Montefiore


The Judean Hills are flowing with wine, echoing the words of Amos the Prophet. Recently, four of Israel’s finest wineries decided to pool their efforts to advance the Judean Hills as a relatively ‘new’ quality wine region, in exactly the same place where wine was made thousands of years ago.

In Biblical times this region was a center of wine production. In those days, people drank far more wine than today, because it was safe, whereas water was a carrier of disease. Vines were grown in terraced vineyards, brought to a nearby ‘gat’ or limestone wine press for fermentation. The resulting wine was put into large amphorae (pointed clay vases with large handles) and then stored in cool caves. The wine was later exported and it was much prized by neighboring countries. Wine was one of the mainstays of the economy.

After the Muslim conquest, the wine industry simply dried up. Of course, individual Jewish families in places like the Old City of Jerusalem continued to make wine at home purely for religious ritual, using food grapes grown by Arabs in Bethlehem and Hebron. However, the once proud industry was laid waste.

The revival of Israeli wine had to wait until the late 1880’s. Then Baron Edmond de Rothschild built wineries and planted vineyards. As far as the Judean Plain was concerned, he planted vineyards in the flatter part of the Shefela, south east of where Tel Aviv is today. It was only in the 1950’s and 1960’s that there was a program to plant vineyards in the rolling hills known as the Judean Foothills. This was encouraged by the Jewish Agency. In the seventies and eighties there were further plantings in the higher elevation Judean Hills. However, these were vineyards to supply the large wineries. The objective in those days was quantity and the word quality did not enter the equation.

In 1988, a restaurateur named Eli Ben Zaken planted a vineyard and produced a wine. He was a Francophile and called his wine Castel Grand Vin and he put Haut Judée on the label, Judean Hills in French. This was a tiny production of a handcrafted wine, but it was the first attempt at quality in the region and the first time the appellation appeared on the label. In 1995 Serena Sutcliffe, MW, Head of the Sotheby’s Wine Department, wrote it was the finest Israeli wine she had ever tasted. With great passion, absolute perfectionism and great attention to detail, Domaine du Castel was born and brought quality to the Judean Hills.

At the same time, a veteran grape grower named Ronnie James, who grew grapes that were sold to the Carmel Cooperative, felt an urge to produce his own wine from his own grapes. In 1993 he founded Tzora Vineyards, and became obsessed with creating a Judean Hills terroir. His charm, smile, and ‘salt of the earth’ character touched and motivated many people.

Almost by example, these two pioneers succeeded in changing the focus of a region. New vineyards were planted, a series of small wineries opened and pursuit of quality became the order of the day. Now the Judean Hills is thriving and one of the most dynamic wine regions in the country.

So, it is not surprising that Castel and Tzora are two of the four wineries. They have been joined by Flam Winery and Sphera, and have called their new consortium The Judean Hills Quartet. Their objective is to spread the message about the Judean Hills, rather in the same way that the Golan Heights Winery did with the Golan a few years ago. They are four of the best.

Domaine du Castel is quite simply the winery that has set the style and quality for Israeli winemakers. They have just moved in to a magnificent new winery at Yad Shmona, near Neve Ilan. Eli Ben Zaken has twice built the most beautiful winery in Israel. That is quite something. The new winery is a real cathedral (or should I say Beit Mikdash) to quality.

Tzora Vineyards has continued to develop since Ronnie James passed away, before his time. One of his last decisions was to bring in a young tousle haired winemaker in 2006. His name was Eran Pick, and he has since become Israel’s most famous winemaker having become Israel’s first ever Master of Wine. He is devoted to making wine from individual plots within the Shoresh vineyard. He is a determined artist with a great deal of talent, drive…and important in the wine business, patience. It is so appropriate and fitting that Tzora’s viticulturist is Dor James, Ronnie’s son.

Flam Winery is the creation of Israel’s most prominent wine family. Two brothers, Golan and Gilad, and their sister, Gefen, founded Flam Winery and they chose to build their beautiful winery in the Judean Hills at Eshtaol. Their father Israel, was the legendary chief winemaker of Carmel, over many years and their mother Kami, runs the finances of the company with an iron grip. It is a true family affair. Golan Flam is the winemaker, who studied in Italy. He is dry, poker faced and silent, until you get into a vineyard where he becomes positively talkative, as though his passion has burst out like a bubbling brook.

Sphera is a winery which has a slogan ‘White Wine Professionals’ and it is devoted to making white wines only. The owner winemaker Doron Rav Hon, who studied in Beaune in Burgundy. A perfectionist whose raison d’être is minimalist, precision and delicateness. Sphera is one of the main white wine pioneers in the country.

