A research project at Israel’s Ariel University has discovered 150 indigenous grape varieties, and some are being used to make wine. For publication week of 7 March 2016
Israel’s wine industry will experience dramatic change over the next decade as winemakers embrace grapes from Biblical days. That is the considered opinion of Dr Shivi Drori, head of the oenology laboratory at Ariel University.
Dr Drori and colleagues have identified 150 indigenous varieties since 2011. About 20 are suitable for wine production, he said. Israel was exporting wine “before the French were even thinking about making it,” he said. “We have a very ancient identity and reconstructing this identity is very important for me. It’s a matter of national pride,” he said in Tel Aviv earlier this year.
Winemaking effectively stopped for almost 1,250 years after Muslims occupied the region from 638. Baron Edmond de Rothschild, a member of a famous Bordeaux family, helped restart the local industry in the 1880s.
Dr Drori’s team found grape seeds at a range of locations including historic water sources, ruined villages mentioned in the Bible and archeological digs. He believes seeds found in donkey faeces at an archeological site in Timna must have come from pomace, the residue left after winemaking, because animals would not have been fed fresh grapes. Copper mines were operating in Timna during King Solomon’s reign in the 10th century BC.
Recanati Winery has produced the first wine from indigenous varieties, specifically the white Marawi grape. A tasting of the first vintage, the 2013, was provided to a small group of wine journalists at Sommelier 2016 in Tel Aviv. A Palestinian viticulturalist grew the grapes but the wine was made by a Jew, Ido Lewinsohn. “The grape is neither Jewish nor Palestinian, but belongs to both,” he said.
Dr Drori said Marawi was probably grown as a table grape. The wine has a creamy mouthfeel, after fermentation in neutral oak. It tastes a bit like a Muscadet from the Loire, though with less acidity. Winemakers struggle to get acidity in wines in Israel because of high temperatures during the ripening season. This wine has low acidity, and received no malolactic fermentation, a technique winemakers often use to lower the levels of acidity in wines.
Lewinsohn also showed his 2014 Recanati Reserve “Wild” Carignan from vines planted 25 years ago that received minimal irrigation. This vibrant and perfumed wine has masses of rich black fruit flavours plus aromas of mocha coffee with a nice zingy touch of acid and soft tannins. “It’s our local expression of Carignan,” Lewinsohn said.
Dr Drori owns a boutique winery, Gvaot, founded in 2005 near his home in a West Bank settlement. He makes about 50,000 bottles from his 3-hectare site, planted in 2000, and also sources fruit from another 3 hectares nearby. “We are looking for grape varieties that work best,” he said, “because of the huge range of terroirs in Israel.” Dr Drori believes Chenin Blanc, Cabernet Franc and Pinot Noir offer the best potential in his region. “Chenin Blanc is very versatile. It can age well,” he said, noting that he plans to put some of his 2016 vintage in new oak. His delicious 2015 Gvaot Chenin received no oak. The 2014 Gvaot Pinot Noir was one of the most pleasant pinots we tasted in Israel. Dr Drori believes this fickle grape needs to be planted in valleys because cold air falls and keeps vines cool. He stores his Pinot in old oak to respect the quality of the fruit.
Dr Drori said in the Jewish religion red was generally considered more sophisticated wine, which explains why nine in 10 bottles made in the country are red. But over the past three years he has noticed a move towards rose and white. Few vineyards make only white: The Sphera estate, discussed in an earlier column, is one of the few with a white focus. “About 70 per cent of vines in the country are red but the situation is changing dramatically.” He noted people were planting more Gewurtztraminer and Sauvignon Blanc.
Another trend was the making of more sophisticated reds using Petit Verdot and Shiraz, though the latter needed to be grown at significant elevation to get elegance. “Carignan also has potential, as does Mourvedre. The main way to get good fruit is through controlled stress, using low amounts of water. Grapes under stress produce more intense flavours.” His current work is a continuation of his PhD research in agriculture.
One of Israel’s best wineries is Golan Heights Winery, with 588 hectares on 17 sites. The vineyard’s logo is a traditional oil lamp, also the symbol of the region. These old lamps burned olive oil, which was made in the same area as the wine.
A tasting at the winery showed why wines from there are considered the benchmark for the country. The Cabernet Sauvignon has been made since 1983 and is a selection of the best fruit from the best vineyards. The 1987 vintage won the first gold medal for an Israeli wine at an international competition. The current 2012 vintage continues the pursuit and achievement of excellence.
The 2008 Blanc de Blanc from 100 per cent Chardonnay from the northern Golan Heights is full of crunchy green apple zing. The clarity and spirit of this wine made it memorable. Another fine wine was the 2015 Yarden Pinot Gris, the company’s first foray with this grape variety. It has aromas of Chinese pear with elegant minerality and acidity, and would be a delight with steamed or fried dumplings. So would the 2015 Yarden Gewurztraminer with its spicy aromas of tropical fruits, musk and lychees.
The 2014 Yarden Odem Chardonnay comes from a single vineyard from the highest elevation in the country (1,200 metres) that has been organic since 1996. Israel gets almost no rain from May to September, noted associate winemaker Michael Avery, which meant that disease pressure “is significantly less than in other parts of the world,” making it easier to be organic. The Chardonnay is rich and layered with profound mineral and toast notes. It is the most awarded white in Israel.
Disclosure: Stephen Quinn was a guest of the Israel Export & International Cooperation Institute which provided airfares and hospitality.