Here’s to the Holy Land

Paul Blow

Here’s something novel: I’m writing about the wines of Israel, and it’s not even close to Passover, which is the only time of year the media ever seems to cover Israeli wines.

But save the plonk for Elijah; you can drink the good stuff. A large portion of Israeli wine is not kosher—and a lot of it can stand up to its counterparts from the northern side of the Mediterranean.

On a visit I made to Israel a few years ago, I was impressed with the wines of the Golan Heights and Galilee regions. With a range of altitudes, the Golan Heights can grow a number of varieties, from Cabernet in the hotter, lower parts to Pinot Noir and Chardonnay at the high, cool elevations. The current winemaker at Golan Heights Winery, Victor Schoenfeld, is a UC Davis–trained Californian. His Yarden and Gamla brands are on a par with many similarly priced wines from California—but don’t necessarily exhibit a compelling personality. “We’re still learning here,” Schoenfeld told me. “Viticulture in this area is still a young undertaking, and we get only one shot a year to see what works and what doesn’t.”

One wine really stood out on that trip: Yarden’s brilliant, high-end Katzrin. It’s a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Cabernet Franc—rich and full, intensely flavored, with gorgeous depth of fruit and a subtle earthiness.

Katzrin has continued its high standards every year since then, and Yarden’s other wines have seen no dip either. The Mount Hermon Red blend (the same grape varieties as the Katzrin) is a bargain for its pure, ripe fruit flavors and wild herb accents. Cabernet does seem a natural fit for the region, though Merlot also does well and Syrah is reputed to be (as in California) the next big thing.

So many people are now producing wine that it’s tough to know how many wineries are there, though estimates have the number between 150 and 200. The country’s largest wine-growing area is Shomron, near the Mediterranean coast south of Haifa, stretching to the plain of Sharon, where the wineries of Recanati and Margalit are located. The Negev Desert has become viable through drip irrigation.

Galil Mountain Winery, a prominent producer in the rocky, high-altitude hills of the Galilee region, is also making wonderful wine. It’s not the most ambitious product, nor is it meant to be expensive, but there’s something tasteful and restrained about the viticulture and winemaking that helps create beautiful Cabernets, Sauvignon Blancs, and even a creditable Pinot Noir. That’s a winery I will be keeping an eye on.

The best Israeli wines have always been available in the United States, but not always easy to find. Naturally, New York City is a hub. If you can’t always find them in your area, consider ordering them over the Internet from a store like 67 Wine & Spirits or Sherry-Lehmann.

Israeli wines are good enough and have enough character that they should be talked about anytime wine comes up, not just at the Seder.

Jordan Mackay is a San Francisco–based wine and spirits specialist whose work has appeared in publications such as Gourmet, the Los Angeles Times, Food & Wine, and Decanter. Follow him on Twitter. Follow CHOW too, and become a fan on Facebook.