About Israeli Wine

A Brief History of Wine in Israel

It’s no surprise, but often not thought of, that for centuries, the Middle East and the Eastern Mediterranean was the cradle of the world’s wine culture. Ancient documents show Canaan as one of the earliest countries to enjoy wine, over 2,000 years before the vine reached Europe.

From Noah—planting some of the first recorded grapevines for wine—to the spies who surveyed the land and saw that it was good, wine has played an integral part in the history of the land of Israel. Spoken forth by many prophets, wine was symbolic of God’s plan of redemption. For centuries, it played a role in the society, economy, and traditions of faith in Israel for the Jews and later, Christians.

Ancient Israel had a thriving wine industry, as evidenced by the excavation of buried wine presses and storage vessels and reached its peak during the period of the Second Temple. The Roman destruction of the Temple resulted in the dispersion of the Jews from the land and the once proud wine industry was forsaken. Following the fall of the Temple, the Arab conquest from 600 A.D. and the prohibition of alcohol in Islam caused many of the remaining vineyards across the land, especially in Judea and Samaria, to be uprooted.

For a short period, Crusaders in the Holy Land briefly revived the cultivation of grapes, and vines were planted in places like Bethlehem and Nazareth. However, the restoration of the land was short lived. Fortunately, when the Crusaders returned to Europe, they managed to bring with them many noble grape varieties, such as Chardonnay, Muscat and Shiraz, which originated in the Middle East.

On the founding of the Ottoman Empire, the wine industry in the Middle East was erased due to a decline in wealth of the region, wars, and epidemics which greatly weakened the populations. Many Jews and other people groups which had supported the wine industry departed to make home in other lands.

“Israel has been making wine for 5,000 years. In the last 20 years or so, it’s turned out to be rather good. In the last 10 years, it’s been an absolute wine revolution.”

Adam S. Montefiore

But hope was not lost for those who longed to return again and plant grapevines in the hills of their forefathers. A call to come back to the land arose the hearts of many Jews, who began settling in and among their Arab neighbors in the mid 19th century. From the days of the Ottoman reign until that time, the grapes in the region were grown exclusively for eating. The renewal of winemaking in Israel began in the mid 1800s and developed into a real industry in the late 1880’s. It started as a “cottage industry”, making wine at home to supply Kiddush (sacramental) wine for the religious Jewish community or communion and altar wine for Christian pilgrims seeking “wine from The Holy Land.” The first recorded evidence of this was in the Old City of Jerusalem, when the Shor family started making wine there in 1848.

Like the grapevines in Israel, which started diversely, were spread around the globe, and then made a return, the people of Israel began to make “Aliyah” (or “ascent”) back to the land in greater numbers in the late 1800s.

In 1882, Jews from Russia and Romania set up new villages in the land, then known as Palestine. They sought financial assistance from Baron Edmond de Rothschild, a banker and art collector in Paris, who also owned Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux, France, one of the most famous wineries in the world.

Baron Rothschild, offered to the immigrants support financially. But he also, like Moses in the biblical narrative, commissioned a report to survey the agricultural possibilities in the “Promised Land”. The recommendation by his experts was to plant vineyards and in 1882, the first vineyards were planted and proceeded to thrive. In 1887, Baron Rothschild visited the land now known as Israel for the first time and fell in love with the area surrounding Mount Carmel, the place where scripture says Elijah called down fire from heaven. Rothschild thought this region could be the Tuscany or Provence of Israel so he was determined to create a wine industry. Rothschild brought in the best agronomists from France, winemaking expertise from Bordeaux, and the finest equipment money could buy to ensure his project was a success. With that, the first modern commercial wineries began in Israel.

Wine in Modern Israel

It is a marvel how the rootstock (or trunk) of a grapevine can hold and grow various varieties of grapes at the same time. This is accomplished by grafting new grapevines into the existing vine.

The grapevine and its resulting wine are wonderful metaphors for the nation of Israel, which once grew wild, was uprooted, replanted, and then migrated back to its original soil. The land of Israel has been home to diverse people groups for centuries and as a result still carries political, religious, and emotional weight and debate. In 1948, Israel was declared an independent state and has since fought for her right to settle the land.

Israel is beautiful, in part, because the nation stands as a symbol of diversity and unity.

A small country, about the size of New Jersey, Israel is located on the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea and is bordered by Egypt, Jordan, Lebanon and Syria. The nation of Israel—with a population of more than 8 million people, most of them Jewish—has many important archaeological and religious sites considered sacred by Jews, Muslims and Christians alike, and a complex history with periods of peace and conflict.

Like the wine industry, the gastronomic scene in Israel has combined recipes, ingredients, and flavors from all over to make Israel (and especially Tel Aviv) one of the food capitals of the world. Combining both Ashkenazi and Sephardic Jewish influence, neighboring Lebanese, Syrian, and Turkish flavors, and quality Arab cuisine, Israel is truly unique in its approach to uniting diverse people through their palates.

Israel Close Up

Mirroring the diversity of the people of Israel, the winemakers and the wine varietals grown in the land are numerous, distinct, and rich.

During the Second World War, the wine industry began to grow again. By the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, there were fourteen wineries in existence. Today there are 40 wineries harvesting 50 tons or more, 250 boutique wineries and many more “garagiste” or domestic wineries with just over half of them considered Kosher.

