Drink the fine wines of Israel and defy its detractors - opinion

An Al-Jazeera columnist has accused the author of being “drunk on Zion” and “wine-washing the occupation.” I am exceedingly proud to wear these epithets.

 THE WRITER is equipped with a double-magnum size bottle of Dalton ‘Matatia,’ the winery’s flagship wine, on a Kosher Travelers food and wine tour of the Galilee, in April. (photo credit: David M. Weinberg)
THE WRITER is equipped with a double-magnum size bottle of Dalton ‘Matatia,’ the winery’s flagship wine, on a Kosher Travelers food and wine tour of the Galilee, in April.
(photo credit: David M. Weinberg)

The Qatar-based, radical Islamic Al-Jazeera media network is furious about the success of the modern Israeli wine industry. It particularly does not like my efforts at promoting Israeli wine around the world.

An Al-Jazeera columnist has accused me of being “drunk on Zion” and “wine-washing the occupation.” I am exceedingly proud to wear these epithets. Just call me the Zionist wine-washer.

Josep Borrell and his acrid European Union colleagues also are upset about Israeli winemaking because a lot of grapes are sourced over the EU-sanctified “Green Line” – in the Samarian highlands, in the Golan Heights, and in the southern Judean hills. For the EU this makes them forbidden and boycotted “settlement goods.”

Perhaps it bothers the EU that there are Biblical and Zionist echoes in every glass of Israeli wine. Or perhaps they simply have a bad case of sour grapes. Either way, it is their loss.

In defiance of these detractors, I tell anyone who will listen to me to invest in studying and appreciating the fine wines of Israel; to join the celebration of Jewish redemption and Zionist renaissance through drinking good – and kosher – Israeli wine.

 Two glasses of red wine (Illustrative). (credit: INGIMAGE)
Two glasses of red wine (Illustrative). (credit: INGIMAGE)

After all, not a single grape grew in this land for close to 1,400 years. (Moslem conquerors literally ripped every single vine out of the ground.) Only 140 years ago when Zionist pioneers began to plant their crops and the good Lord gave the order for the dormant Land of Israel to flower anew – did quality grapes come to these shores.As Rabbi Abba taught in the Talmud based on a famous prophecy of Ezekiel: “There is no greater revealed sign of redemption than the agricultural re-blooming of the Land of Israel.”

OVER THE past three years I have studied wine through the world’s leading institute in this field, the London-based International Wine & Spirit Education Trust (WSET). The Trust has an active Israeli branch (the W School) and offers dozens of courses at various levels every year, with the best accredited teachers like Gal Zohar, David Montefiore, and Dana Benny.

I graduated from the WSET Level 2 course and completed the rarely offered kosher version of the WSET Level 3 advanced course (but have not yet taken the rigorous exam). These courses involve sophisticated blind-taste testing of wine and massive book knowledge of enology.

Mediterranean varietals

This holiday article focuses on small and medium-sized Israeli wineries that are crafting wine from “Mediterranean varietals,” meaning grapes native to Spain, Italy, Portugal, the Rhône Valley in France, and southern France. Some winemakers feel that these grapes are best suited to Israel’s hot and sunny climate and will make for more unique Israeli expressions in wine. I think they are right; these are much more appropriate here than wines made from the classic varietals like Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot, which are typical to the colder climate region Bordeaux.

Pierre Miodownick’s Domaine Netofa Winery (in Mitzpe Netofa in the Lower Galilee), for example, specializes in Rhône varietals. Netofa’s Latour, Tel Qasser Moursyr (both full-bodied Syrah/Mourvèdre blends), and Netofa’s pure Syrah wines are remarkable – all grown in vineyards near Mount Tabor.

More beautiful expressions of the Rhône trend come from Yaacov Oryah Winery, including the cleverly named wines Eye of the Storm (made from Grenache, Syrah, and Mourvèdre – the classic Rhône Valley blend, known as GSM), Spirals of Smoke (GSM and Carignan), and A Dream of Espamia (Tempranillo, Grenache, and Carignan). These wines are hard to find but very worthwhile.

Oryah is also the winemaker for Pinto Winery of the Negev. Grab his Pinto Malbec 2021 or 2022 if you can. It is a masterpiece of fruit and spice with high tannins, a testament to the amazing possibilities of growing quality grapes in the arid Negev.

MAIA Red is a satisfying blend of Carignan, Syrah, and Mourvèdre (known as a CSM blend). MAIA is an acronym for Mediterranean Approach Israeli Art, a boutique sub-label of Tulip Winery in the Lower Galilee.

Other GSMs of note come from micro-producers Bachoushe Winery with a wine called The Carpenter (GSM and Carignan), and Gush Etzion Winery with a wine called Spring River.

Dani Friedenberg has produced his own unique wines under the Teperberg Winery label including a juicy, refreshing, delicious single-varietal Grenache.

The Galilee Mountain Winery, now led by talented Australian immigrant-winemaker Michael Avery, is producing a fantastic mid-range Syrah-Barbera blend called “Ella” that is a best-buy recommendation. So is the Red Med Blend wine from Recanati Winery. The wine is a delicious light blend of Carignan, Marselan, and Petite Sirah.

Recanati just moved from Emek Hefer to Dalton in the Upper Galilee. So did Lueria Winery, moving from Safsufa to Dalton. The industrial park there is becoming an Israeli wine capital, with many sparkling new visitors centers to visit, including the outstanding, veteran Dalton Winery itself.

UNDER PROPRIETOR and CEO Alex Haruni and his brilliant winemaker Guy Eshel, Dalton is producing both mid-range and high-end wines from the micro-climate and terroir of the Upper Galilee. The Dalton Elkosh single-vineyard free-run Shiraz is soft and silky.

Another grape called Barbera (native to Piedmont in northwestern Italy) is showing very well in Israel. The two outstanding examples of this are from Ramot Naftaly and Lueria wineries in the Upper Galilee, with the grapes grown in the Kedesh Valley and the foothills of Meron, respectively, and the wines barrel-aged from 12 to 16 months. Barbera has aromas and flavors of cherries, strawberries, and raspberries with high acidity – a wonderful wine to pair with rich foods.

Lueria also makes a beautifully ripe Tuscan-style Sangiovese wine called Rosso (blended with Barbera). (Sangiovese is the most widely planted red grape variety in Italy.) Teperberg’s Impression series Sangiovese is excellent, and the Golan Heights Gamla series Sangiovese is good value.

Asaf Paz’s family boutique Vitkin Winery in Emek Hefer makes an upscale Grenache Noir, light-bodied with layers of chocolate and spice. Vitkin Old Vines Carignan is world-class, as is the Carignan of Jezreel Valley Winery. Try to find older vintages (2016 or 2018) of these wines.

Tura Winery, based in Rechelim in Samaria, is the first to make wine from the Italian grape Dolcetto, blended with the French grape Marselan (which itself is a cross between Cabernet and Grenache). The resulting Tura Limited Edition is delicious, as is Tura Special Edition – a blend of Shiraz, Marselan, and Merlot. (Both available exclusively from wine store Derech HaYayin.)

In sum, drink quality wine this Shemini Atzeret/Simchat Torah weekend at a meal accompanied by lofty conversation amongst friends and family, while trying to avoid rancor over judicial reform and gender separation in Dizengoff Square. One can elevate the soul, celebrate modern Israel, and defy Israel’s adversaries by imbibing knowledgeably and judiciously.

The writer is founding senior fellow at the Misgav Institute for National Security & Zionist Strategy. He runs food and wine tours in Israel for koshertravelers.com. His diplomatic, defense, political, Jewish world, and wine columns are at davidmweinberg.com.