Move Over Manischewitz, Israeli Wines Gain Acclaim

W: An Arab worker pours Merlot grapes into a crate i i

An Arab worker pours Merlot grapes into a crate during the harvest for the Dalton winery on Oct. 7, 2009, in Kerem Ben Zimra, in the northern Galilee region of Israel. Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Getty Images
W: An Arab worker pours Merlot grapes into a crate

An Arab worker pours Merlot grapes into a crate during the harvest for the Dalton winery on Oct. 7, 2009, in Kerem Ben Zimra, in the northern Galilee region of Israel.

Getty Images

The wineries of Israel are gaining global acclaim. The days of kosher wine meaning bad wine are over, says Daniel Rogov, Israel's foremost expert on wines.

"The revolution is here," he says. "People all over the world have started to realize it."

Top Picks From Israeli Wine Expert Daniel Rogov

Earning 94 Points

Chateau Golan, Cabernet Sauvignon, Royal Reserve, 2005 (Golan Heights)

Margalit, Cabernet Sauvignon, Special Reserve, 2007 (Upper Galilee)

Yatir, Yatir Forest, 2005 (Negev) K

Earning 93 Points

Carmel, Limited Edition, 2005 (Upper Galilee) K

Carmel, Cabernet Sauvignon, Single Vineyard, Kayoumi, Upper Galilee, 2007 K

Carmel, Gewurztraminer, Late Harvest, Single Vineyard, Sha'al Vineyard, 2008 (Upper Galilee) K

Chateau Golan, Geshem, Royal Reserve, 2005 (Golan Heights)

Clos de Gat, Merlot, Sycra, 2006 (Judean Hills)

Clos de Gat, Ayalon Valley, 2005 (Judean Hills)

Clos de Gat, Syrah, Har'el, 2007 (Judean Hills)

Galil Mountain, Yiron, 2005 (Upper Galilee) K

Golan Heights Winery, Katzrin, 2004 (Golan Heights)

Golan Heights Winery, Cabernet Sauvignon, Elrom Vineyard, 2006 (GolanHeights) K

Margalit, Merlot, 2007 (Upper Galilee)

Margalit, Cabernet Franc, 2007 (Upper Galilee)

Pelter, T-Selection, Cabernet Sauvignon, 2006 (Golan Heights)

Pelter, Petit Verdot, T-Selection, 2006 (Golan Heights)

Yatir, Shiraz, 2007 (Negev) K

K denotes kosher

From renowned wine critics like Robert Parker and to respected journals including Wine Spectator and Decanter, "some of the most important critics in the world are writing positively about Israeli wines," he says.

But as with many things in that part of the world, there is controversy.

There are now well over 200 wineries in the region, most of them boutique operations that began in the last few years. That burst of production has come with little regulation as labeling is concerned. Even if wines are produced in areas like the occupied West Bank, the label on the bottle says product of Israel.

Rogov says he doesn't agree with the practice, but even he doesn't explicitly say if a wine was made on occupied land. Israel captured the West Bank in the 1967 war.

"In my books when I write about wineries I say where they are located. For example, this winery is located 3 miles from Hebron [in the West Bank]. I assume the intelligent reader knows what that means based on his or her politics. It's not for me as a critic to tell people what to drink or eat or do in regard to politics," he says.

Still he acknowledges, "Is there politics in wine? Your damn right there is."

Yoram Cohen founded the Tanya winery, named after one of his daughters, in the Jewish settlement of Ofra, near the West Bank city of Ramallah, the seat of government for the Palestinian Authority.

His first few bottles were made for relatives and friends. Now his production has expanded, as have the accolades. The wine is labeled as a product of Israel.

Cohen says he has a right to call his wine Israeli and the government allows it.

"There is no place that is more Israeli than the place that I come from. It's the Jewish heartland. The fact that Arabs have lived there for the past few hundred years doesn't mean that it isn't Jewish. So, of course it is Israeli wine," he says.

Debbie Zion represents the Yarden label, which comes from the Golan Heights, an area that Israel captured from Syria in the 1967 war.

Many of Israel's best wines are from the Golan, a rocky plateau above the Sea of Galilee.

"We started basically from nothing, from something that was really small. Because the wine consumption in Israel per capita per year was about two liters around 15 years ago, while today we are 4.5 — which is not a lot if you compare it to Australia or to France or to the United States, which is about 40 or something like that," she says.

Zion says despite the low rate of wine consumption among Israelis only a fraction of Israeli wine is exported.

"We produce about 5 million bottles a year, it mostly goes to the local market. We export as well. The United States is our biggest market. The entire Israeli market exports about 15 percent of what it produces, not more. Israel has some problems with image, you know," she says.

Most people who live in the Golan Heights are philosophical about the future, Zion says. If returning the land means peace with Syria, she says most winemakers there would probably agree to leave. Many have already started sister wineries in the nearby Galilee region in anticipation of a possible land deal.

"Wine was made here for centuries. We lost that history because Muslims had control of this area. We had to start all over again. We lost that history. We are not going to not use this area. We [will] produce wine for as long as we can," Zion says.

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