Not a Fan of the Heat

Pinot Noir in Israel can be difficult as the climate is simply just a little too hot for this finicky variety, but that doesn’t mean you can find great examples!  Wine lovers looking for great Pinot Noir should stick to the Golan Heights and other high altitude areas.  Galil Mountain and Yarden produce excellent examples at relatively inexpensive prices.  Outside of Israel one can find many great kosher expressions from New Zealand, California, Chile and elsewhere.

Delicate and Nuanced

The real beauty of Pinot Noir lies in its subtlety and shades of flavors that build upon one another for a truly remarkable experience when you get a good bottle.  There’s a reason Pinot is so romanticized!  This vaunted varietal often makes for a great food wine, flavors intense enough to go with everything but light and elegant in nature so it doesn’t overpower.

The hauntingly beautiful and often difficult varietal than can still find great expression in many Kosher wines…

Very nice Pinot, spicy, fruity, and well-balanced
Has incredible flavors of black cherry and strawberry
Aged for 10 months in large French oak barrels
It has a super light purple, ruby color.

wine regions of israel: the powerhouse winemakers of central israel

The wines my group enjoyed in this tasting all were from wineries that the average kosher wine consumer has heard of, even if he or she doesn’t know them well. Domaine du Castel, Flam, Psagot and Dalton are all “household names” that are part of Israel’s high-end, powerhouse wineries, the ones who make wines that are impressive in practically every situation. The wines we tasted would universally make great gifts, and we would encourage you to try both the ones we tasted, and other blends and varietals that strike your fancy from these wineries. We also thank Wine Country for providing these wines for our tasting and for placing them on sale at such deep discounts for the coming week so our readers will have an extra inducement to try them out.

This is our third of four tastings on Israeli wine regions, and the second half of our tasting on central Israel, focusing on bottles from the Judean Hills or Shimson (Samson), where many of the country’s most artistic, artisanal and successful wineries are located. Just to review once again, Israel has five legally defined regional appellations: Galilee, Judean Hills, Shomron, Shimshon (Samson) and Negev, but central Israel, that is the Judean Hills and Shomron, are really where a lot of the action is. It was a pleasure to try all these wines and to bring some of their stories to our readers.

Generally made from grapes grown on exalted ground just outside of Jerusalem, these wines in particular seem to celebrate the land and the promise of Israel, creating true joy in what the land produces. “We should celebrate what this land produces at every simcha, at every Shabbos table. I personally look to buy Israeli wines for my Shabbos table, where the laws of shmitah and yovel were adhered to, and terumah and maaser. You can’t get that with a California or French wine,” said Ari.

Domaine du Castel just celebrated its 25th anniversary; it was my pleasure to be at a tasting dinner in Manhattan this past November that celebrated Castel’s amazing rags-to-riches story and its wonderful French-style, award-winning wines that are known the world over. Founder, owner and head winemaker Eli Ben-Zaken, an entirely self-taught vintner, was there as well as his children Ilana, Ariel and Eitan, who all work with their father. The Ben-Zakens have built Castel into a world-class winery, bringing Israel to a greater standard worldwide. Their wines are regularly scaled by Wine Advocate and have been sold and written about by Sotheby’s; Daniel Rogov, z”l; Robert Parker; and every other wine critic of note.

While most of Domaine du Castel’s wines are meant to be aged and can even be considered investment purchases, Castel’s La Vie line of red and white blends seeks to bring a young, more entry-level wine to the kosher world. For me, the La Vie wines were accessible in a way many of the other Castels are not, mainly because of the price. I generally like to buy wines that cost under $25 and think the lovely Petit Castel ($50) or a Domaine du Castel Grand Vin ($89) is just too rich for an average Shabbat purchase. However, the name Castel means something, so La Vie presents an opportunity for someone like me to purchase a impressive, aspirational wine from a well-known vineyard, in my price range. Meant for drinking now, La Vie Blanc du Castel, ($17.97 at Wine Country) is 50 percent sauvignon blanc, 45 percent chardonnay and 5 percent gewurtztraminer. “It’s fresh; bracing and bold, with no acid,” said Chana. “There is a bit of sweetness and soft roundness. It would be good with a nice piece of fish,” she said. “It’s chardonnay-heavy, and that gives a lot of steely sweetness. I’m not used to unoaked whites like this. It makes the wine fruitier,” said Allyson.

The La Vie Rouge du Castel ($17.97 at Wine Country) is a classic young red blend, 50 percent cabernet sauvignon, 40 percent merlot, 5 percent syrah and 5 percent petit verdot. “Smooth, but surprisingly light,” said Aron. “This is a bordeaux for beginners,” said Chana. “This wine is not meant to be saved; it’s meant to be drunk now,” said Yeruchum.

Flam, similarly to Castel, is a winery based in the Judean Hills that is well-known for making home-run wines of international importance. We tasted the Flam Reserve Syrah 2014, even though we later found out that these grapes came from the Galil, in the north. However, we couldn’t throw this special wine out of our tasting, for any reason. “This is a powerful wine; it gets to all your senses. It’s full bodied and balanced,” said Yeruchum. “This is part of the kedushas of Eretz Yisroel,” said Ari. The fruity nose of cherries and cranberries combined with its heft and nice viscosity are clearly why this wine received 90 points in Wine Enthusiast. This a great wine; and 2014 was a great year for Israeli reds. If you love Israeli syrahs, you will love this wine. This wine is $39.97 at Wine Country.

