THE FIRST ISRAEL INTERNATIONAL WINE
By John Salvi
Israel! One’s very first thought might be “an unlikely newcomer to the
world of International Wine Tasting Competitions”. But upon reflection
why should it be? Wine has been made here for over 3000 years, some say
5000. It is in fact one of the cradles of wine, no less. Of course it
was not called Israel – we all know that this was created in 1947 and
the poor place has been subject to both changes of rulers and changes
of names many times over the centuries during the history of the Middle
The Romans imported vast quantities of wine from here, and in Cana, not
far from Nazareth, Jesus enacted his first miracle, at age 13, turning
water into wine. I think it is safe to presume that he turned it into
wine with a local organoleptic profile rather than that of a Burdigala
or a Chianti!
Perhaps the reason that one does not immediately think “wine” when Tel
Aviv or Israel is mentioned is that this part of the world came under
Muslim rule for some 800 years, during which time it was a forbidden fruit,
neither produced nor consumed. When Judaism and Christianity regained
the upper hand, wine had to make a comeback strictly from point zero.
One of the first enlightened souls to produce serious wine here soon after
was Baron de Rothschild, in the region of Mount Tabor. The Baron actually
arrived with the renewal of Jewish agricultural settlements, from 1882.
However, prior to that the Turkish Sultan had granted concessions to European
nations and the very first pioneer to open a winery was the SHOR family,
Even then, for a number of years things just gently puttered along and,
although some very decent wine was produced, the world had to wait for
Israel to be created and for the wine boom to get under way before the
growers really got the bit between their teeth and started seriously setting
about producing quality wine. Today, although the entire wine business
only has exports totalling 13 million Dollars, nevertheless there are
some 200 wineries, many of them boutique, and many a serious, dedicated
and highly passionate wine grower. It was, and is, perfectly understandable
therefore that some ambitious and farsighted persons should wish to start
an international wine tasting competition and, quite separately, a wine
trade show to draw international attention to Israeli wines.
I was one of the twelve fortunate people to be invited as a judge to TERRAVINO
2006, the first MEDITERRANEAN INTERNATIONAL WINE CHALLENGE, from 7-13
June 2006, in Tel Aviv/ Jaffa. A fascinating voyage of discovery in every
sense of the word. The welcome was warm, the hospitality generous, the
organisation efficient, the programme full of history, the wines more
than interesting and the food delicious (very important to a greedy person
A few statistics at this point. There were 396 samples from 20 countries,
a pretty darn good start for a beginner! 225 of these were from Israel
and therefore 171 from the 19 other countries as well as 12 which were
sent but never arrived or were stuck in customs. This is a high percentage
of international wines, which was much appreciated by the OIV observer.
Spain and Latin America supplied the bulk of those 171 samples (Argentina
39, Spain 38, Brazil 25, and Chile 11). There was even a sample from Nicaragua!
France only sent 3, Germany only 1 – shame on them! There were 5 panels
of 7 judges each during the 3 days of tasting.
The OIV observer, Jan Juban, carefully monitored the proceedings. He was
able to announce, to the immense pleasure and satisfaction of all, that
the OIV would be happy to give their patronage to the next edition. Raul
Castellani from Argentina was the overall manager of the tasting. It is
he who stages the famous La Mujer Elige in Mendoza. He is a man of great
The owner and international director of this enterprising adventure was
MOISHE SPAK, an Argentinean like Raul, but one who came to live here in
Israel some 5 years ago and says he is sublimely happy here. He and Raul
conceived the idea at Vinexpo 2003.
Service at the tables was good, friendly and efficient. Excellent glasses,
white tablecloths, good lighting, individual spittoons, mineral water
and dangerously delicious bread. Those who served the wines to us were
often Israeli winemakers, which was a pleasure, and the tasting sheets
were mini OIV/UIO models in English and Spanish (not in Hebrew!).
When the results were published by the “Advocate and Notary”, there were
11 double gold medals awarded (6 from Israel), 53 Gold (26 Israel), 82
Silver (50 Israel). A thoroughly balanced judgement and result.
Following the competition, came the first ever International Wine Exhibition
in Israel – ISRAWINEXPO 2006, - at the Tel Aviv Exhibition Centre (the
same place as the tasting competition), from 13-15 June. In fact, in a
gesture of friendship and support, Terravino changed its original date
to coincide with Israwinexpo, thus providing it with more international
and professional visitors. Run by Haim Gan, who owns and runs Tel Aviv’s
finest wine store, the “Grape man”, the show was small, compact, well
laid-out and a very real showcase for Israeli wines. Here, in a very short
space of time, I was able to taste a wide range of Israeli wines from
all wine producing regions of the country. 56 exhibitors took part, almost
all of them Israeli Wineries and producers.
