Israel’s New Wine in an Old Bottle

A wine tasting session in Israel shines the spotlight on some delicious anecdotes about the drink's storied past, and its modern-day credentials.  
Wine in Israel
Red kosher wine and matzah, a crisp biscuit, are essentials for Passover, a spring celebration marking Jewish liberation from slavery in ancient Egypt. Photo by: Vlad Fishman/Moment/Getty Images

Wine tasting provides the perfect occasion for getting drunk and acting posh at the same time. But wine tasting in Israel isn’t simply tannins and body and acidity. It’s tannins and body and acidity wrapped up in the Bible, the Torah, and national self-fashioning. Can viticulture explain the broader culture? I won’t claim to have unlocked the DNA of the volk whilst degusting a citrusy Sauvignon Blanc and an unoaked Chardonnay one crisp evening in Jerusalem. But that wine tasting was certainly more than just sophisticated humbuggery.

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In the 1980s, wineries proliferated in regions like Judean Hills. Photo by: Richard T. Nowitz/Corbis Documentary/Getty Images

In a room lined with expensive looking bottles Efi Kotz asks if we have ever tasted Israeli wines. None of us has. Until arriving here I hadn’t even heard that Israel made wine, let alone make it well. Between us we have tasted old-world wines and new-world wines. But how do you adequately classify a very new nation of a very old vintage? “[Wine has] been here pretty much from the beginning,” says Kotz, the sommelier in charge, by way of an introduction. We are now entering Old Testament territory.

The modern wine industry is young, but don’t let that fool you. The original viticulturist was Noah, who after disembarking from the ark, promptly set up a wine yard. “And that,” says Kotz, “is the first vineyard mentioned in history.” Kotz, the in-house expert at the Mamilla Hotel, where the wine lesson is unfolding, is a jovial young man with a Jesus haircut. He aerates the stodgy pretentiousness of the exercise with this opening apocryphal lesson. “It’s a biblical story, so it’s a bit exaggerated,” he says. “But after he was saved from the flood he got drunk.”

The Bible is packed with alcoholic references. And thousands of years after this episode, Christ arrives. At Cana, somewhere in the region, he turns water to wine, serving notice of the shape of things to come. You can move from the first act of drunkenness to the first miracle of Christ without leaving this terroir at all. Of course, every country tries to signal its exceptionalism through its monumental firsts. But Israeli exceptionalism is itself exceptional, because the singularity of its people was not just forged with the rise of the modern nation state, but was already built into the fabric of the sacred texts. Jews are the chosen people. Israel is  the promised land. The use of the definitive article is, well, definitive.

Embattled pride has been one leitmotif of the trip. Earlier, blasting through my skepticism, Revital Levy-Stein, our guide, has upheld the cocktail tomato, the nation’s gift to the world, as the height of Israeli inventiveness. It follows then, that wine is simply another by-product of native smarts. “We are highly developed in agricultural technology,” she says. “That is why our young wine industry is so competitive.”

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Wineries in Golan Heights rocketed three decades after the state was formally established. Photo by: David Silverman/Contributor/Getty Images News/Getty Images

Following the post-Biblical lull, wine only reappeared in the 19th century. In the intervening years, after the Jews were exiled and scattered, the territory fell into successive periods of Muslim rule. Existing taboos dried up any alcoholic instincts in the region. Then in 1848 the first winery came up once the early settlers started to move here, a century before the state was formally established in 1948. But it wasn’t until the 1980s that anything resembling a nascent industry began to coalesce. Since then wineries have proliferated in the Golan Heights, the Judean Hills and the desert.

That evening we have to tilt our glasses forward and examine the depth and colour and translucency of the red liquid inside. “How would you describe it?” we are asked. Medium bodied says someone; full-bodied says someone else. There is much talk of tannins and their magical properties, but for me the wines aren’t simply spirits to be ingested with a smack of the lips and a grunt of pleasure. They are to be ingested alongside a large serving of palate-enhancing context. (The toasty lavash crackers are pretty good too.)

Unlike the dry reds we are handed, the early Israeli reds were sweet and low on alcohol, in keeping with sacramental wines of the religious rituals. “They were terrible,” says Kotz frankly, “Made by adding water and sugar.”

Those were the red wines intrinsically tied up with Jewish culture and ceremonially drunk on Sabbath days. “There is a Hebrew saying,” says Kotz, “about how wine makes one’s heart happy.” This, I can confirm, is true.

Kotz then remarks on the counterintuitive conquest of the white wines through the charts starting in the 1980s. Until then wine had been a ritualistic device, not an instrument of gustatory pleasure. When the first vintners bottled it and sold it for 68 shekels, it sounded designed to fail. “It was white, had no sugar, was six times the price, so why would anyone buy it?” he asks. And still, it succeeded.

Something had shifted. Wine had successfully been transplanted from its original role. Now, sacramental wines account for less than 15 per cent of the total. Israel has routinely been winning prizes at international wine contests. The world’s foremost wine critic, Robert Parker, has given them his blessing.

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At a wedding in Cana, somewhere in present-day Israel, is where Jesus performed his first miracle of turning water to wine, an act that has been pictorially recorded. Photo by: Hanan Isachar/Lonely Planet Images/Getty Images

Of course, since wine is closely bound up with religion itself, it is heavily regulated by dietary Talmudic laws. Rabbinical supervision determines whether something is kosher or not for the observant Jew. But like any other place, Israel has both orthodox and secular folks, so the country’s 400-plus wineries count in their number both kosher and non-kosher varietals. Kotz says he has a devil of a time fighting myths about kosher wines being subpar.

“I want to expose more people to our wine,” he says. “But by studying abroad I wouldn’t have helped myself or our wines.” He was to study in Europe, but he saw the syllabus and blanched. Even Moldavian wines made it to the list, but from Israel, there was nothing.

Now, global attention is converging this way. He believes the red made from the triumphant tannat grape could be the country’s decisive export. “If you return in five or ten years,” he says, “you will see more influence of this style. You will see more Israeli wines here and elsewhere in the world.”

Superpower designs? Who knows.

The exiles survived for millennia through hostility and returned to an arid landscape. Then they ploughed it. “We grow grapes in the desert,” says Levy-Stein. “Nowhere do they grow grapes in the desert. It makes it sweeter.” This isn’t just wine-based patriotism. Winemakers believe that bad soil makes for great grapes, from adversity arises awesomeness. Doughty grapes. How Israeli.

  • Bhavya Dore is a Mumbai-based freelance journalist. She was previously a beat reporter with the Hindustan Times. She usually writes on criminal justice issues, culture, books and sports.

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