In the Western world, there is a strong link between wine and religion. This link is intense in Israel, where wine has been produced since biblical times. Wine plays a prominent role in the Jewish Passover Seder meal. The wine consumed at such events is kosher, and kosher wines historically have not been made to garner scores in the '90s from wine critics such as Robert Parker. This stigma surrounding kosher wines has unfortunately tainted the reputation of Israeli wines as a whole, but this is rapidly changing.
Roots of the Modern Israeli Wine Industry
Archaeologists have dated cisterns for wine production and storage located in what is now Israel to 3000 BC. In 1848 Rabbi Shore in Jerusalem built the first winery for commercial kosher wine production. The most famous name to grace the early Israeli kosher wine industry was Baron Edmond de Rothschild, owner of the legendary Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux, who brought French expertise to the winemaking. His initial project exists today as the Carmel Winery.
By the 1980s, wines with international appeal began to complement kosher wines. Stainless steel fermentation tanks along with French and American aging barrels became commonplace at wineries.
Today, while three wineries produce 80 percent of Israeli wine (Carmel, Barkan Wine Cellars and Golan Heights Winery), the boutique-winery phenomenon, which most connoisseurs associate with the Napa Valley, has taken hold. There are now no fewer than one hundred such wineries, producing anywhere from a few thousand to 20,000 bottles annually. Famous boutique wineries include Domaine du Castel, Margalit and Yatir.
The red 2003 Yatir Forest label from a subsidiary of Carmel Winery received a score of 93 points from American wine critic Robert Parker.
The Land and the Grapes
It is true that Israel has desert areas inhospitable to grapes, but most of Israel has a Mediterranean climate, perfect for local and international grape varieties. The area with the best reputation for high-quality wines is Galilee in the north, but modern irrigation techniques are helping turn previously barren areas into lush vineyards.
While Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Chardonnay, and Sauvignon Blanc are finding homes in Israeli wine regions, arguably the most popular grape is Emerald Riesling. This grape is not true Riesling; it is a cross between Muscadelle and true Riesling developed by a researcher at the University of California at Davis. Emerald Riesling produces table wines with an acidity that makes them a good food match, and wines such as this are rare in hot growing regions.