To coincide with the exhibition, the English version of the first truly
comprehensive and informative book on Israeli wines – The Wine Route of
Israel - was presented on a stand. It has been available in Hebrew for
a while, but the version in English will introduce it to a vastly greater
readership that will enjoy its maps, labels and illustrations. This is
an absolute MUST for wine book collectors and afficionados. Written by
Yaron Goldfisher and Eliezer Sacks, Cordinata Publishing House.
The Exhibition Catalogue carried a charming introduction by the Deputy
Prime Minister and Minister for Energy, which read – “what you sow in
tears you shall reap with joy”.
Back to the Competition and its programme. After each of the three tasting
sessions visits were organised each afternoon to different wine producing
regions and wineries. This made very long days but was well worthwhile
and extremely interesting. These visits gave us a broad overview of the
pace at which wine making is advancing here in Israel.
The first visit was to BARKAN WINERY, not far from Tel Aviv, working in
conjunction with the Kibbutz Hulda D.N. Emek Sorek. They produce wine,
brandy and vodka. The brandy and vodka under the Keglevich label. They
also have a daughter company Segal. A tasting was organised showing four
of their finest wines. These got us off to a very good start. The first
of them, named “Altitude”, was a Cabernet Sauvignon from vineyards at
762 metres above sea level. The wine showed very considerable elegance,
complexity and purity of fruit. A fine wine indeed! It was followed by
a splendid, classical and copious dinner of Israeli Middle-Eastern cuisine.
The second day’s tasting was followed by an expedition up the coast, to
Mount Carmel, where we visited a small winery by the name of Amphorae
Vineyard. We were not sure why we were there as we were told that there
were no vines or vineyards nearby. Visiting a winery with no vines!? It
transpired that the vineyards were a long way away, but that this was
where the grapes were brought to vinify. The owner was a gentleman of
intense individuality who made intensely individual wines. Not my style
at all but each to his own choice! He explained that his philosophy was
to reflect the sunlight in his wines and this he does by making mega-powerful,
jet-black, explosively sun-drenched wines. Fortunately there were the
most wonderful black olives and exquisite bread to calm the palate, fill
the belly and soothe the soul.
The third day was the Sabbath and we did not taste. Instead we went on
the most splendid historical tour of Jerusalem. It was long, hot and exhausting,
but worth every minute of it. Late in the afternoon we left the Holy City
and drove to Flam Winery, in the Jerusalem Hills. Here we found one of
the most fascinating shops that I have ever encountered. It smelled heavenly
and was full to overflowing with natural herbs and spices, fragrances,
remedies, natural cures and sweetmeats. Here I bought vanilla pods and
Loukoum. We all wanted to buy piles of an herb which they described as
“natural Viagra”. “Drink this as tea, go to a movie, go home and have
fun” said the sales lady. I could have spent hours here, but a grand tasting
had been laid on by the Judean Hills Group of Wineries in the Flam Winery
and Gardens. These are the wines of the Wine Route of the Yehuda Vineyards
and Wineries, a group with 24 members. Thirteen of these growers were
there to proudly show their wines and this was accompanied by a lavish
buffet supper in the gardens. Sadly this was marred by a confusion of
wines and spicy foods all served and mixed up together in the dark. As
a social evening it was fabulous, but as a wine tasting it was a sad failure.
We could see that there were a lot of good wines and an immense amount
of passion, but it was impossible to taste anything seriously under the
circumstances. This mistake is enlarged upon below.
The last visit was to a truly magnificent winery, and certainly one of
the most beautiful and best kept vineyards in Israel. Tabor Winery on
the lower slopes of Mount Tabor. The top of the mountain is where it is
believed that the Transfiguration of Jesus took place and it is here,
on the slopes of Mount Tabor, that the Baron de Rothschild first planted
his vineyards and founded the village. We saw red soil, clay soil, chalk
soil and volcanic soil. Magnificent almond groves and olive groves! Here
was made the very first Sauvignon Blanc in Israel and here they make elegant,
fine and refined red wine on the volcanic soil. Recently this vineyard
went into partnership with Coca Cola Israel and therefore now has powerful
distribution of their 250,000 bottle annual production. These were among
the best wines that we tasted all week. However, in future, please avoid
giving dinner guests a thirty minute monologue and diatribe of pure, unadulterated
and extremely unattractive Coca Cola marketing philosophy. It does not
make a good bedfellow with fine wine!
