The basic story of Israeli wine is well known among kosher wine drinkers: The land of Israel was the cradle of the world’s wine industry in ancient times, until events overtook it, and then the production ended. The sands of time swept through, and the desert encroached and overwhelmed as foreign rulers came and went.

Fast-forward to the modern era when everything changed.

As Adam Montefiore, then with Carmel Winery and now an Israeli wine writer and consultant, once summed it up to me years ago: “Jews came to this land, made the desert bloom, started planting vineyards, making wine and in doing so began reclaiming their heritage and reviving this ancient wine-producing region.”

In short order, Israel developed a fully modern, internationally acclaimed wine industry. There were only 10 wineries in Israel in 1990, but today there are over 300. Today, Israel produces 40 to 50 million bottles annually (second in the region only to Turkey, which produces 70 million).

Every critical success for Israeli wine is celebrated and promoted among diaspora Jewish communities around the world. But what, exactly, is so special about making wine in Israel? Is it merely a Zionist ethos or related tribal solidarity that attracts kosher consumer devotion? Or does Israel offer something unique to the world of wine?

In search of answers, and a possibly deeper understanding of Israeli wines and the region’s terroir, The Jewish Week approached a few Israeli winemakers to hear their perspectives.

“Look to the historic roots,” suggested Israel Flam, patriarch of the Flam Winery. “Why was Israel the heart of the ancient wine trade?”

Amazing grapes: The production process in full swing at Jezreel Valley Winery. Photos courtesy of Jezreel Valley Winery

A legendary figure in the Israeli wine industry, the University of California Davis-trained Flam began as chief winemaker for Carmel in the early 1970s and is widely credited as a pioneer of Israel’s modern winemaking. Geography is all important to how wine will taste, he explains, though elevation, latitude, proximity to the coast and the aspect of the vineyard’s slope will go a long way towards determining style.

“Look to the area where Flam [winery] is now,” he says, “in the heart of the Judean Hills; look and you will find, from 2,000 to 3,000 years ago, signs of hundreds, if not thousands, of places where grapes were being processed and wines were being made. This is where it all began.”

The Judean Hills region, explains Flam, lies between the Mediterranean Sea and Jerusalem; a mere 25-30 miles away, the sea blows winds that help ventilate the vines. “We are a fortunate place,” he notes, “because our climate is very easy.” This rugged Judean Hills landscape “enjoys relatively hot, dry summers and mild, cool, wet winters” — a natural Mediterranean climate, in fact.

Elevations run between 1,300-2,600 feet, with even higher mountains rising behind the hills. The area is endowed with a thin topsoil of terra rossa atop limestone bedrock that is conducive to quality wines. This is why wine flourished there in ancient times, Flam suggests, and why Israeli viticulturalists and winemakers have been enthusiastically planting this area over the last two decades. This is also why dozens of wineries have sprouted up there.

“If you plant the proper varieties,” Flam declares, “we’ve proved over the last 20-25 years that top-end quality wines can be produced [here]. We are a tiny country, but we are recognized internationally for our quality. Just as we were in ancient times.”

“All in all,” says Yehuda Nahar, co-founder, CEO and winemaker of the Jezreel Valley Winery, “what is most unique about Israel is the freedom our industry has developed.

“All wine regions are different from each other,” he says. “Different soil, weather; it’s all different.” In Israel, however, “everything is new — we are all open-minded, there are no rules, we can do what we like … and besides, the Israeli mentality is to break the rules and be creative as much as you can.”

For Nahar, this freedom is a key cultural aspect: “We are flying ahead very fast, in a very unusual way, and we get more interesting wines as a result.”

The Flam family (patriarch Israel at left) and its vineyards, which lie between the Mediterranean Sea and Jerusalem. Photos courtesy of Flam Winery

While he is quick to complain about poor winemaking in Israel — the preponderance of overripe, or even raisined fruit and poorly managed extraction (wine speak for getting the flavor and color out of the grape skins and into the wine), and the overuse of oak — he believes the Israeli wine industry is continually moving in the right direction.

“The industry is very collaborative,” says Nahar. “We share information and insights; as an industry we are doing the right fine-tuning with the wines, approaching a real Mediterranean style — lighter, more fresh, more acidic and more appropriate to drink in a hot climate.”

“This is super important — the wine should fit the climate and the food of Israel,” he argues. “Less big, less macho and more precise, more elegant.”

This change is coming at a furious pace, Nahar says, “but it reflects the change of the personality of the Israelis — we started very big, strong, almost militaristic, and are now becoming more intelligent, more educated, more complex, more refined.”

This reminds me of something Ed Salzberg, former chief winemaker at Barkan Winery, once told me: “The growth of the modern Israeli wine industry went hand in hand with a transition from a society trying to build a state, to a society looking to appreciate the better things in life.” It is, of course, an ongoing story.