Those who follow the most influential wine critics in the wine world, will not be able to ignore the high profile of these Judean Hills wineries. Castel was the first Israeli winery to gain four stars in Hugh Johnson’s Wine Book, and has since been joined by Flam. In Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate, Castel has scored a best for Israel 94 points and is arguably the best performer year in and year out with all their wines achieving high scores. Flam is one of the few Israeli wineries that have scored 93 points. As far as the Wine Spectator is concerned, the highest ever score for an Israeli wine was also by a Judean Hills winery, this time Tzora Vineyards. In addition, all Tzora’s wines scored more than 90 points and one of them featured in the Top 100 Wines of the Year. Finally Stuart Pigott, one of the world’s experts on Riesling, rated the Sphera Riesling as one of the top five in the world.

So, what is special about the Judean Hills The Judean Hills rise from 300 to 900 meters starting in the foothills and rising to the Jerusalem Mountains. The climate is Mediterranean which means warm, dry summers and cold, wet winters. There is usually no rain in the growing season, and the vineyards do not suffer from the humidity of the coastal regions. The region benefits from cooling winds from the Mediterranean Sea, and the cold air circulating from the Jerusalem mountains at night time. The soils tend to be a shallow Terra Rossa on a deep bedrock of limestone. They are well-drained and very rich in minerals. The Judean hills are covered with vineyards, but they tend to be small and varied. This encourages small winery winemaking and there are approximately thirty wineries in the region.

Quite apart from this, the region is beautiful. Pine forests surround the vineyards, limestone rocks lie scattered amongst them, and garrigue, the Mediterranean brush, sprouts close to the ground in clumps. In the spring, wild Mediterranean herbs, like zaater and oregano, mingle with the beautiful wild flowers. If you are lucky, you will see deer frolicking amongst the vines. The viticulturists place of work, is a playground to others! If you look around, you will come across fossils which underline the rich history this land has undergone over millennia.

The most surprising thing is the unusually cold spells that may found in the valleys and corridors of the Judean Hills. When you visit, the winds and temperatures will surprise you.

In wine, the place where grapes are grown is important. That is why a Californian label with Napa Valley on it, will create greater expectation (and cost) than if it was written Central Valley. In Israel, the most famous wine regions for quality are arguably the Golan Heights, Upper Galilee and Judean Hills. This new initiative will help advance the Judean Hills further and introduce it to the general wine world, outside the kosher confines.

The Jerusalem Post Heb

In the footsteps of the Prophets



When all the talk is of quality Israeli wines which win prizes worldwide, you will be surprised, at how much grape juice and Kiddush wine is still being produced these days.

Israel produces approximately 50 million bottles a year from wine grapes. However a surprising ten million bottles of this is grape juice. These are grape juices usually made from wine grapes, marketed in glass bottles and sold on the wine shelves in Israeli supermarkets. I say ‘wine grapes’ because once wine was made from wine grapes (Cabernet, Merlot etc) and grape juice was made from food or table grapes but these days there are enough wine grapes spare. Producing grape juice is a great way of using excess grapes.

Grape juice really came in its own with the anti-alcohol movement of the 20th century which spawned Prohibition in America. The temperance movement was convinced that partaking of alcohol including wine, was a sin. Many thought that whenever the word Tirosh was used in the Bible it referred to grape juice and not new wine. It was an interpretation based on wishful thinking. Grape juice is but a short stepping stone on the way to wine and then wine vinegar. Certainly in Biblical times they did not have the techniques to preserve grape juice. Harvest grapes and naturally all they want to do is ferment. There are yeasts on the skin of the grapes and in the air that can’t wait to start fermentation. Just try and stop them. Making wine was then a way of saving the product. Leaving it as grape juice would have been impossible.

Of course when pasteurization was invented by Louis Pasteur, an American clergyman named Welch adapted the techniques to allow him to produce a commercially stable grape juice and a new market was born. Today, the giant of kosher grape juice in America is Kedem. They started to make their grape juice in the 1950’s, often using the Concord grape, so beloved by the American palate. Their grape juice has remained the choice of religious Jews in America, despite attempts of others to take a share of the market.

In Israel, the main grape juice is the Carmel Tirosh produced by Carmel Winery since the 1930’s. It is the largest brand in the Israeli ‘wine’ market. Until recently it was known simply as Tirosh. For consumers the word Tirosh meant Carmel. However, in the 2000’s exclusive use of the name was challenged in court and now every grape juice producer has a product named Tirosh.