On this trip we were accompanied by a charming lady from the “Israeli
Tourism Special Projects Bureau”, who wanted to see and judge the future
of wine tourism in her country. She was impressed!
ABOUT ISRAELI WINES
With all that wonderful sunshine it must be very tempting to cede to power,
richness and ultra-ripe (over-ripe!) fruit. However restraint is needed.
Who is to say that the growers are wrong, if that is what the market wants
and that is what they can sell? Just as long as they realise that they
are sacrificing elegance and finesse on the altar of power and liquid
sunshine, and are making wines that gives you sunstroke and a headache!
To my mind this is a pity, but I am an old-fashioned purist and the world
is a commercial one! The Israelis are nothing if not businessman!
Some of the best growers are acutely conscious of the above and several
said to me that they look for finesse, purity of fruit and elegance in
their wines rather than alcoholic force. Some have succeeded admirably.
Most were happy to say that they acidify when they feel that the wine
requires it. They are fully aware of the importance of good acidity levels
to make fresh and longer lasting wine, to get a good balance between ripeness,
alcoholic strength and correct crisp acidity and to avoid jammyness or
cooked flavours. This jammyness was unfortunately rather too prevalent
and to be found in too many of the red wines. The proof that the choice
of location is of prime importance was shown with crystal clarity by the
wine “Altitude” already mentioned. Purity of vibrant fruit, clean fresh
and vital acidity and velvety tannins in a complete and finely structured
wine show that it can be done.
Oak control is overall excellent. I found very few examples of oak juice
or of the flagrant over-use of new oak and this gave me a lot of pleasure.
Far less over-oaking than in Bordeaux!! Barrels appeared to be mainly
225-litre capacity (the Bordeaux barrel) and in the vast majority French.
Some complexing was done with small percentages of American oak and occasionally
Hungarian. Rarely did I see wines that had been kept too long in barrel.
This is all excellent and shows real sensitivity.
Tannins are on the whole extremely well integrated and smooth. Of course
there are exceptions, but then there are everywhere. This applies to the
natural tannins as well as those from the oak barrels discussed above.
Awareness of getting a good balance between phenolic ripeness and correct
levels of sugar and acidity seems to be universal here and the problem
has been well and rapidly mastered. After all it is only recently that
Bordeaux has seriously addressed this problem! Unripe and harsh tannins
– unlike Bordeaux – are not an Israeli problem.
Limpidity however does seem to be somewhat of a problem. Deep, dark, intense
colours one would expect, but a lot of the red wines were not brilliantly
limpid. It is only a guess, but I feel that one of the reasons may lie
more with good colour stability and stabilisation than with straightforward
clarification and/or filtration. Possibly growers with brilliance problems
should look at post-fermentation maceration control.
A word of warning. For professionals, who come to taste the wines, be
they buyers, traders, assessors or writers, it is important to organise
the tastings at the wineries professionally and efficiently in order to
show the wines at their very best. It is not professional to mix wine
and food, delicious though that may be! It is impossible to make professional
tasting notes with the odours of food and cooking in the nostrils. Although
both generous and enjoyable, please keep the wine and food far enough
apart for delicious odours not to reach the tasters. I love my food, but
prefer to taste quietly and seriously and then stuff myself to bursting
once I have done! Please also give tasters tables and chairs rather than
asking them to taste standing up with the wines lined up on a table.
Be that as it may, the Israeli wine scene is exciting and exhilarating.
It is wonderful to hear growers talk of passion without any shame or reticence.
Small wineries, and big ones, on a steep learning curve, unashamedly eager
to learn all that they can, as fast as they can. It is splendid to see
the friendly exchange of knowledge between them and the way they taste
each other’s wines. All this gives the whole scene an urgent vibrancy
and an optimistic and positive impetus. Israeli growers want to go places,
are determined to do so and will assuredly succeed.
One week in Israel is not nearly enough. I tasted some 300 Israeli wines
but am aware that I only scratched the surface. I shall buy, taste and
drink them whenever they come my way and I shall follow their progress
with enthusiasm and pleasure.
I would like to finish by say a warm thank you and immense congratulations
to Moishe Spak, Raul Castellani, Heim Gan and all the wine growers and
wineries who showed us their wines and offered us their warm and generous
hospitality. The first edition of Terravino was an unqualified success.
Thank you, well done and we will be back!!