An Israeli wine revolution began in the 1990s and it is continuing to this day. There has been nothing short of an explosion of new small boutique and domestic wineries. Fifteen years ago there weren’t even 20 wineries in Israel. Today there are 200. During the same period there has been a boom in all aspects of wine culture.
Serious wine shops have opened in many medium-sized towns, restaurants now have more professional wine lists and magazines and books about Israeli wine have been published. Furthermore a number of serious distributors have started importing wine from all over the world. Wine appreciation courses, winemaking courses and tasting clubs in Israel are oversubscribed. However the boom is best epitomized by the growth of Israeli boutique wineries.
The word ‘boutique’ is a bit of a misnomer. In France a ‘boutique’ is a shop. In Israel, the word ‘boutique’ has been hijacked to describe any winery producing either a few thousand bottles or 100,000 bottles a year. If the 10 largest wineries in Israel control well over 90% of the wine market, all the remaining ones are somewhat loosely covered by the term ‘boutique’ wineries.
Domestic wineries are not new in the Jewish tradition. The original ‘boutique’ wineries were in the 19th century in the Old City of Jerusalem, where wineries used to produce sacramental wine so the local Jewish community could make Kiddush. However the more recent phenomena grew in the 1990s in one of two ways. Either established vineyard owners decided to stop selling all their grapes to the larger wineries, but to use some of them to produce their own wine. Or people who made wine at home for a hobby, simply decided to put labels on their bottles and sell them. The wines were expensive but due to the growing interest in wine and the conception that anything small and localized was beautiful, they sold. This fuelled the boom.
The main difference between a boutique winery and a commercial winery is that in a boutique, there is usually one person or one family central to the whole project. The wineries are generally personal expressions of a dream that has come true and their wines are illustrations of the individuality, character and style of the owner/ winemaker. Each boutique winery owner, at whatever level, is likely to have a romantic side and a passion for wine. Furthermore, ach will have their own enchanting story of how their dream was conceived, how it developed into a vision and eventually came true.
The first vineyard owner to make the leap was Jonathan Tishbi. For a hundred years his family had grown grapes in the valleys surrounding Zichron Ya’acov. It was on a visit to Italy that he saw the light. There he observed that small vineyard owners often had their own wineries. He decided to follow suit by opening Baron Wine Cellars in 1985, which has since been renamed Tishbi Winery. It is now the sixth largest winery in Israel and produces a million bottles a year, so it is no longer a boutique winery. However Jonathan Tishbi was the first grower to build his own winery.
Another vineyard pioneer was Ronnie James of Tzora Kibbutz. After thirty years of tending the vineyards of the kibbutz, he decided to found the first kibbutz winery in 1993. Tzora Winery was also the first small winery to use all the grapes from their own vineyards, instead of buying grapes from elsewhere. Many vineyard owners and agriculturists all over the country were to follow the example of Jonathan Tishbi and Ronnie James.
Others began as home-based winemakers, where the hobby gradually became a business. The first of these of note was Chemistry Professor Yair Margalit, who became attracted to winemaking and was Tishbi’s first winemaker. In 1989 he began what was to become the first serious, high quality boutique winery in the country. He also influenced others to take up the challenge by acting as the guru for a number of new boutique start-ups and wrote a book on winemaking on a small scale, which was sold around the world. Today Yair is the elder statesman of Israeli winemaking and he has been joined in the family business by his son Assaf, who studied in California. Margalit Winery remains one of Israel’s finest. Yair Margalit is still involved in education, organising the Cellar Master Course at Tel Hai College, the county’s most serious wine academy. This is producing the future crop of boutique winery owners.
A famous winery where the winemaker was self-taught was Domaine du Castel. Eli Ben Zaken was a restaurateur, who taught himself winemaking out of a book. However the wine turned out to be pretty successful! Serena Sutcliffe, Master of Wine and Head of the Sotheby’s Wine Department, who tasted the 1992 vintage, said that it was the best wine she had tasted from Israel. Eli Ben Zaken then built his beautiful estate winery in an old chicken coop, at Ramat Raziel in the Jerusalem Mountains.