Just as Americans prefer the Kedem Grape Juice above all others, the Israelis prefer the Carmel taste, but it has become a more competitive business. Other wineries are today producing large quantities of grape juice including Arza, Hacormim, Jerusalem, Segal, Teperberg and Zion. The Carmel Tirosh though, remains the Rolls Royce of Israeli grape juices. It is arguably their most famous product in Israel, which has always caused problems image wise. They make very good wines today, and no quality winery wants their grape juice to be their most well-known product!

Carmel Tirosh is made 100% from wine grapes with no water, sweetener or coloring agent added. The red, (or rose as it may be more accurately described), is made mainly from Carignan sometimes with small amounts of Argaman and Petite Sirah, whilst the white is made from Colombard and Muscat of Alexandria. It is a product that families have grown up with (‘yayin for yeladim’ – wine for children) and grownups who wish to avoid the alcohol or over sweetness of kiddush wine, will continue to use it for Shabbat and festivals. It is the ultimate family product.

The other product is Kiddush or sacramental wine. Approximately four million bottles of Kiddush wine are produced annually In Israel. This is 10 % of the total amount of wine produced. This market sector is dominated by massive brands that have nurtured Jews over a lifetime of Seders, Shabbats and Festivals. Who has not heard of Manischewitz , Mogen Dovid or Kedem in America or Palwin in Britain These are brands with a big following. However, arguably the most famous Israeli Kiddush Wine is Konditon.

Konditon is a word that comes up in the history of Greek and Roman wine, as well as in the Jewish literature. It was a word to describe a spiced wine. In the 1860’s the Shor family decided to produce a Konditon style wine again. In those days wine was not bottled but sold in small casks. There were no labels or kashrut certificates. You bought from someone reputable whom you knew. When bottling and labelling became the norm, Konditon became not just a style of wine, but a brand.

The wine was flavored and sweetened, but this was not new. This is what they did in Biblical times to preserve the wine and make it tasty. Wine has been made this way for thousands of years.

Hacormim is today managed by Eli Shor, a charming, kind man with boundless enthusiasm. He has a winemaker, but Konditon is his baby. He delights in describing how he flavors the wine, building the flavor. Everything is designed to recreate the wines written about in the ancient sources, and by so doing, continuing the Shor family tradition.

The traditional, classic Konditon, is fortified with brandy to roughly 14% alcohol. Its parchment like label was designed by a Bezalel artist depicting scenes from Masada & Kumran. This retails for just under 30 shekels. It is most regularly used as a Kiddush wine, but Eli bristled when I said this, and said that they prefer to categorize it as a dessert wine.

Now there is a new prestige, de-luxe edition, the Konditon 18 which comes in an attractive, stylish package. This is as a fortified dessert wine. It is made from a blend of Caladoc, Argaman, Carignan, Petit Verdot and Muscat Hamburg. It has spices from the Jerusalem area added, along with a touch of Etrog zest, also Silan (date honey) which provides the sweetness and brandy aged in the winery’s own cellar which provides the alcohol. The final wine reaches 18% alcohol, hence the name and it is matured for 36 months in oak barrels. It comes in a handsome presentation box and costs 80 shekels.

Hacormim tell the story of how my distinguished forbear, Sir Moses Montefiore, visited the Shor Winery and it was this that persuaded him to invest in Jerusalem. Visit the winery and you will still see his parents Yechiel & Nechama still coming to work, well past retirement age. When I visited recently, Nechama, sharp as a button, said : “Oh, a Montefiore once visited us 25 years ago.” What a memory! It was me! When I made Aliya I arrived on their doorstep, eager to learn about the different Israeli wines.

Loving history like I do, I especially appreciate the use of the old Shor family logo on the labels. A nice touch. The other members of the family have spawned new boutique wineries to leave the liquid religion image behind. Zion Winery begat 1848 Winery and from Arza Winery came forth Hayotzer. Hacormim though, went retro and have gone back to the old family logo, Shorr 1848 (spelt with two r’s then) for their Konditon wines.

Carmel was Israel’s first commercial winery, founded by the Rothschild family in the 1880’s. The Shor family founded Israel’s first recorded winery in 1848 in the Old City of Jerusalem.

Carmel’s growers are now in their sixth generation. These are largely the same families that planted Carmel’s first vines. They were the owners of the cooperative and now remain part owners. How rare is it for shareholders of a company to stay the same over 130 years The Shor family is in its seventh generation. Two of my children are in the wine trade. That is a mere two generations in this business. How special it is that the Shor family are still making wine after nearly 170 years. The Carmel Tirosh and Hacormim Konditon are like liquid time capsules representing the tradition and history of the wine growing families of Carmel and the winemaking Shors. Here’s hoping that they continue for many more generations!

The Jerusalem Post Heb

Keep In the family