Israeli wine has undergone a number of key events which have propelled Israeli wine forward in terms of image and recognition. Now that Israeli wine is truly on the map, it is interesting to look back at the stepping stones on the way to recognition.
The first was in 1900 in the grand Paris Exhibition when Carmel wines received gold medals alongside some of the finest French Chateaux. These were the first major awards for an Israeli wine. The wine that was most successful was called Carmel No. 1. Wines were often then numbered to make them more easily identifiable. This award highlighted the rebirth of an Israeli wine industry after 2000 years and brought the wines of Rishon Le Zion and Zichron Ya’acov Cellars to the world’s attention for the first time. The wineries were founded by Baron Edmond de Rothschild who provided French viticulturists, and even a winemaker from Bordeaux. Thus Israeli wine was founded on the roots of French expertise.
In 1976 Carmel’s winemaker Freddie Stiller, used some spare barrels used for maturation of brandy, for aging his precious wine. The Carmel Special Reserve Cabernet Sauvignon 1976 was the first Israeli wine aged in small oak barrels in the new international way. Though it did not create international waves, it did highlight to Israelis that wine could be something of value representing quality. It was Israel’s first quality wine.
The next seminal event was in 1987. Then the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 1984 won not only the Gold Medal but also the Winiarski Trophy in the International Wine and Spirits Competition. This was a surprising if not astonishing result and confirmed that Israel was capable of making world class wines. The Golan Heights Winery using the services of a Californian consultant and UC Davis trained winemakers, brought the ‘New World’ wine revolution to Israel, changing forever practices in the vineyard and winery for the better. This was followed by Yarden wines winning the Grand Prix d’Honneur Trophy three years in a row at Vinexpo, then the world’s most largest and most important wine exhibition. Israeli wine was on the map.
Dr. Yair Margalit was the first in a new wave of quality boutique winery owners that showed there was another way. His Margalit Winery was founded in 1989 and this example spawned a whole series of new small wineries that were created in the next fifteen years. The Margalit Special Reserve, was Israel’s first cult wine.
In 1995 Serena Sutcliffe tasted the new Castel Grand Vin 1992 and wrote that she considered it the finest Israeli wine she had ever tasted. She was a Master of Wine and Head of the Sotheby’s Wine Department. Domaine du Castel was one of the new small boutique wineries that sprung up in the 1990’s. This was the beginning of the small winery boom in Israel and Castel represented the new attention to detail to make a quality product at any cost.
In the late 1990’s Castel became the first Israeli winery to be Wine of the Month in the British magazine, Decanter. This they succeeded in doing three times with the Castel Grand Vin and C Blanc du Castel, a varietal Chardonnay.
In 1999 the Golan Heights winery became the first Israeli winery ever to be invited to the New York Wine Experience. This was a gathering of the finest 200 wineries in the world and attendance was by invitation only. It was and remains arguably the most prestigious tasting event of the calendar year and is regarded as such by the few who are able to purchase tickets and the participating wineries. It was a fine moment for Israeli wines to take their place amongst the finest wines in the world.
In 2005 the first Rogov’s Guide To Israeli Wines was published. This was an annual guide book written by wine critic Daniel Rogov, who was once the food and wine writer for the Jerusalem Post. His book was sold on the shelves of quality book shops the world over and played a big part in marketing the new self-confidence of Israeli wine.
Israel still had not received recognition from the world’s most famous wine critic, Robert Parker. He had been sent wines, but seemed to avoid tasting them. He was such an influential figure in the business of the wine that a 90 point score could ensure a wine was sold out in a week. However, finally in December 2007, Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate organized the first ever tasting of Israeli wines. The wines were tasted by Mark Squires from the great man’s tasting team. The result was that Yatir Forest 2003 scored 93 points. This was the making of Yatir Winery, a winery situated in the unfashionable wine region of the Negev Desert. It was at the time the highest score ever given by Parker for a kosher wine, an Israeli wine and indeed any wine from the Eastern Mediterranean. When Robert Parker published his Seventh Wine Buyer’s Guide, Israel was given nine pages. This was the same as New Zealand and more than South Africa.
In 2008 Domaine du Castel was awarded the maximum four stars in Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book. This is a pocket encyclopedia published annually. It was and remains the largest selling of all wine books. In Britain, Hugh Johnson is regarded with the same reverence that Parker is in America. The difference was that Parker was a critic who gave scores to wines, whereas Johnson was a prolific writer, telling the story and painting the colors of wine. In his pocket book he scores wineries rather than individual wines. For Castel to receive four stars was the first time any Israeli wine succeeded to receive this rating.
In 2010 the Carmel Kayoumi Shiraz 2006 won the Decanter International Trophy, described by the organizers as a sensational result. Israeli wines were by now particularly winning gold medals and trophies. The Golan Heights Winery, Barkan and Recanati were particularly prolific, but this was arguably the finest award to any Israeli winery.
The Wine Spectator and Wine Enthusiast are the main wine magazines in America. Between the years 2012 and now, Israeli wines were listed for the first time ever in the prestigious end of year lists of Best Wines or Best Value Wines of the outgoing year. Seems not so unachievable today, but it never happened for so long that this was an important breakthrough in the attitude towards Israel.
In 2016 Eran Pick the winemaker of Tzora Vineyards became Israel’s first Master of Wine. This instantly catapulted him to become the most instantly recognizable Israeli in the wine firmament. When you consider there are only 300 or so MW’s in the whole of the wine world, it becomes immediately obvious what an incredible achievement this was.
The Wine Spectator had written two features on Israel in the 25 years I have been in Israel. They were very nice to read, but the gaps between these articles were rather too long for my liking. However in 2016 the Wine Spectator made a first. It wrote its third feature about Israeli wines, but this time made it the cover feature. Israel featuring on the cover was the finest endorsement yet for Israel as a quality wine producing country. Furthermore they gave the cover headline: “The Wines of Israel: Surprising Quality from an emerging region.” This has created enormous interest in professional wine circles and has further advanced Brand Israel in the heady world of fine wine.
The scores given to Israeli wines have steadily increased over the years. The highest scores ever given by the wine magazines that count are as follows. The Wine Spectator awarded 93 points to the Tzora Misty Hills 2013. The Wine Enthusiast awarded 94 points to the Recanati Cabernet Sauvignon Reserve 2011 and the Wine Advocate has awarded 94 points to Alexander Amarolo 2011, Clos de Gat Muscat Sycra 2006, and Castel Grand Vin 2013.
So there we are. Five thousand years of winemaking. One hundred and twenty five years since the founding of a modern wine industry. Thirty years since the beginnings of a quality revolution. Now in the last ten years, we have really began to receive third party recognition, of the highest quality. We are on a journey. Look what we have achieved in the last twenty years and let’s see where we are in twenty years’ time.
Adam Montefiore has been advancing Israeli wines for over 30 years. He is known as ‘the ambassador of Israeli wine’. He writes a regular column called ‘Wine Talk’ in the Jerusalem Post. www.adammontefiore.com