Viticulture has a long history in the land of Israel, dating back to antiquity. However, after the Muslim conquests of seventh century, and particularly after the Ottoman conquest of 1516, winemaking became a largely forbidden activity in Israel, and most vintners were only allowed to grow grapes destined for the table, not the bottle.
So in 1882, when Jewish immigrants to the new settlement of Rishon Le’tzion planted one of Israel’s first modern vineyards, they were unsure as to what vines to plant. They experimented, planting some local varieties, including grapes that were known to be good table grapes, along with cuttings of a few European grapes, one of which was Carignan.
Named for the town of Carinena in the Aragon region of Spain, Carignan is a late-ripening, hardy, high-yielding, black grape that grows well in warm climates. While, today most of the world’s Carignan is grown in France, and is indeed that country’s most planted black grape, in Israel this has been the dominant variety for more than a century.
“Today it is true that there are more hectares of Cabernet Sauvignon planted [in Israel],” says Adam Montefiore, the wine development director for Carmel Winery, and its subsidiary, Yatir Winery. “But because of overall higher average yields, Carignan is still the leading variety in terms of tons harvested, with approximately 20 percent of the total wine grape harvest.”
While in Israel, Carignan may be a perennially prolific grape, it has hardly ever been used to make quality wines, and is most often used as the base for sweet sacramental wines, or as a blending grape in inexpensive table wines. However, when harvested from decades-old vines with very low yields, Carignan has the potential to produce wines of real quality. And in the last few years, a few Israeli wineries have started to produce some remarkable wines from old-vine Carignan.
So for this month’s Fruit of the Vine we tasted three Israeli old-vine Carignans, in what turned out to be a very enjoyable tasting. All three wines were both unique and memorable.
The best wine in the tasting was Recanati’s Reserve Wild Carignan, Kerem Ba’al, 2009. This full-bodied, dark purple-colored wine was made from Carignan grapes grown in a non-irrigated vineyard on vines that were planted more than three decades ago. Look for flavors and aromas of cherries, cassis, blackberries, raspberries and smoky oak, with notes of anise, allspice, cardamom, leather and pipe tobacco. Well balanced, with powerful-yet-supple tannins, this wine should drink well for the next two or three years.
Score A. ($55.99. Available at Columbus Wine and Spirits, 730 Columbus Avenue [Manhattan],  865-7070)
Also excellent was Carmel’s Appellation Old-Vine Carignan, Zichron Ya’acov, 2007. Dark garnet in color, this full-bodied wine was made from Carignan grapes grown on 30-year-old vines in a vineyard near the winery’s headquarters. With a bouquet of cherries, red currents, cassis and oak, and flavors of cassis, cherries, red currents, raspberries and oak — with hints of cedar and spice — this delightful wine should be able to drink well for the next two years.
Score A-. ($23.95. Available at Skyview Wine and Liquors 5681 Riverdale Ave. [Riverdale],  601-8222)
The bargain of the tasting was Binyamina’s Reserve Carignan 2009. Made from old-vine Carignan grapes grown in the Lower-Galilee, this full-bodied, dark garnet-colored, fruit-forward wine has flavors and aromas of cherries, plums, blueberries, raspberries, and oak, with floral notes, and a hint of espresso and pencil shavings. Drink within the next two to three years.
Score B+. ($18.95. Available at Skyview Wine and Liquors 5681 Riverdale Ave. [Riverdale],  601-8222).
While Israel will no doubt continue to make excellent wine from popular international varieties such as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, such wines do not have a distinctive Israeli character. Israeli old-vine Carignan, however, is a unique wine, with a unique flavor — one I believe is both uniquely Israeli and well worth trying.
Gamliel Kronemer’s Fruit of the Vine column appears monthly.