The Tura vineyard
On Drink

The wines of Israel

Israel’s wine heartland is now suffering from rocket attacks

This article is taken from the March 2024 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

The last time I went to a trade tasting of Israeli wines, I couldn’t believe the security. There were thorough bag searches, a scanner, burly guards and if your name wasn’t down, there was no way you were getting in. This was a few years ago but the way things are in London at the moment, it will be even stricter this year.

Despite having more acres under vine than Lebanon and Britain being the country’s third biggest export market, Israeli wine is pretty much invisible over here. Both Berry Bros & Rudd and M&S had a go at selling it a few years ago but today if you want to get hold of some, specialist kosher retailers are your best option.

It’s not like the country doesn’t have a rich winemaking history, as anyone with any familiarity with the Bible will know. Adam Montefiore in his history of Israeli wine writes: “Wherever there were Jews, there were winemakers.” This would have carried on under Ottoman rule, though most of it probably wasn’t of export quality.

Socialism and high quality wine don’t mix

As in neighbouring Lebanon, modern winemaking came about through European influence in the late nineteenth century. Similar varieties were planted too: high yielding French ones such as Carignan, Grenache, and Cinsault which were suited to the hot climate. The biggest producer, Carmel, was founded in 1882 by Baron Edmond de Rothschild from Château Lafite. Its Palwin sweet kosher wine is a stalwart among Britain’s Jewish community.

After the First World War, however, the burgeoning wine industry struggled, cut off from two of its biggest markets: Russia, because of revolution, and America, because of Prohibition. Palestine came under British control. Meanwhile Lebanon’s industry thrived thanks to thirsty and discerning French soldiers, engineers and bureaucrats.

After independence in 1948, Israel was essentially a socialist country; socialism and high quality wine don’t mix. Grapes were grown in vineyards on kibbutzes with an emphasis on quantity not quality, while Carmel had a near monopoly on production.

Israeli wine expert Tal Sunderland-Cohen told me that when he was growing up in the 1980s there was no culture of wine appreciation, though a lot of wine was made for ceremonial purposes. Change, however, was afoot. A group of ambitious growers in the Golan Heights, which was captured from Syria in the 1967 war, began working with a Californian consultant to make premium wines.

Meanwhile the economy was liberalising. Tax was lowered on imported alcohol and people picked up a taste for cheap, good quality Spanish and Chilean wine. So, despite being ancient, the modern industry really only took off in the 1990s.

Perhaps it was bad luck, but in the past the Israeli wines I tried seemed a little too Californian — think lavish oak, glossy texture and overripe fruit. But I’ve had some rather more fun wines recently.

I was particularly taken with Kishor’s surprisingly delicate grenache, syrah and mourvèdre, a wine that will appeal to Gigondas lovers, and Tura Winery’s crunchy fresh Limited Edition, a blend of marselan and dolcetto. Another exciting development has been the rediscovery of indigenous varieties like bittuni that are thought to date back to Biblical times. “Imagine tasting a wine that King David would have drunk,” said Sunderland-Cohen.

The atrocities of 7 October and the resulting war has hit the wine industry hard

Sadly, Israel is not very good at promoting its wares. Unlike in Hungary or Australia, there’s no state-backed trade organisation. Instead, writers such as Sunderland-Cohen in London or Adam Montefiore in Tel Aviv act like freelance ambassadors. Lebanon wipes the floor with Israel when it comes to collective marketing.

There are other reasons why Israel’s wines have failed to conquer the British market. All wines currently exported are kosher, made according to strict Talmudic regulations, and people associate the word with sticky wines like Palwin No. 10, drunk at their neighbours’ son’s bar mitzvah.

And the best Israeli wines are not cheap; Israel is an expensive country. But price doesn’t put people off Burgundy, California or Switzerland. There is something else.

Moshe Klein, whose company Drumstick imports wine from Israel, put it bluntly: “The word ‘Israel’ can mean trouble. It was always the reality and it’s even more these days.” Some of the most fashionable restaurants in London such as Honey & Co and The Palomar are actually Israeli but they brand themselves as “Middle Eastern” so they can pass under the radar.

Even then they might still be subject to attacks — Pita in Golders Green was smashed up in October, before Israel invaded Gaza.

The atrocities of 7 October and the resulting war has hit the wine industry hard. Nobody is visiting wineries, many staff have been called up to fight and people don’t feel like celebrating much. Israel’s wine heartland, Galilee, is up by the Lebanon border and is now suffering from rocket attacks from Hezbollah.

One such winery is Ramot Naftaly where Einav Cohen works. She said: These days, as the village is evicted, what was once our little piece of heaven has turned empty and lifeless.”

It’s hard to be optimistic but Adam Montefiore tries. He wrote recently: “On arrival in Tel Aviv, there was an air raid siren, just to remind us that we are in the middle of a war. The best antidote I know to stress is to drink wine.”

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