The Best Grape you May Have Never Tried

Chenin Blanc is often overlooked as it is not as well-known as a varietal, but it is definitely one to discover!  There is often a place for off dry whites on the table as they go with many dishes and foods that dry wines simply cannot handle.  For example, a kiss of sweetness in an off dry Chenin Blanc can be the perfect accompaniment to anything overtly spicy or savory. 

A Little Bit in Israel

Due to Chenin Blanc’s minor reputation Israeli has only scarce plantings of this grape.  However, the Mediterranean climate bodes well for the more luscious sweet and off dry styles of this wine.  California, however, is usually where Kosher wine lovers can find fantastic examples of this underrated grape.

At home in the Loire Valley and adopted as the main white grape of South Africa this world class white grape makes a range of styles from dry and piercing to wonderfully round and off dry.

Crisp and fresh, with a lush bouquet of nectarine and pineapple.
This is a wonderful bottle. Great fruit, color and complexity.
A full bodied white wine with aromas of guava and tropical fruit

wine in modern israel

By the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, there were fourteen wineries in existence. Eliaz Wine Cellars (1952) and Askalon-Carmei Zion (1950) were founded in the early years of the state. Eliaz was named after Eliezer Seltzer, who was killed in the War of Independence. It was founded in a failed perfume factory in Binyamina. Askalon was founded by the Segal family, who had previously opened a distillery in the Sarona settlement.

James Rothschild, son of Baron Edmond, took over his father’s interests in Palestine. In 1957 he arranged to donate the Rishon le Zion and Zichron Ya'acov Wine Cellars to Carmel. Thus the involvement and interest of the Rothschild family in the Israel wine industry extended from 1882 until 1957.

In 1957, the Israel Wine Institute was formed in cooperation with the industry and government. It was initially managed by an agronomist and oenologist from France. Initially, many wines were generically named, but in 1961 Israel was a signatory of the Madrid Pact and names such as Port and Sherry disappeared from the domestic market place.

The main wineries at this time were Carmel Mizrahi, Eliaz , Friedman-Tnuva (forerunner of WEST -Stock), Askalon, and Mikveh-Israel. The main areas of vineyards were the valleys surrounding the southern slopes of Mt. Carmel, and the central Judean Plain & Judean Foothills.

By the 1960's, Carmel, controlled over 90% of the vineyards in Israel. Most of the red wines were based on Carignan, and medium dry white wines were made from Semillon. Carmel Hock, Grenache Rose and Adom Atik, were the most popular table wines. In 1971 Israel’s first varietal wines – a Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc – were released in the export market by Carmel.


In 1976 Carmel made a legendary Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserve, which was Israel’s first international style quality wine. It was the first wine aged in small oak barrels and aged in bottle before release. It was to be the forerunner of the quality revolution.

In the 1970’s Professor Cornelius Ough, from the University of California at Davis, changed the course of Israeli wine. After visiting the Golan Heights, he reported back that the Golan Heights would be a perfect site for growing high quality wine grapes. The first vines were planted there in 1976.


This set the stage for the quality revolution which began in 1983 with the founding of the Golan Heights Winery, which immediately sought the assistance of Californian winemaker Peter Stern. He was to be the winemaking consultant for the next twenty years.

The Golan Heights Winery re-invented Israeli viticulture and brought New World winemaking techniques to Israel, using the cooler climate vineyards of the Golan.

When Yarden wines were exported to America by the Golan Heights Winery, they were referred to as Israel’s first world class wines. In 1987 at the International Wine & Spirit Competition in London, the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 1984, won not only a Gold Medal, but also the Winiarski Trophy as the best red wine in the Competition. It was the first of many international awards.

Tishbi Winery was founded in 1985. Jonathan Tishbi, whose great grandparents planted vineyards for Rothschild in the 1880’s, became the first vineyard owner to decide to build his own winery.


In 1990 Barkan took over the Stock – WEST winery (previously known as Friedman Tnuva), which had gone bankrupt. The new owner grew their business to become the second largest winery in the country.

The boutique winery revolution began in the 1990’s. Tzora Kibbutz and Dalton followed Tishbi’s example of adding a winery to established vineyards. Yair Margalit and Eli Ben Zaken decided to establish their own wineries, resulting in Margalit Winery and Domaine du Castel respectively.

Dr. Yair Margalit was a chemistry professor, who studied winemaking in California, opened his boutique winery in 1989. Eli Ben Zaken was self taught. By a stroke of good fortune his first wine got noticed by Serena Sutcliffe MW, head of the Sotheby’s Wine Department. Both Margalit and Castel showed that smaller wineries could also make world class wines.

The 1990's really saw the coming of age of the Israeli wine market. During these prosperous years, Israel went through a cultural revolution in terms of food & wine.


