Hot Climates Win with Viognier

Viognier needs heat to ripen fully and to that end Israel and the Rhone valley have a lot in common.   A very temperamental grape that only grows in certain areas, viognier is a joy when done right.  It is often wonderfully aromatic, deliciously full bodied and a terrific food pairing wine.

More and More in Israel

Given Israel’s warm Mediterranean climate Viognier seems like a natural fit.  Plantings are increasing steadily and viognier really only shows its best when the vine gets a little older so we can see a very bright future for this grape in Israel.  Look for more and more examples of this wonderfully distinctive wine coming soon!

Viognier is one of the more distinctive white wine varietals in the world.  At home in the Rhone Valley in Southern France, this grape has great potential in Israel due to a favorable climate.  Amazingly aromatic and full bodied with excellent aging potential, this wine is often a treat to those who have never experienced it.

Harvested from the vineyards of Moshav Mata in the Judean Mountains
One of our favorite White wines.
A great wine!

wine regions of israel: classic flavors of the northern golan and galilee

It’s somewhat shocking to consider that a country the size of New Jersey has such wide variety in its winemaking terroir (the soil, topography and climate in which grapes are grown) that it has at least four distinct regions. Israel actually has five official, legally defined wine region appellations: Galilee, Judean Hills, Samson, Desert and Shomron. We are dividing our article slightly differently because the broadest swath of interesting kosher vineyards in Israel is concentrated in the Galilee, Shomron and Judean Hills regions.

With thanks to Tzvi Silver of our Jewish Link/Israel offices, we will discuss the regions as north (comprising the Golan Heights and the Upper Galilee), "east" (comprising Gush Dan, Samson, the coastal and Judean Plains), west (comprising the Jerusalem area, Judea & Samaria/Shomron) and south (the desert/Negev region).

Israel’s broad variety in terroir is likely one of the reasons why the winemaking world generally has not yet characterized with any certainty the unique nature of the “typical Israeli wine.” While a typical wine likely doesn’t entirely exist, in this series we are looking at both classic and new wines that have characteristics that have already or may yet become defining wines for Israel, in both the kosher and the secular world. “The fact that kosher wines from the Shomron’s Tishbi Winery, for example, are now on menus in restaurants and hotels as ‘a wine from Israel,’ and is not specifically listed on menus as kosher, is a sign of a growing trend for importers to market good-quality, high-end wines from Israel to the general population, rather than only to kosher-keeping consumers,” said Ami Nahari, CEO of The River Wine. This represents an important step in the growth of Israel as a winemaking region, he told The Jewish Link.

For this part one of four planned articles, my tasting group sampled both a white and a red from three vineyards in the north of Israel, with wines coming from the Golan Heights and the Northern Galilee. Notably, these are wines from the most temperate/coldest region of Israel; meaning the grapes experience extreme temperatures between the day and nighttime hours as they grow. Temperatures can reach close to freezing at night and can be very hot in the daytime. This results in wines similar to the Burgundy region in France, and for these reasons, the winemakers tend to riff off of French winemaking rather than California styles to bring out the best in their grapes.

Hayotzer Virtuoso Chardonnay 2016 and Genesis Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

Hayotzer is a brand-new boutique winery formed as a spinoff of Arza, the oldest winery in Israel, founded in 1847, and has been known for more inexpensive sweet wines and juices. The Shor family, the original owners of Arza, are still the owners of Arza and Hayotzer today. Hayotzer has begun exporting wines from its first vintage just this fall, with many wines placed under its aptly named Genesis label. Hayotzer’s French-trained winemaker, Philippe Lichtenstein, was the winemaker for Carmel’s Zichron Ya’akov wine cellars for many years.

The Virtuoso Chardonnay, made with 100 percent chardonnay grapes, has “an extremely cool bottle design,” said Aaron, but the nose was even more impressive. “Clean. Grapefruit on the nose but the citrus wasn’t as strong in the flavor of the wine,” said Brooke. Rather, upon tasting, some spice notes of vanilla and sugar cookie came to light. For that reason, we found it paired well with sweeter foods and would recommend it with lighter fare such as white fish, root vegetables and baked apples. It’s on sale at Wine Country in Bergenfield, as are all the wines in this article, for $19.99.

