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Israeli Snap Shots (May 1, 2008)

"A Katyusha rocket will take out 40 vines." That is just one of the hazards Avi Feldstein, the winemaker for Segal wines, has to deal with – along with deer, wild boar and grouse that devour his grapes.

We are standing in the Dovev vineyard in the Upper Galilee, within sight of a former Hezbollah outpost on the hilltop to the north that marks the Lebanese border. Until 2006 Feldstein had to be accompanied by Israeli soldiers whenever he went to tend to his mountain-top vineyard. Ten years ago he carved out 24 hectares of shallow terra rosa soil – "the rockiest vineyard in the north of the country" – and planted it to Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Shiraz, Sangiovese, Ruby Cabernet, Chardonnay and Muscat of Alexandria.

"I believe that Merlot in Israel, in such a Spartan place, can give great results," he says "When I come close to this vineyard my heart is singing. It was really grown from nothing."

Feldstein champions a grape called Argaman that he says could be a signature variety for Israel if grown properly. Argaman (the Hebrew word for "purple") is a cross between the Portuguese Souzao and Carignan, a vigorous, high-yielding grape that given its head can produce 50 tonnes per acre. Feldstein says that if rigorously cropped it could produce a quality wine. Daniel Rogov, Israel's leading wine critic, doesn't share that opinion. In reviewing experimental wines produced by the Israeli Wine Institute Rogov wrote of a non-vintage Argaman: "A wine that fails in every way. So watery that even the deep color that typifies this wine is lacking and with flavors that are flat and border on sour, this is a wine that fails in every way. Score 60 (out of 100)." Obviously over-cropped.

Daniel Rogov, who resembles the food critic in the movie Ratatouille, publishes an annual Guide to Israeli Wines. The 2008 edition contains reviews of 1,600 wines from some 150 wineries. It is already a little dated since Israel now boasts over 200 wineries in a country with a population half that of Ontario.

Rogov has watched the blossoming of the wine industry here. He recalls receiving a bottle of Golan Heights Winery Sauvignon Blanc 1984. "I tasted it and all the red lights started flashing in the brain. I thought, no, this new winery is playing tricks. Nobody can make wine like this in Israel. It was excellent. I know what they did! They imported some wine from France and rebottled it. I took my car and drove up to the Golan and without any announcement I just showed up. They took me through the vineyards; they showed me the equipment. I met the winemaker. I did barrel tasting and suddenly the penny dropped – you can make good wine in Israel."

Today the Golan Heights Winery is the third largest in the country with winemakers trained in California and France. Their wines are marketed under three labels – Yarden, Gamla and the early-drinking Golan. Their flagship wines (a Bordeaux blend and a Chardonnay) carry the Katzrin label.

The opening of the Golan Heights winery made Israeli consumers aware that their soil could produce good wine. In the early 1980s Israelis started to travel abroad in large numbers and began to realize that wine – hitherto not part of the Israeli lifestyle – was more than a beverage for sacramental use. Wine was, in fact, part of a cultured way of life. They returned to Israel from their travels in Europe and North America demanding better wines at home. This consumer ground swell coincided with a more discerning attitude towards dining. Four young chefs opened French and Chinese restaurants at that time. The old socialist ethic was dying. According to Daniel Rogov, "You didn't have to feel guilty if you spent more than 20 Shekels ($5) on a good meal."

Israel is at latitude 32° north, more south than Morocco, so growers look for the coolest sites to plant grapes. The first thing winemakers talk about when you ask them about their vineyards is elevation. It's the height of the vineyard, they say, that gives the wine quality and is the key to flavour. The Jerusalem Hills can rise up to 800 metres, the Galil and the Golan Heights to 1200 metres. Barkan, a winery with the largest vineyard holdings in Israel, markets a series of three Cabernet Sauvignons under the Altitude label which are grown at different elevations: +412 meters, +624 meters and +720 meters.

Dr. Ya'ir Margalit opened one of Israel's first boutique wineries in 1991 with the release of 80 cases of the 1989 vintage based on Bordeaux varieties. The winery sources its fruit from two vineyards – one in the Upper Galilee (7 acres of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot) and the other in Binyamina (2.5 acres of Cabernet Franc and a little Durif). Unlike most growers, Margalit does not irrigate his vines and is a believer in non-intervention. "It's not ethical to bleed off or freeze or do anything," he will tell you. "Just take the grapes and make the wine." To my palate, Margalit is making the best wines in Israel today – especially Enigma (a Bordeaux blend), which you could mistake for Mouton-Rothschild in a blind tasting.