The larger wineries reacted to the boutique winery boom. The traditional, historic wineries of Israel: Carmel Mizrahi, Efrat, Eliaz and Askalon were renamed Carmel Winery, Teperberg 1870, Binyamina Winery and Segal Wines respectively, and they started a revolution of their own, deciding to re-brand, and focus on quality table wines.

The large wineries also invested heavily. Carmel built two new small state of the art wineries, Kayoumi Winery in the Upper Galilee and Yatir Winery in the Northeast Negev. They closed production at Rishon Le Zion and totally refurbished their Zichron Ya’acov facility. Golan Heights Winery opened a new winery called Galil Mountain, situated on the border with Lebanon. Barkan built a new advanced winery at Hulda and planted alongside it the largest vineyard in the country. They also bought Segal Wines. Teperberg built a new winery at Tzora.

Large commercial concerns entered the wine business. Tempo Beer Industries, the country’s largest brewery, purchased Barkan-Segal. The country’s largest beverage company, The Central Bottling Co., aka Coka Cola Israel, purchased Tabor Winery. The supermarket company Hezi Hinam bought Binyamina Winery. A Recanati, from the famous industrialist & philanthropist family, founded the Recanati Winery. An international consortium of investors from Israel, USA, UK and France purchased Carmel.

The international recognition Israel started receiving for its wines was a major step forward. The Wine Spectator’s New York Wine Experience, open by invitation only to the leading 250 wineries in the world, invited Yarden to participate. French critics Bettane & Dessaume selected Castel as one of the wineries featured in their book “The World’s Greatest Wines.” Hugh Johnson’s Pocket Wine Book awarded a maximum four stars to Castel and three to four stars to Yatir. The Wine Spectator chose Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon as one of their Top 100 Wines of The Year.

The Wine Advocate, owned by Robert Parker, the world’s most influential wine critic, began regular tastings of Israeli wines. In the first tasting Yatir Winery scored 93 points, then the best score for an Israeli, kosher or Eastern Mediterranean wine. Since then Castel, Margalit, Clos de Gat and Yarden have each also achieved this score.

In wine-tasting competitions, Israeli wines have also been to the forefront. Yarden, Barkan & Recanati wines, in particular, have been prolific in collecting gold medals worldwide. In particular, three awards have stood out. Vinitaly gave the Trophy for ‘The Best Winery’ to the Golan Heights Winery. The Decanter World Wine Awards awarded the prestigious International Trophy to Carmel Winery. The Wine Enthusiast awarded the Best New World Winery Award to The Golan Heights Winery.

Today there are 40 wineries harvesting 50 tons or more, 250 boutique wineries and many more garagiste or domestic wineries. The largest wineries in Israel are: Carmel, Barkan, Golan Heights, Teperberg, Binyamina, Tabor, Tishbi, Galil Mountain, Dalton & Recanati. The main grape varieties planted are Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan, Merlot & Shiraz/ Syrah. Israel has 5,500 hectares of wine vineyards. The main wine growing areas are the Upper Galilee, Golan Heights, Mount Carmel, Judean Plain & Judean Hills.

Israeli wine has certainly arrived!

what defines kosher wine

The ‘K’ word is problematic for Israeli wineries producing wines of international standard, that just also happen to be kosher. Many wine consumers are quick to assume the word ‘kosher’ is a derogatory statement of quality. However the results of tastings and competitions have proved a point. Kosher wines can be world class, receive good scores and win international awards. Mark Squires, a specialist on Israeli wines, wrote in the Wine Advocate: “No one should avoid wines simply because of Kosher certifications.” He went on to say that being kosher was generally irrelevant to the judgment whether a wine was good or not.

Not all wines produced in Israel are automatically kosher. In fact there are more wineries producing non kosher wine in Israel. However more than 90% of the Israeli wine produced is kosher. This is because, without exception, the largest wineries only produce kosher wines.

What is a Kosher wine?

Adhering to the Jewish Dietary Laws (kashrut) is essential for all orthodox Jews. The word ‘kosher’ means ‘pure’. Kosher wine laws were established in ancient times, so an observant Jew could avoid drinking ‘Yayin Nesech’ – a wine used by non-Jews to make libations for idol worship and ‘Stam Yayin’ – ordinary wine made by and for non-Jews. Customs learnt over a number of years continue, making these the oldest of all wine laws.

At The Winery

For wine to be certified as kosher, the following regulations need to be followed at the winery.

1. Only religious Jews may handle the product and touch the winemaking equipment from the time the grapes arrive at the winery. The definition of a religious Jew for this purpose is one who is ‘Shomer Shabbat’ – who observes the Sabbath. Therefore a Jewish winemaker who is not orthodox is not allowed to draw samples from the barrels. It can be frustrating for a hands-on winemaker, but though it is a nuisance, it does not affect quality.

