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Pour Man: Israel grows as winemaker

A worker picks Merlot grapes Daltwinery Galilee regiIsrael. | Getty Images

A worker picks Merlot grapes at the Dalton winery in the Galilee region of Israel. | Getty Images

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ISRAELI WINES TO TRY

Barkan, Carmel, Domaine du Castel, Galil Mountain, Gamla, Gilgal, Golan, Tishbi, Yarden, Yatir.

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Updated: February 20, 2012 8:01AM



It makes sense that Israel produces good wines because the Middle East is where wine was born.

For centuries Israeli wine was reserved for religious ceremony, and the less of it one had to drink, the better. But over the past decade or two, the country been producing some very good wines for consumers — wine to drink with food for earthly pleasure, not just the glory of God.

“Wine is mentioned 141 times in the Bible—more than God,” says Haim Gan, who runs the Grape-Man wine center in Tel Aviv. “We have a long history with wine.”

Israelis have a new relationship with wine, too, and they want to learn as much as they can. There are tastings now, and winery visits, and wine with dinner.

“A Jewish mother doesn’t say anymore, ‘Be a doctor or a lawyer,’ ” Gan says. She says, ‘Be a winemaker.’ ”

A few years ago, at a wine festival in Chicago, curiosity won out and I had my first taste of Israeli wine, a Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon. Folding my festival map I walked straight to the end of the line to wait for another pour. It was wine that would have been good no matter where it had come from. It was extra good because it was a nice surprise considering where it had come from — the rugged, dry Middle East.

Yarden wines taste just as good at Golan Heights Winery, where they’re made. The winery, one of the country’s largest, also makes Gamla, Gilgal and Golan wines, and all four labels are easy to find in Chicago. But there’s nothing like tasting them on their home turf. And the surroundings are staggering. No wine country visit can offer the incidental experiences that Israel can. Because the country is so small — “half the size of Lake Michigan,” our guide said — you are guaranteed to encounter mind-blowing historical sites without even trying.

“You see that flat spot on that hill there?” our guide said casually as he drove. “This is Armageddon. This is where the Bible says the world will end.”

Umm.

You could be deliberate about sightseeing — Jerusalem fires the imagination — but even if you are interested only in wine, you will encounter eye-blinking locales just by chance. Such as Armageddon. Or Christ’s tomb. Or the Wailing Wall. Or the intersection that was once the crossroads of the world and now has a left turn lane.

As a wine lover in Israel, you get the sense that you are there at the beginning of something, that someday it will no longer be novel to visit the wineries in the hills near the lovely Sea of Galilee — Golan Heights Winery and Chateau Golan — to cross the River Jordan and meander up a modern road, winding through clearly marked, cordoned-off mine fields. Abandoned Syrian army bunkers remain at the roadsides, now just concrete shells surrounded by vegetation gone wild.

The area lacks the lush saturated beauty of some other world wine regions, but Golan Heights and the larger region of Galilee have their own beauty, with volcanic soils, undulating terrain, rocky mountains and more green than your mind’s eye might picture when you think of Israel. There are dry brown swatches here and there but remember — this also is the land of milk and honey.

“There’s a lot of trial and error, and that’s what we’re doing right now,” says Uri Hetz, the winemaker at Chateau Golan. “You have to do an elimination process.”

This is why many Israeli winemakers produce several different styles of wine. They are trying to figure out which ones work best. At this point, at least five styles work well. For reds it’s Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot and Syrah. For whites, Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc.

Fear not kosher wines. Most Israeli wines are kosher but the quality has improved drastically since the 1970s, when the only thing we knew about wine from Israel was Manischewitz.

Plenty of Israeli wineries are primed for visitors, including Tishbi, with its delightful outdoor cafe and stylish tasting room. And fine restaurants abound, including Jerusalem’s Eucalyptus, which serves sophisticated cuisine based on the Bible, and Tel Aviv’s Herbert Samuel and Carmella Bistro, both modern, sophisticated restaurants that would not be out of place in River North.

The majority of Israeli wine — there are about 250 wineries — stays in Israel. The good news is, the wine that makes it here is some of the best. So before you go, you can get to know the wines.

In less than two decades, people in Israel have gone from not drinking wine or drinking cheap wine to having an interest in quality wine and pairing it with food, says Udi Kadim, the CEO of Yarden, which produced its first vintage in 1983 and has been refining its craft ever since.

“I never know whether to call it a revolution or evolution,” he says.

Michael Austin is a Chicago free-lance writer. E-mail thepourman@suntimes.com.



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