Wednesday, 12 August 2009

Wine-making flourishes in land of the Bible

Wineries, both large and small, are cropping up in Israel and are keen to raise their profile internationally.

ELLA VALLEY, OUTSKIRTS OF JERUSALEM REUTERS - The drink of biblical kings is being revived in Israel, with wineries keen to raise their profile internationally.
Wineries, both large and small, have cropped up throughout Israel, many of them on the sites of ancient vineyards, helped by modern techniques from the world's top wine-making countries.

"Two thousand years ago the eastern Mediterranean was the France and Italy of ancient times. Now in the last few years, the world of wine has learned that again the eastern Mediterranean, meaning Israel, is starting to make wines, world class wine," said Adam Montefiore, marketing director for Carmel

Winery, at a wine-tasting festival in Jerusalem this month.

Robert Parker, a well-known wine critic, heaped praise and points on some 40 Israeli wineries. Fourteen of them took more than 90 out of a maximum 100 points in Parker's rating system.

Weighing in with 93 points was the red 2003 Yatir Forest label from a Carmel subsidiary.

Founded by the Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, an early 20th-century Jewish philanthropist, Carmel is Israel's first and largest winery, owning about 40 percent of the country's wine market.

Along with 200-odd rival wineries in Israel, Carmel has been applying methods learned from France, Australia and California, to locally grown grapes.

"Even though Israel has been making wine for 5,000 years, we feel in the last 10, 15 years, Israeli wines are really making world class wines," Montefiore says with pride.

The vast majority of Israeli wines are kosher, a rabbinical seal that can stir up associations with the syrupy libations of religious rituals.

Yet Israeli wine critic Daniel Rogov says that kosher wines can be excellent.

"Today, you'll find that people are looking for Israeli wines that meet international standards and the good thing is we are actually producing wines like that," he says in an interview at a bustling wine store in Tel Aviv, Israel's business capital.

Montefiore says Carmel produces a range of wines both for those who want to "drink wine without tasting it" and for experts. Prices range from $10 to $100 a bottle. Half of his annual production of 15 million bottles is exported to the United States, Europe and Asia.

Founded in 2002, the family-owned Pelter winery in the Golan Heights benefits from the cool climate and water-rich terrain of the plateau, which Israel took from Syria in the 1967 war.

Sam Pelter, whose son Tal founded the winery after extensive wine-making studies in Australia, says he combines Australian techniques and technology with Golan grapes to produce his award-winning wines. They sell for between $18 and $50 a bottle, and are exported to the United States and Europe.

Pelter's best-known wine is Trio 2007, which took a double gold award at Finger Lakes competition in New York. A blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot and cabernet franc grapes aged 14 months in French oak barrels, it has hints of fruit and cocoa.

Chris, a visitor from the United States attending the Jerusalem festival, described Trio 2007 as a "different and surprising" wine.

Other tourists also expressed surprise over the lightness of Carmel's red wines, and the sweetness of their whites.

"For my taste, (the red wine is) a little on the light side. I'm looking for a red wine that has the kind of body that I would find in, say, a good robust Australian red wine," said Malcolm Kessin of Atlanta, Georgia.

"All the sauvignon blancs I tasted are all sweet and in other countries, they don't tend to be sweet, they tend to be very dry," said Monica Letero, another foreigner.

But while Israel's wine industry is blossoming, Rogov says vintners have yet to sort out the best of Israel's 42 grape varietals.

"We have to find out which grapes are most suited to our particular sub-climates, different regions of Israel, et cetera, which is no sin," Rogov said. "Remember -- we're still young."