Quality viticulture in Israel is young and was developing rapidly until the Hamas terrorist attack - but under completely different conditions than in Europe. Joachim Kaiser visited the wine regions with the Twin Winery Initiative. He brought back insights into a new, exciting wine culture.
A few months ago, German winemakers, wine merchants, sommeliers, scientists and journalists travelled to Israel at the invitation of the "Twin Wineries" initiative. They wanted to get to know the winemakers and wine regions, learn all about cultivation in the hot country and familiarise themselves with the wines. Due to the Covid pandemic, face-to-face dialogue had not been possible for a long time, but now the Israeli winemakers were expecting over 60 guests. At that time, peace still prevailed in the country.
The "Twin Wineries" are an initiative to promote German-Israeli dialogue. The network of winegrowers and wine lovers aims to create encounters for cultural and professional exchange, similar to the concept of municipal twin towns. The 22 German "Twins" include German VDP wine estates such as Heymann-Löwenstein, Nik Weis and S.A. Prüm from the Mosel, Prinz Salm and Gut Hermannsberg from the Nahe and Hans Wirsching in Franconia.
The "Twin Wineries" were founded by wine merchant Hohey Salzman and his wife Renée. She grew up in Germany and the couple lived in Brussels until 2005. During this time, they both got to know - and love - German wines. When they moved to Israel in 2007, they came up with the idea of promoting exchanges between German and Israeli winegrowers. One winery from each country comes together, the winemakers exchange ideas and, in the best case, become friends. Today, 22 wineries in both countries are members of the Twins.
At the start of the initiative, however, Israel's wine community was still characterised by mass-produced wineries; the rise of Israeli quality viticulture only began in the 2000s. Today, around 250 wineries cultivate around 5,500 hectares of vineyards there, almost as much as in the German wine-growing region of Franconia. They are located at altitudes of between 100 and 1,200 metres, mostly with volcanic or limestone soils. At 63 per cent, almost two thirds of the wine produced here is red, while the proportion of white wine in the country is only 16 per cent. Predominantly Mediterranean and Bordeaux grape varieties are cultivated; the old, indigenous varieties have almost disappeared. So far, only the wine region of Judea in the centre of the country has a protected designation of origin. Here, the vines grow at an altitude of between 500 and 1,000 metres, and the cooling winds create an almost continental climate.
Although Israel is a red wine country, fresh white wines, Germany's domain, are currently becoming increasingly popular in Israel. Especially in the very hot summer. German winegrowers are also learning a lot from their Israeli friends, for example when it comes to adapting cultivation to climate change. As a hot, Mediterranean country, Israeli winegrowers have had to gain experience with heat, drought and water management at an early stage. Without irrigation, many farms could barely survive.
The Israeli winegrowers also had a lot to tell their German colleagues about dangerous pests during the trip. For example, the mealybug (Planococcus ficus, vine mealy bug) is causing them massive problems. It taps into the sap-carrying conduits, which causes mould. It also transmits GLRaV viruses, which cause the dreaded leafroll disease. The mealybug is difficult for winegrowers to combat: there is still no cure for the virus infestation. In the event of an infection, winegrowers can only uproot the vines, burn them and replant the vineyard.
And something else is different to Europe: most of the larger wineries are run kosher, i.e. in accordance with Jewish religious dietary laws. This is usually not so much for religious reasons, but for economic reasons: small wineries with less than 40,000 bottles sell their wines from the farm in Israel. However, a larger quantity can only be sold in Israel - and in the USA - if the entire customer potential is addressed. As almost all Israeli supermarkets and hotels are kosher, production according to these rules is necessary for sales. For the two major Jewish festivals, Passover and Rosh Hashana, employees in the companies receive a gift basket, which usually also contains wine. These are the most important seasons for wineries. Catering companies also only serve kosher wines at events.