The most marketing-savvy producer in Israel is Ottawa-born Barry Saslove. A former computer engineer, he considers himself first and foremost a wine educator. More than 3000 people have participated in his wine courses over the years. In 1993 Saslove started to make wine himself, and a year later began manufacturing wine for commercial distribution. In 1998 the Saslove Winery was established in Kibbutz Eyal. His Canadian roots find expression in a kind of cultural imperative. "I buy American oak barrels in Australia," he told me, "because I can get maple syrup flavours out of them." Barry Saslove's daughter Roni has applied to Brock University's CCOVI to study cool climate winemaking.

You could easily mistake Domaine du Castel for a Bordeaux château, not only the layout of the cellar and the rose bushes at the end of the vine rows but also because of the quality of the Grand Vin Castel and the Petit Vin. Yes, the labels are even French. The only white wine made here is a Chardonnay called "C" which could easily pass as a white Burgundy. In 1988, Eli Ben-Zacken, who then owned an Italian restaurant in Jerusalem, planted a vineyard next to his house in the Judean Hills. In 1992 he crushed his first Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which he released three years later. Encouraged by a glowing review by Serena Sutcliffe MW, he planted more vineyards, turned an old stable and hen house into a modern winery, sent his son Ariel to France to learn winemaking and convinced his son-in-law Arnon Gevato give up the insurance business to look after the vineyards. The results are stunning.

Seahorse is the name of a winery created by the diminutive Ze'ev Dunie, a film-maker. He made a documentary about wine in 1994 and fell in love with his subject. His two favourite wines are Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Zinfandel. Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, he says, are "classical music, suit and tie wines," Châteauneuf-du-Pape and Zinfandel are "jazz." His wines are named after artists and philosophers like Fellini, Munch, Lennon, Camus and Gaudi. He ages his Syrah in barrels used by Castel for Chardonnay.

Under Jewish kosher laws agricultural land must lay fallow every seventh year (Exodus 23: 10–11; Leviticus 25: 1–7). This, as you can imagine, causes a problem for winegrowers who cannot abandon their vineyards for twelve months. And if farmers stuck to the letter of the law, Jewish agriculture in Israel would collapse, because the Torah prohibits sowing, pruning, reaping, harvesting and plowing during what is known as a "shmita" year. A decision by the Israeli Supreme Court on October 23rd, 2007, legitimized a practice that had been going on for years – the symbolic sale to non-Jews of agricultural land which would then be repurchased from them at the send of the Sabbatical year.

Another aspect of winegrowing in Israel is also contentious: kosher or non-kosher. Both kosher and non-kosher wines are made from the noble European varieties in Israel and, although 90 per cent of wines sold in Israel are kosher, most small high-quality producers make non-kosher wines. It only becomes necessary for them to make kosher wines when they reach a certain production level and have to find export markets for their wines or to get them into the supermarket chains where most wines are purchased. As Daniel Rogov puts it, "there is no contradiction whatsoever be between the laws of kashrut (kosher) and the production of fine wine."

There is, however, a difference between kosher and mevushal. To be kosher the wines can only be handled by observant Jews. Certain highly orthodox Jews will only buy wines that have been pasteurized by heating. This tradition, writes Rogov, "dates to ancient times when wine was used by pagans for idolatrous worship: the Israelites used to boil their wines, thus changing their chemical composition so that it was considered unfit for pagan worship. Wines that are mevushal have the advantage that they can be opened and poured by non-Jews or Jews who are not Sabbath-observant."

The remarkable thing about the Israeli wine industry is the youth of the winemakers. They all seem to be in their mid-twenties. And nearly all of them have studied their craft abroad – in France, Italy, Australia or California. They are making up the rules as they go along rather like the Aussies and the Californians did in 1960s. There is a confidence in the industry that their wines will be recognized soon enough on the world stage. The thing that bugs them most is that Israeli wines get placed on the "Kosher" shelves of wine shops abroad rather than under "Mediterranean" or "Israel."




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