To give a sense of the impressive nature of the next wine we tried, it’s interesting to note the Psagot Winery only opened in 2003, but has been busy winning awards and becoming well known for its craftmanship and artfulness. Because Psagot has become so well known for its reds (and we tried a Psagot merlot in our previous tasting), we tried the Psagot Viognier 2016. Viognier is a white wine grape we’ve gotten to know from our time studying Israel’s wine regions, and we’ve found it’s distinct from other whites like chardonnay or sauvignon blanc and so, so refreshing in so many ways. This wine is made with 100 percent viognier. Half of this wine was aged in new 500-liter French oak wood barrels, and the remaining half was aged in stainless steel tanks, so that the wine’s unique flavor doesn’t get lost in the oak, we assume. “This is so light; so fruity, but not sweet,” said Michal. “No tannins, and the fruit only comes at the end,” said Yeruchum. This wine is available at Wine Country for $18.97.

Last in our tasting was Dalton’s Petite Sirah 2014, from Shimshon. This aged in American oak for 12 months wine just took our breath away, with its nose of crushed red fruits and spice, and round, soft, chewy, pleasing tannins. The color was beautiful; the viscosity and mouthfeel was good overall. “This wine is warming, with notes of blackberry,” said Allyson. “Yum,” said Chana. “This wine is an incredible value and for people who love reds, this is a great one,” said Aron. This wine was also one of our best-value wines, at $14.97.

We look forward to concluding our wine regions series in the next few weeks, wrapping up with wines in the southern half of Israel, including the Negev. Thanks again to Scott Maybaum of Wine Country for curating the tasting. Visit Wine Country at 89 New Bridge Road, in Bergenfield. Call 201-385-0106.

wine in ancient israel

The Middle East & Eastern Mediterranean was the cradle of the world’s wine culture, and Canaan must have been one of the earliest countries to enjoy wine, over 2,000 years before the vine reached Europe. 

The oldest grape pips found in the regions of modern Turkey, Syria and Lebanon date back to the Stone Age period (c. 8000 B.C.E.).

Noah Plants Vineyard

The art of winemaking is thought to have begun in the area between the Black Sea, the Caspian Sea and the Sea of Galilee.  Indeed, the oldest pips of 'cultivated' vines, dating to c. 6000 B.C.E., were found in Georgia.  The biblical Noah was the first recorded viticulturist who, after the flood, "became a husbandman and planted a vineyard."  As The Book of Genesis relates, he was also the first person to suffer from drinking too much!

The vine then traveled south, through Phoenicia and Canaan to Egypt, the world's first great wine culture.  It is known that the Egyptians particularly prized the wine of Canaan.

Moses’ Cluster of Grapes

In the Book of Numbers, the story is told of how Moses sent spies to check out the Promised Land. They returned with a cluster so large, that it had to be suspended from a pole and carried by two men. Today both Carmel Winery and the Israel Government Tourist Office use this image as their logo. The grapes were chosen to symbolize how the land flowed with milk and honey. The vine was one of the blessings of the Promised Land promised to the children of Israel.

In recent years excavations have uncovered ancient presses and storage vessels that indicate a well-developed and successful wine industry existed in the area. Grapes, grape clusters and vines were frequent motifs on coins and jars found from ancient times.  Coins have been found commemorating the victories of the Hasmoneans and Bar Kochba with grapes featured as a symbol of the fertility of the country.  Many wine presses and storage cisterns have been found from Mount Hermon to the Negev.

Inscriptions and seals of wine jars illustrate that wine was a commercial commodity being shipped in goatskin or pottery from ports such as Dor, Ashkelon and Joppa (Jaffa). The vineyards of Galilee and Judea were mentioned. Wines with names like Sharon, Carmel and from places like Gaza, Ashkelon and Lod were famous. The earliest storage vessels originated in southern Canaan and were known as Canaanite Jars. Today they are better known by their Greek name, ‘Amphora.’

King David’s Cellar

The Kings of Judah were said to have owned vast vineyards and stores for wine. King David's wine holdings were so substantial that his court included two special officials to manage them. One was in charge of the vineyards and the other in charge of the cellars. This may have been Israel’s first sommelier! 

At this time the Jewish devotion to wine was clearly shown in their developing literature, lifestyle and religious ritual. Indeed, anyone planting a new vineyard was exempt from military service, even in national emergency.

In about 1800 B.C.E. there was a communication which reported that Palestine was "blessed with figs and with vineyards producing wine in greater quantity than water."  

The Book of Isaiah gives very clear instructions of how to plant care for a vineyard, even to the point of suggesting the wine press is close to the vineyard.

Micha's vision of peace on earth and harmony among men was illustrated with, "and every man will sit under his vine and under his fig tree and none shall make him afraid."

The wine produced was not just for drinking but also important for medical purposes, for cleaning out homes and dyeing cloth. It was also used as a currency for paying tribute.


Winemaking in Ancient Israel and was at its peak during the period of the Second Temple. It was a major export and the economic mainstay of the era. However, when the Romans destroyed the Temple, Jews were dispersed and the once proud industry forsaken. The Arab conquest from 600 C.E. and Mohammed's prohibition of alcohol caused many remaining vineyards to be uprooted,

The Crusades

The Crusaders briefly revived the cultivation of grapes in the Holy Land and grapes were planted in places like Bethlehem and Nazareth.  The revival was short lived, but the Crusaders did return to Europe with many noble grape varieties which had their origins in the Middle East. Varieties such as Chardonnay, Muscat and Shiraz are said to come from the region.

On the founding of the Ottoman Empire, the Middle Eastern wine industry was finally obliterated because of the decline in wealth of the whole region and the wars and epidemics which greatly reduced and weakened the populations.  Communities which had supported the wine industry finally departed. Prices of wine rose, consumption fell. Hashish, and later coffee, replaced wine as  affordable intoxicants.

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