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Israel’s wine industry has come a long way in 5 years

A carignan vineyard

 Six years ago I came to Israel and five years ago I started writing for ESRAmagazine as a wine writer though I've also expanded my coverage to include Israeli beers, spirits and the culinary scene.

Back in 2009, I made some initial observations after my first year living in Israel exploring the wine industry. I had been "into wine" for about thirty years as both an enthusiast and later a professional.

I thought it would be intriguing to look back on what I had written then for observations and predictions, and then look at the industry now to see where it seems to be heading.

                        Whites Gewurztraminer and Roussanne join popular reds like Cabernet Sauvignon

Since 2009, many international wine magazines and websites have discovered that Israel is making more and more world class wines. Although Israel remains only about the 50th biggest producer of wine (depending on how you measure) with 35 million bottles produced annually, but many of its wines continue to win more and more international competitions against wines from the most established and recognized wine regions.

In 2009, I asserted that Israeli winemakers who were looking to establish a unique brand in demand for wine tourism and that exports needed to break out of the Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot & Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc trap of focusing mostly on international grape varietals that almost every "New World" producer was making if not better a whole lot cheaper. These grapes do continue to be dominant because of local demand and there are great examples of each that prove they deserve to continue to play a major role. BUT there is a much wider variety of grape varietals making headway since 2009. This is encouraging for those of us who want to see more Israeli wines on the shelves of wine shops and on restaurant wine lists overseas especially non-kosher shelves and lists where there's a market of potential billions instead of a few million kosher consumers inside and outside Israel.

For whites, Viognier, Roussanne and Marsanne (all "Rhone whites"), Semillon and Chenin Blanc have become much more prevalent and respected if not revered alternatives to Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc for premium dry white wines. A few White Rieslings add to the selection of "aromatic" whites including Gewurztraminer, Viognier and Muscat, which appear on shelves as semi-dry, semi-sweet and dessert wines. Also, there is more and more experimenting blends of premium white wines that have been viewed as being successful while Emerald Riesling and Colombard continue to dominate the market for inexpensive "bulk" semi-dry (slighty sweet) white wines commonly found in supermarkets. There's even now a couple of new wineries that have been focusing on just making white wines which in a warmer region like Israel might seem like an act of folly, but hopefully they will encourage other boutiques to make more whites that help quench the heat of diners and imbibers in Israel's long warm summers.

Although Chardonnay still rules the rooster as far as whites, more variations in style are becoming common. More wineries are veering away from aggressively oaked Chardonnay to non-oaked or lightly oaked versions that accentuate the fruit over the butter and vanilla of previous incarnations.

In 2009, rosés were on a slight rise from a few to now dozens. More and more are dry rosés and not tepid semi-dry tame and lame rosés of Israel dating back to the 70s. More and more Israeli rosés are serious attempts to rival rosés from the best producers in the world and there some impressive expressive, complex and balanced examples (both dry and semi-dry) from well-respected producers. The stature of rosés in Israel is important since they are a popular alternative to white wines in other Mediterranean regions where red wines tend to be much more prevalent than white. 

                                        Carignan, Petite Sirah and new blends add to array of reds

As far as reds, many of my predictions have borne fruit. Previously disparaged varietals, such as Carignan and Petite Sirah, which were used mostly as workhorse grapes in cheap mass-market wines or as bolstering varietals for other grapes have earned more and more starring roles as grapes sourced from reclaimed older vineyards have become the source of premium wines. Older vineyards that were once deserted since their yields were too low for mass-market wines are often ideal for producing lower yield crops with concentrated flavors. This shows that even some traditional workhorse grapes used for less expensive wines can create quality wines with the right treatment in the vineyard and winery.

The locally developed Argaman has so far failed to attract more than a few wineries to its cause even though it has produced some good wines by skillful winemakers.

Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec, which in 2009 were almost used exclusively for blending by most wineries, have become more visible on the front label of their own single varietal wines. Cabernet Franc has emerged as a popular alternative to Cabernet Sauvignon that has similar flavors but can be more floral with more food friendly acidity. This in a warmer climate can be key where natural acidity in grapes can be challenging to achieve in the vineyard without sacrificing ripe fruity flavors.

Syrah, also known as Shiraz, is continuing to challenge the dominance of Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot and may one day out produce the two. Syrah has led the charge for more red and Rhone varietals including Grenache, Mourvedre and Marsellan for reds and Viognier, Marsanne, Roussanne and Grenache Blanc for whites, which might be a better fit for a larger swath of vineyard than cooler acclimated Bordeaux or Burgundy varietals. An interesting trend is also to add a small percentage of white Viognier (2-6%) to Israeli Syrahs as is often the practice in France's northern Rhone Valley. It's thought this small amount helps stabilize the color of the wine but also adds a bit of complexity.

For premium red blends, Bordeaux blends (any combination of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot and Malbec) continue to hold dominance but Rhone, Mediterranean and unique blends are making more inroads.

Winemakers have also been showing a preference for making wines with lower alcohol by harvesting their grapes earlier and less ripe. Less ripe means less sugar and less sugar means less sugar to be fermented into alcohol. This trend delivers wines seen as easier to drink and being more food friendly.

Italian, Spanish and Portuguese red grapes aren't uncommon in Israel but have failed to gain the popularity of French counterparts. Sangiovese, Barberra and Nebbiolo are the most common red Italian varietals with Tempranillo, Touriga Nacional and Tinto Cao representing the Iberian Penninsula. All these grapes have delivered quality wines but suffer due to poor name recognition.

The array of sparkling wines hasn't changed dramatically in the last five years and I don't expect it to change dramatically in the next five. The cost of equipment and the amount of expertise and labor involved that is above and beyond what's already required to make still wines is seen as discouraging to many larger wineries, never mind the hundreds of smaller ones. There doesn't seem much traction for any more than a half a dozen wineries to make dry "brut" Champagne style sparkling wines with more demand and suppliers for more approachable simpler "frizzante"( slightly bubbly), sweet Moscato style wines.

Dessert wines were seen as a reminder of the sacramental sweet syrupy wines of Israel's less than glorious not so distant past that had given Israel a bad rap. In 2009, only a few wineries were willing to risk ridicule for comparison to the past (though their dessert wines were most often praiseworthy). Today, as the improving reputation of Israeli dry wines impart more and more confidence to winemakers to not let the sins and perceptions of the past shape the future, we're seeing a much wider selection of often spectacular dessert wines from both red and white grapes. Dessert wines from red grapes are often fortified with alcohol similar to Port. White dessert wines are often late harvest wines or made similar to ice wines where the grapes are frozen to concentrate the flavors. "Noble rot" dessert whites are few and far between, but as a whole dessert wines are expanding as a category. Some fruit wines also add to the spectrum of decadent distractions with pomegranate, cherry and passion fruit the most notable offerings.

I am looking forward to what the next five years will bring including more varietals and styles, new blends, a continuing increase in quality and through my efforts and those of others a wider appreciation for what Israel has to offer in wine for its citizens, its visitors and curious oenophiles overseas. 



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Wednesday, 07 June 2023

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