Hayotzer’s Genesis Cabernet Sauvignon 2014 is an extremely accessible wine. While it’s a rich red with a full nose of red berries, it’s also light in viscosity. My opinion on this wine, and the other Hayotzer reds I tasted this past Yom Tov season, is that Hayotzer is making “red wine drinker’s red wines,” meaning that people who love red wine will love Hayotzer. “There is that typically slight metallic nature and acid with this red,” said Jen. “This wine grew on me,” said Brooke, noting that her first opinion of it changed after the second taste. “Very drinkable,” she added. Wine Country’s sale price for this wine is a great deal at $14.99. I recommend the entire Genesis line as new wines to try along with Thanksgiving dinner.

Matar by Pelter Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon 2016 and Stratus 2014

Matar is the kosher winery spinoff of the non-kosher Pelter winery. Pelter, headed by Tal and Nir Pelter, is based in Tzofit in the Golan Heights. The award-winning non-kosher winery was established in 2005, and Matar, its kosher line, was established in 2012 to make Pelter’s “invigorating and elegant” wines accessible to a wider variety of customers.

The gold-skinned semillon grape is most commonly blended with sauvignon blanc and is classically grown in France’s Burgundy region or in Australia’s Margaret River region. There are very few semillon wines available that are kosher. The Matar Sauvignon Blanc/Semillon is an easy-to-drink crisp wine that “I just want to keep drinking,” said Allyson. “It’s smooth; I like the clean and subtle flavor,” said Shoval. It’s citrus and green melon notes along with its light green color makes the wine inviting and contributes to its overall pleasant and easy quaffability. Wine Country’s sale price for this wine is $29.99.

The Matar Stratus 2014, which is 90 percent syrah and 10 percent petit verdot, has a smooth, plummy nose with flavors of cocoa, red cherries and fall spices, like cloves and nutmeg. “It’s a dry red wine, which I don’t generally like, and I not only drank this but enjoyed it,” said Aaron. It has multiple layers of full-bodied flavor, which is attributed to the grapes coming from multiple low-yield vineyards in Ramot Naftali in the Upper Galilee. This was was aged 14 months in new French oak. Like the white we tried, it is also on sale for $29.99 at Wine Country.

Yarden Katzrin Chardonnay 2014 and Golan Heights Cabernet Sauvignon 2014

Yarden and Golan Heights Winery are among the most recognizable brands of Israeli wine, mainly because the Golan Heights Winery has a beautiful tasting room and touring facilities, which are part of many visitor itineraries on their first visit to Israel.

Yarden’s Katzrin line of high-end, sophisticated wines are known for their complexity and drinkability. The Katzrin Chardonnay, which retails for $28.99, did not disappoint. “This wine has a thicker viscosity than all the whites we tried,” said Brooke. Shoval noted the wine’s significantly darker color than the other whites in our tasting as well. The golden color of the wine is the result of nine months of aging in French oak, which results in smooth flavors of spice, vanilla and apple. This is a special-occasion wine that is sure to impress; it will certainly enable all kinds of wine drinkers to enjoy it. “I can’t imagine anyone not liking this,” said Allyson. Though kosher whites tend to not age well, this 2014 wine is tasting beautifully now and can also be cellared and saved for at least three to five more years.

The Golan Heights Cabernet Sauvignon was similar to the Katzrin in that it was balanced and smooth, with beautiful viscosity, and was easy to drink. “There are not-too-strong tannins here; the tiny bit of acid hits the back of the throat in a good way,” said Allyson. “This wine balanced; it isn’t too sweet or too dry,” said Jen. Brooke noted its rich flavor would go well with main courses, but also with desserts including berries or chocolate, as both of those deep flavors were present in the nose. The sale price is $24.99.

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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