In such a climate, tending vineyards and producing wine is an act of courage and of optimism. I have enormous admiration for the majority of Israel’s winemakers… Surrounded by anger, dogma, devastation, deprivation, mutual suspicion and… politics, they offer the possibility of hope for a better future.

Tim Atkin, MW
The Observer/Off License News

Wine Varietals and Regions

Israel boasts traditional and unique varieties to the region as well as Bordeaux style blends. The three most heavily planted varieties in Israel today are Cabernet Sauvignon, Carignan and Merlot followed by Shiraz, Argaman and Petite Sirah. Most of the best red wines are either Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot or Shiraz varietals or Bordeaux blends based primarily on Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. The main white varieties producing the finest white wines in the region are Chardonnay and Sauvignon Blanc. There are also fantastic White Rieslings, Gewurztraminers and Viogniers.

"Israel is on track to make wines with a distinctive style and taste. It’s an amazing turnaround for a nation that has been mostly overlooked in the world wine sweepstakes."

Kim Marcus, The Wine Spectator

The land mass of the nation of Israel is a mere 7,992 sq. miles stretching just 263 miles from north to south. Despite its small size, Israel is producing some of the best wine in the world thanks in large part to the standard Mediterranean climate of humid, hot summers and warm, wet winters. Israeli wines have gone toe-to-toe with wines from both old and new world wineries and repeatedly come out with both awards and acclaim.

Israel boasts ideal conditions for growing grapes and the wine producing areas are divided into five regions throughout Israel: Galilee, Shomron (or “Samaria” in English), Samson, Judean Hills and the Negev.

The Galilee region is situated in the north of Israel and is considered one of the best appellations. Two of Israel’s finest quality wine growing regions are here, known as the Upper Galilee and the Golan Heights. Galilee largely contains high altitude, cooler climate vineyards and includes mountainous areas of forests, plunging peaks and stony ridges. Without a doubt, Galilee is Israel’s most beautiful vineyard region.

The region of Shomron is also known as “Samaria”. It is Israel’s most traditional wine growing region, having first been replanted in the late 1800s. Mount Carmel, Ramat Manashe and the Shomron Hills are part of the Shomron Region. This region benefits from the southern Carmel Mountain range and cooling breezes off the Mediterranean Sea. The landscape of the Shomron is what you would imagine when thinking of a biblical scene and many biblical stories took place in this region.

Samson is not a geographical place, but rather the wine region is named after the Biblical figure who frequented the area. It includes the central coastal Judean Plain and Judean Lowlands, south east of Tel Aviv and it features a hot, humid climate. Many of the vineyards for large volume wines come from this region. The second part of the region, the Judean Foothills, is the fastest growing region in terms of newly planted vineyards and start-up wineries. These rolling hills with limestone soils can be experienced on the drive to Jerusalem.

The fourth region, the Judean Hills, is a quality but underdeveloped wine region ranging from the mountains north of Jerusalem, through Gush Etzion to Yatir Forest, south of Hebron. Warm days and cool nighttime temperature characterize the region where some amazing wineries are producing award-winning wines.

The Negev is the desert region that makes up half the country of Israel. Vineyards have been planted in the higher areas in the northeast at Ramat Arad, a semi-arid area, as well as in the central Negev Highlands. This region can get very hot during the day with cooler evenings and cold nights. Thanks to the dryness and lack of humidity, few diseases affect the grapes and the vineyards are sometimes shrouded in mists during the morning hours.

A Look at an Israeli Winery

From the valley where David fought Goliath in the plains of Judea comes a winery that typifies the beauty of the Israeli wine industry: Mony. The winery was founded by an Arab family who is producing a kosher wine—something traditionally only a Jewish winery would do. Not only is the land Mony sits on ideal for growing quality grapes, but the winemakers are an idealization of the modern Israeli story. The owner of the winery is an Arab Christian, Muslims work in the vineyard, and the winemaker is a Jew. Mony is just one of many amazing wineries throughout Israel and it just happens to be situated in the Judean Hills.

The prophet Micah once foretold that wars will cease, men will turn their spears into pruning hooks, sit under their own vines… and no one shall make them afraid. That day has yet to entirely arrive, but it’s closer than ever. We believe that redemption for all mankind includes the return of the people of Israel to their native Promised Land and possess the freedom to till the soil and harvest its fruit. The modern-day pioneers include winemakers who are returning to their land and are literally forging their “spears into pruning hooks”. This modest, yet beautiful vision was what was foretold: small farmers with enough land to provide for their families and enough wine for daily use and a little extra for special celebrations—a peaceable kingdom, where every family sits down in its own orchard and vineyard—enjoying a modest abundance.

Judean Hills Wine Region

We believe that embracing the modern-day wine movement in Israel is a step toward men and women of all shapes, sizes, and colors living in freedom and fulfilling the call to live in peace, without fear, with the ability to work their vineyards once more in the land.

When you purchase wine from Israeli Good, you are partnering with local farmers and winemakers—pioneering Israelis—who are giving all that they have to bring the land of Israel back to life. Farmers are the foundation and roots of the country and these farmers who are settling the land and establishing on pieces of real estate are cultivating the future. When you join one of our clubs, you’re not just receiving great wine, you’re taking part in the pioneer effort to reestablish the Jewish presence in the land of Israel. And for that, we say ,“thank you” and L’Chaim!