Your first reaction to the words Israeli wine is probably to screw up your face and think, “Man, oh Manischewitz! That must be nasty.” It’s the Rodney Dangerfield of viticulture: It don’t get no respect.
But a new breed of Israeli winemakers is looking to change that. They’ll point to their microclimates, which produce exceptional cabernet sauvignon, cabernet franc, merlot, petit verdot, sauvignon blanc, and chardonnay grapes. They’re also experimenting with lesser-known varieties that are well matched to the sunny, hot Eastern Mediterranean terroir: carignan, marselan, and mourvèdre. Their facilities are increasingly state-of-the-art, their tasting rooms sophisticated and picturesque.
And yet … Israeli wine?
A great deal of the stigma owes to the reputation of sweet, grape juice–like kosher wine, much of which is boiled so it can be handled and poured by non-Jews and still remain kosher. But not all kosher wines are boiled, and not all Israeli wines are kosher.
“We don’t boil any wine,” says Elad Katz, CEO of Domaine du Castel. “That’s usually used in low-quality wines served at big events.” Domaine du Castel, located just west of Jerusalem, produces 300,000 bottles a year, 15 to 20 percent of which goes to the U.S. Its 2013 Grand Vin, a blend of cabernet sauvignon, merlot, petit verdot, and cabernet franc, received a 94 from Robert Parker’s Wine Advocate.
In fact, Parker has given dozens of Israeli wines ratings in the 90s, and gold medals at international wine festivals are becoming more frequent. The country now has 60 commercial wineries and some 300 boutique ones, situated mainly in and around the Galilee, Mount Carmel, the coastal plain, the Negev Desert, and the Judean Hills.
“It took the wine industry in California 100 years to get where it is today,” says Gil Shatsberg, head winemaker of Recanati Winery, “but we in Israel have done it in 30 years.”
Recanati produces a million bottles a year and in 2017 won six gold medals at the prestigious Challenge International du Vin in Bordeaux. Shatsberg says his winery’s future lies partly in reviving the region’s traditional grapes, such as bittuni (think of a cross between grenache and pinot noir) and marawi (similar to chablis). “We want to make wine that is well adapted to Israeli and Middle Eastern cuisine,” he says.
So, this month, as you prepare for Rosh Hashanah, put aside the boiled wine—your secret’s safe with us—and toast to a “shanah tovah” with a vintage from the homeland.