Israel is located in the western Middle East (or Near East), at the very eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. The modern Jewish state’s famously controversial borders were created in the wake of WW2. Its wine industry has its roots in the late 19th century, but has largely developed in recent decades.
Various 'international' wine grape varieties have proved successful in Israel's better vineyard sites. Among these are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Chardonnay and even Gewurztraminer.
Several members of the extensive Muscat family, which retains its historic links with this part of the world, are also to be found here. Alexandria, which gives its name to the ancient North African vine Muscat of Alexandria, lies 500 kilometers (315 miles) west of the Israeli capital Jerusalem.
Although small compared to most modern wine-producing nations, Israel's annual wine production has attracted attention from all corners of the wine world in recent years. This is not only due to the development of new cooler-climate terroirs such as the Golan Heights, but also to the quality-conscious approach of the nation's wine producers.
Wine regions and appellations
Many parts of the country are too hot and dry to reliably produce wine of high quality. But various areas have more suitable microclimates, and are either well established or showing promise.
The major winemaking zones based on key differences in soils, topography and climate (in order of approximate percentage of national production) are:
- Judean Foothills (27 percent). The area between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem near the center of the country. Home to many samll wineries and vineyards. Known for its wine production in Biblical times
- Galilee (25 percent). In the north, divided into Upper and Lower Galilee. The former is a mountainous forested area with volcanic, gravel and terra rossa soils. Vineyards are planted at 375 meters altitude (1,200ft) or more. Some near Mount Meron can be planted as high as 1,000 meters (3,300 ft). Lower Galilee sites range from 250m-400m (600-1,300ft). Soils are volcanic or limestone
- Golan Heights (18 percent). In the northeast corner; a volcanic plateau overlooked by the snow-covered Mount Hermon. First planted in 1976 and the region which first gained global attention
- Coastal Plain (15 percent). The hot and humid Coastal Plain was one of the areas first planted in the 1880s by Baron Edmond de Rothschild. The main growing areas of the country are now in higher, cooler regions
- Central Mountains (11 percent). Includes Mount carmel, the Menashe Hills, the Shomron Hills and the Judean Hills around Jerusalem
- Negev Highlands (4 percent). In the Negev desert which makes up the southern half of Israel. Vineyards were first planted in the 1990s
In contrast the current list of official registered Geographic Indications consists of
- Galilee including the Golan Heights
- Shomron. including the Northern Coastal Plain, Mount Carmel, Menashe Hills, Shomron Hills
- Samson including the Central Coastal Plain and the Judean Foothills
- Judean Hills
This system predates the modern industry, and is being overhauled. In 2020 six new wine GIs were registered, including Judea Mountains (Harey Yehuda) and Judea Slopes (Mordot Yehuda).
It is not always easy to associate a producer with one particular location. Many have a winery in one region, but own vineyards in several.
Despite a long, turbulent history, this region is often cited as one of the ‘cradles of civilization’, the birthplaces of man’s agricultural and urban development. Modern-day Israel occupies the land described in the Bible as ‘flowing with milk and honey’, a phrase analogous with our current concept of the Fertile Crescent.
The Bible first mentions wine in Genesis 9:20-21, when Noah plants a vineyard (then gets drunk and ends up placing a curse on Canaan). Some hold to this to mark (literally or allegorically) the dawn of winemaking.
Biblical Israel was located on a historic wine trading route between Mesopotamia and Egypt. The imagery surround wine production was often used to illustrate aspects of their religion. Under Roman rule wine was exported to Rome, including amphorae marked with the maker and the vintage.
Winemaking was limited under Islamic rule during the Middle Ages, but revived in the Crusader period around 1100 to 1300. The return of Islamic rule and the Jewish diaspora ended the industry again.
There were some attempts to establish winemaking again in the mid- to late-19th century. The modern industry is generally traced back to the 1880s, and the involvement of Baron Edmond de Rothschild of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild. His efforts included importing French grape varieties and helping to establish Carmel Winery in 1882.
For much of the 20th century production was focused on Kosher wine to be exported around the globe. This was generally sweet and made from high yield vineyards. Carmel Winery was the first to produce a dry table wine, as late as the 1960s. Today sacramental wine accounts for not much more than a tenth of output.
The revival in quality winemaking began in the 1980s. This was aided by in influx of winemakers from France, Australia and the USA, and a corresponding modernization of technology. The 1990s saw a marked rise in the number of boutique wineries. By 2000 there were 70 wineries; by 2005 this number had doubled.
Nevertheless, the three largest producers, Carmel Winery, Barkan Wine Cellars, and Golan Heights Winery dominate the domestic market. The USA is the largest export market.
It has been observed by several wine authorities that Israel's approach to winemaking is stylistically quite New World, while neighboring (and considerably larger) Lebanonese industry has retained an Old World feel due to its French colonial history. This is borne out by Israel's proactive approach to wine marketing and tourism.
The demand for kosher wines throughout the world, particularly in the USA, has underpinned the development of the Israeli wine industry over the past few decades, bringing some very New World styles and techniques to this definitively Old World country. Not all wine made in Israel is kosher, however.
Modern Orthodox Jews believe that to be considered truly kosher, various products (wine and dairy among them) should be prepared only by Jews. Some Jews consider non-Jewish wine (known as yayin nasekh) to be kosher if it has been heated, the reason being that heated wine was not used as a religious libation in biblical times, and its consumption is therefore not sacrilegious.
Thus mulling, cooking and pasteurizing wine renders it kosher in the eyes of many Jews. In the 1960s Rabbi Israel Silverman argued that wine made by automated processes (of which there are an ever-increasing number) are kosher on the grounds that they are not made by gentiles. (For more information, please see Kosher Wine.)