2. Only kosher items or substances may be used in the process. Yeasts, fining & cleaning materials have to be certified as kosher and must not be derived from animal by-products. Examples of fining agents not permitted, include gelatin (animal derivative), casein (diary derivative) and isinglass (because it comes from a non kosher fish.) Kosher wine is perfectly suitable for vegetarians – and if egg white is not used for fining, also for vegans,

In The Vineyard

Kosher wines produced in France, Italy & California, only have to observe these two criteria. In Israel – ‘Eretz Ha’ Kodesh’ (The Holy Land), kosher wine producers also have to observe the following agricultural laws which date back to the agrarian society in Biblical times:

a. Orlah . For the first three years, fruit from the vine may not be used for winemaking. The flower buds are removed to prevent fruit formation. In the fourth year the vine can bear fruity and a winemaker is permitted to use the grapes.

Interestingly most wine growers will anyway choose not to use fruit for the first few years for quality reasons.

b. Kilai Ha’Kerem – Cross breeding. Growing other fruits between the vines is prohibited. In southern Europe, a domestic winery may train its vines high, and grow its vegetables underneath. This would be prohibited, but anyone interested in quality has abandoned this practice anyway.

c. Shmittah – Sabbatical Year. There is a law recorded in the Bible which states that every seventh year, the fields should be left fallow and allowed to rest. However because of economic realities, a special dispensation is given to relieve farmers of this requirement and the land is symbolically sold to a non Jew for the duration of the seventh year. The idea of resting the land or introducing a nitrogen cycle is a common practice in today’s agriculture.

d. Terumot & Ma’aserot. This is a symbolic ceremony when over one percent of the production is poured away in remembrance of the ten per cent tithe once paid to the Temple in Jerusalem.

Both Shmittah and Terumot & Ma’asarot are the hardest to explain, being almost seen as voodoo-type practices by outsiders. In fact both give a strong message of social justice and egalitarianism. The concept of giving the land and its workers a one year sabbatical and reserving part of the harvest for the poorer strata of society, was a socially progressive idea in Biblical times. These practices address the most profound issues of spirituality v.’s materialism, but remain mainly symbolic.

There are only three basic categories of kosher wine which will appear on a back label:

Kosher. Permissible for Jews, who observe the Jewish Dietary Laws.

Kosher for Passover. Wine that has not come into contact with bread, grain or products made with leavened dough. Most kosher wines are also “Kosher for Passover”.

Kosher le Mehadrin. Wine for which the rules of kashrut have been stringently approved.

So far it may be seen, there are rules full of ritual & tradition. Notice though, there are no regulations affecting the quality of the wine and standard winemaking procedures are followed in the harvesting, fermentation, maturation, blending and bottling.

The issue of Mevushal Wine is more controversial.

Yayin Mevushal.

‘Mevushal’ wines must be flash pasteurized to 175 degrees fahrenheit or 80 degrees centigrade. The requirement relates to wine handling and service, but is only relevant to orthodox Jews and is usually only required in the context of kosher catering. If a wine is mevushal, a non-observant waiter is permitted to serve the wine, to a strictly religious person. Usually it is the lesser expensive wines used in kosher banqueting that may be mevushal, but without doubt, the best quality Israeli kosher wines are those which are not mevushal.

Kiddush Wines

The category that has done untold damage to the image of kosher wines are the infamous Kiddush or Sacramental wines. Often tasting like sugared water, the importance to the consumer has always tended to be price and religious certification rather than quality. These wines are usually made from a mixture of must and wine, a mistelle, and often from Labrusca varieties. They are often used by Jewish communities or families to make kiddush – the blessing over wine on Friday night.

The custom grew because a sweet wine lasted from week to week and the children also liked it. Also Christian communities seeking wine from The Holy Land will also use similar wines as Altar or Communion wines. Interestingly sales of kiddush wines are in decline as religious families turn to grape juice or table wines instead.

Finest Kosher Wines In The World

The kosher certification provides a similar quality assurance to the ISO systems. All raw materials like yeasts, barrels and fining agents have to be prepared under the strictest quality and hygiene standards. Origin and traceability are key. No winemaker may use anything in the winemaking process, which is not thoroughly checked and approved beforehand.

Israeli wine represents for the religious Jew the largest range and best quality kosher wines in the world. Some of Israel’s finest prestige wines, which are leading the charge for Israel wines to be considered truly world class, are also kosher.

For the rest of the world, Israeli wines represent high quality, from an exotic region in the Eastern Mediterranean, and it is of secondary importance if the wine is kosher or not. The objective for wineries producing kosher wines remains ‘to make the best possible wines…. that just happen also to be kosher!’

Product Added to Cart