Canadian born Barry Saslove was another catalyst in the boutique wine revolution. Captivated by the world of wine, he first started giving innovative wine appreciation courses in the 1990s. With his expressive and enthusiastic style of lecturing, he captivated a whole generation of new Israeli wine lovers. He followed this by giving groundbreaking winemaking courses, which were attended by many of the new wave of boutique winery owners. He now has his own Saslove Winery, situated at Eyal Kibbutz, which he runs with his daughter, Roni Saslove.
Over 200 Israeli wineries
A host of new wineries have been founded following the footsteps of Yair Margalit, Ronnie James and Barry Saslove. There are now over 200 wineries in Israel from Odem Mountain in the northern Golan Heights at 1,000 meters altitude to Neot Smadar in the deepest Negev Desert, not far north of Eilat. Some produce wines that are far too expensive and not great quality; others are definitely international class, but all are making wines of individual character with pride and passion. There is enormous variety. There is even one, Mony Winery, which is owned by an Israeli Arab family. They make kosher wines …and it is situated in a monastery!
Since the year 2000 the pioneering boutique wineries have been joined by new larger-sized boutique wineries. The initial dream was the same, but the vision included a commercial aspect requiring swift growth. Examples are Yatir Winery in the south, Chateau Golan in the north and Clos de Gat in the middle of the country.
The dream of the vineyard owners in Yatir Forest, Israel’s largest planted forest, was epitomized by winegrower Ya’acov Ben Dor. The resulting joint venture between the growers of Yatir Forest and Carmel Winery resulted in the creation of the state-of-the-art Yatir Winery at Tel Arad, in the northeast Negev. Their precious vineyards in Yatir Forest, in the southern Judean Hills, are at up to 900 meters altitude. The winery is managed by Ben Dor, and the winemaker is Australian trained Eran Goldwasser.
Chateau Golan is an impressive looking winery, built with aesthetics in mind, on the southern Golan Heights. Businessman Shuki Shai combined with local grower Yitzhak Ribak, to build a mini cathedral to wine. The impressive looking wine cellar, complete with large pillars and the occasional art exhibitions, make a statement that wine is an art form. A series of innovative wines are made by Californian trained winemaker, Uri Hetz.
Genuine estate winery
Clos de Gat was the dream of Eyal Rotem. He built a winery in a stone building used by Yitzhak Rabin during the 1948 War of Independence. The winery is a genuine estate winery – the vineyards literally surround the winery. The name is a play on words. A ‘gat’ is an ancient wine press and sure enough, one can be found in the vineyards. Eyal Rotem studied winemaking in Australia.
Then there are the small boutique wineries. The really small ones are called ‘garagistes’. Some of the best of these are Pelter on the Golan Heights, Vitkin in the Sharon Plain, Chillag near Tel Aviv and Sea Horse in the Judean Hills.
The best boutique wineries have all made wine to excel internationally. Castel was selected as one of the best wineries in the world in a book by France’s two most famous wine journalists and became the first Israeli winery to score 90+ points in the famous Wine Spectator magazine. A Margalit wine scored a 92 on a visit by a Wine Spectator journalist to Israel and Yatir has scored over 90 points no less than five times in recent tastings in the United States. The 90 point barrier has been a big hurdle for Israeli wineries in the United States, so the success of Castel, Margalit and Yatir should not be underestimated.
Another guide of the quality of Israeli boutique wineries is their success in international competitions. Here also Israeli wines have excelled. Both Yatir & Saslove wines have both won gold medals in the prestigious Challenge International du Vin competition in Bordeaux and Clos de Gat has won gold medals and trophies in the Decanter World Wine Awards. There are too many competitions, many of which do not have great value, but a gold medal at the major ones still counts for something.
There is a new trend in Israel – wine tourism! Both Israelis & foreign tourists have discovered wine tours. It is possible to really get to know Israel through the spectrum of its wine industry by visiting the wineries and vineyards and of course tasting the wines from different regions.
Adam Montefiore works for Carmel Winery and regularly writes about wine both for Israeli and international publications.