The result, argues Nahar, is a distinct evolution away from the often brash and sometimes overbearing facsimiles of New World-styled international grape varietals, like cabernet and chardonnay. Or, at the very least, the treatment of those classical varietals in a style more suited to the region.

“Each winery is doing it in a different way,” says Nahar, “but the commonality — which is actually, and importantly, market driven — is towards wines that are more fresh, and easy drinking, wines that fit our hot, Mediterranean climate.

“Some wineries, like us at Jezreel,” he says “are approaching this through our focus on varietal selection, locally appropriate varietals that make these sorts of wines.” There is “renewed interest in ancient varieties — like the marawi, dabouki and bittuni. (See story on page 2.)

“While other wineries are approaching this through their winemaking methods,” he continues, which is why even the cabs are being made in a “softer, more fresh” style.

Amichai Lurie, winemaker at the Shiloh Winery, is equally happy to talk about Israeli wine from this technical, and more broadly analytical vantage point. Given the chance, he will happily wax eloquent praising Israel’s unique micro-climates, diverse terroir, agro-tech innovations, can-do culture and general wine industry prowess. He never shies away, however, from the Jewish factor.

A staunch religious Zionist, Lurie is crystal clear on why making wine in Israel so special to him: “First of all, and I believe this with my whole heart, we have a spiritual advantage — the past 100 years is part of the geula [biblically prophesied redemption]; Israel went from 0 to 100 in no time flat and made the desert bloom.”

Courtesy of Shiloh Winery

As Lurie explains, the Talmud says [in Sanhedrin, 98a] that a clear sign of the redemption of the Jewish people is that the trees of the Land of Israel will start growing again, and that the re-flourishing of the land is an integral part of the redemption process. The Prophet Ezekiel declared: “But you, O mountains of Israel, will give forth your branch and bear your fruit for My people Israel, for they are soon to come (Ezekiel 36:8).” The Prophet Isaiah said: “For the Lord will comfort Zion… He will make her wilderness like Eden and her wasteland like a garden of the Lord… (51:3)”

What’s more, according to Lurie, the Prophet Amos says this rejuvenation of the land for the benefit of the Jewish people will be the result of the labor of those returning Jews: “Behold, days are coming —  the word of the Lord … I will return the captivity of My people Israel, and they will rebuild desolate cities and settle them; they will plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will cultivate gardens and eat their fruits (9:13-15).” So, while the land of Israel was desolate for others, it blooms for the Jewish people returning from exile to redeem the land.

Amichai Lurie, winemaker at the Shiloh Winery. “We have a spiritual advantage” in making wines. Courtesy of Shiloh Winery

In other words, insists Lurie, “our making wine here in Israel has the explicit endorsement and backing of HaKadosh Baruch Hu [the Holy One, Blessed be He]!”

This spiritual or religious advantage doesn’t end there. “We also benefit from having,” he argues, “so many mitzvot [biblical commandments] and halachot [Jewish laws] attached to wine, and to the land and the vineyards — orlah [prohibiting fruits in the first three years], shmita [sabbatical year], t’rumah [heave offering], ma’aser [tithes], pe’ah [corners of the field for the poor], Shich’chah [forgotten produce for the disadvantaged], peret [leaving fallen grapes for the poor] and olelot [leaving isolated grapes for the poor] … just a ton of laws around it all, and most of these can only be fulfilled in Eretz Yisrael [the Land of Israel].”

But, he insists, “it is such an honor to be able to fulfill these laws.” It is, of course, also a real challenge commercially, and requires dedication, perseverance and much forward planning. “Look,” says Lurie, “a winery’s business plan has to be adapted for this… Imagine observing shmita — no work and no income in the seventh year? Or giving out a percentage of your bottled wine to Leviyim and Kohanim? Or pouring out 1 percent of your entire production every year to fulfill ma’aser—that’s a lot of wine! —or giving away wine to the pour? This takes planning.

“But how can you come back to Israel after thousands of years,” he declares reverentially, “and not try to do all these mitzvot, and do them the right way? How can I be ungrateful to HaKadosh Baruch Hu by not doing everything in my power to fulfill his mitzvot?”

In fulfilling these commandments, and adhering to these laws, however, “I believe,” says Lurie, matter of factly, “that you can taste these advantages in the wine itself.” That the merit of righteousness is somehow imbued in the resulting wine.

Whether one seeks answers in Judaism and God’s promised redemption, in Israel’s natural endowments, the country’s technical innovations or the Israeli people’s cultural vitality and determination to succeed, one can begin to piece together a picture of how making kosher wine in Israel is different from everywhere else.

“As Israelis and as Jews,” muses Yehuda Nahar, “we will never be satisfied. What is going on right now in Israel is unbelievable. The last 20 years have been incredible. All that we’ve accomplished in our industry, and so quickly … and from that vantage point, the future seems boundless.” 

Joshua London writes the “L’Chaim” wine column for The Jewish Week’s food and wine site, jwfoodandwine.com.