In order to produce them, winegrowers must follow strict rules: Work in the vineyard and cellar must be supervised by a rabbi. The winery may only process grapes from vines that are at least four years old. The vines must be grown in monoculture; olive trees also have no place in kosher vineyards. Harvesting is prohibited every seven years, and no organic material may be spread in the vineyard in the weeks before the harvest. However, the rules also have a great influence on everyday cultivation: tools and equipment must be thoroughly cleaned under religious supervision. Vinification may only be carried out by a pious, male cellar master who strictly adheres to Jewish religious laws. On Shabbat, i.e. between sunset on Friday and Saturday, no one is allowed to work in the winery - no matter how big the problems are or how high the pest pressure is. The use of fire or switching on electricity is also prohibited during this time. Fermentation must be spontaneous, pure yeasts are prohibited, as are enzymes. No products of animal origin may be used for vinification or fining. There is also a rule that one per cent of the wines from a vintage must be donated to charity free of charge. Women are also prohibited from entering the winery during menstruation.
However, the strict religious laws offer room for manoeuvre: each rabbi decides independently whether or not to award the kosher seal. If one rabbi does not, then perhaps another who does not interpret the dietary laws quite so strictly will. There are also ways out: for example, if a winegrower who is not strictly observant is not allowed to harvest in the seventh year, he simply gives the vineyard to a colleague, who then gives him a vineyard in the seventh year in exchange. In this way, no rules are broken and the work continues. The programme included visits to many wineries with their individual approaches, methods, grape varieties and strategies.
Kishor is based in the Galil wine-growing region. The region has more water than the rest of Israel and is therefore green and fertile. Kishor was founded in 1997 as a "Home For People With Special Needs" with the aim of creating a living community with the greatest possible freedom for people with and without disabilities. Around 150 employees and 180 people with disabilities live and work here. In addition to the winery, Kishor runs other projects, such as the production of commercials in his own TV studio. The vineyards were planted in 2007. The oenologist Itay Lahat has three degrees: Horticulture, oenology and an MBA. Lahat previously worked for Barkan Wine Cellars, Israel's largest wine producer. The 2019 Ein Yafam is powerful with dark berry fruit, notes of black pepper and spices, complex, multi-layered and long. It is now slowly beginning to mature.
The Margalit Winery was founded in 1989 by Yair Margalit, but has been producing wine on a small scale since 1983. The winery is the oldest boutique winery in Israel. Margalit initiated Israeli quality viticulture and has written three books on wine. His most significant contribution to the rise of Israeli viticulture has been the Cellar Master Programme at Tel Hai College since 2004, the first academic programme in Israel to focus exclusively on viticulture and oenology. Yair Margalit initiated the programme and ran it for a long time. Today, his son Asaf is the winemaker. Margalit owns three vineyards in Carmel and Galil and produces only 30,000 bottles. He only uses free-run pressing during production. The white grape variety Margalit Blanc is interesting: the spontaneous mutation of Cabernet Franc is an exclusive selection for him. The highlight of the tasting was the 2004 Cabernet Franc with a twelve per cent share of Cabernet Sauvignon. You could be forgiven for thinking that the wine had only been bottled yesterday, were it not for its harmonious balance.
Sphera in Judea is the only winery in Israel that produces exclusively white wines. Winemaker Doron Rav Hon studied viticulture in Burgundy, and no other Israeli winery can offer a white wine collection at this level. He does not irrigate the vines and does not use BSA or bâtonnage. The surprise: his Riesling is so typical that it could also come from Germany: Mineral and fruity with fresh acidity. The 2022 Signature is dense but not opulent and offers subtle flavours of flint and grapefruit with 13 percent alcohol. But his Semillon, aged in tonneau, with ten per cent Sauvignon Blanc also demonstrates the high standard of the winery.
Anne and Moshe Celniker worked as physiotherapists for over 20 years and only founded the winery in Judea in 2002. But their wine roots run in the family: Anne Celniker comes from a family of winemakers in Alsace. Her son Stephan has since taken over the job of winemaker. He is currently testing the Argaman grape variety, which was bred in Israel in the 1970s from Carignan and Souzão. Argaman is resistant to heat and drought, which is an advantage due to global warming. The barrel sample impresses with its intense, deep violet-blue colour and tart aroma, strong tannin and good acidity. The fruit is rather red berry. Argaman is offered as a single variety by some wineries and has the potential to become Israel's leading variety.