A Trip to Israel

Think Israeli, not kosher

Ok, I admit it. Up to about five years ago, when I heard the words Kosher Wine I  IMG_8790  would make that face that you make after sucking on a lemon. My mind would immediately think of the overtly sweet stuff my mother used to drink back in the 70’s…i.e., Mogen David, Manischewitz, etc. But after tasting more and more of these hidden gems of the Mediterranean, I realize just how tasty they are. My recent trip to the Middle East only solidified my new found belief that Israel is producing world-class wines!
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Last fall I was invited by the Israel Export Institute to tour Israel’s wine growing regions. How could I refuse? I arrived in Tel Aviv earlier this month with an open mind. I met the other two members of our “American Delegation” at the airport and we were whisked away to our hotel. On the way we introduced ourselves. It turned out that my traveling companions had traveled extensively together to other wine areas of the world and yet they, like myself, had never been to Israel.
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Both men are owners of over thirty successful retail wine stores in Minnesota and Missouri and have a combined total of over eighty years in the industry. During our “meet & greet” session in the taxi, I discovered that their familiarity with Israeli/Kosher wines was practically zero. Their perception was virtually identical to what mine had been several years ago. In fact, they almost turned down the invitation figuring it would be a waste of their time.

GolanFirst thing the following morning, we met Yaara in the lobby, the IEI representative and our driver. Yaara gave us a little background to the history of Israeli wines. It turns out that Israel has only focused on producing high quality wine over the past 25-30 years. The size of the country is similar to that of New Jersey. This was convenient for us as we would travel to wineries during the day and return to the same Tel Aviv hotel in the late afternoon with plenty of time to enjoy the local cuisine.

Our first stop was at a boutique winery producing an upper end Chardonnay and two Cabernet blends. Maybe it was the jet lag, but the other guys were not quite as enthusiastic about the wines as I was. But, then again, at least they didn’t have that “lemon” look on their faces.

After a short trip to our next stop, we tasted through the Flamline up at Flam Winery. This seemed to be the wake up call they needed. It was as if a switch had been turned on inside their heads. Jim, definitely the more “boisterous” one in the group, would not be quiet. He was going on and on about how amazing the wines were. He kept spouting off “I can’t believe these wines are Kosher!” His friend Randy was in complete agreement. Personally, I knew Israel was doing a great job and to see these two veteran wine tasters react the way they did only confirmed what I already knew…Israeli wines are pretty darn good!

IMG_8859My favorite part of the trip was probably a 2-day trip we took up north to the Golan Heights region. Even despite getting a flat tire on our rental car and a somewhat noticeable military presence, this is where I learned the most about Israeli wines. When I used to think of Israel, I thought “Israel > Middle East > Desert > Hot.” Its latitude is only 31-33° N which should be very hot and it is…to an extent. But I found out that for every five feet you gain in elevation, you gain one mile in latitude. And due to the increase in elevation, roughly 400-1,200m, as you move away from the Mediterranean and Dead Seas, Israel’s latitude could be considered closer to that of 44-47° N. That the same as Bordeaux and Burgundy!

Over the span of a very quick week, we visited with over sixteen wineries. Some were IMG_8899boutique in size only producing 10-20K bottles annually (Israel counts bottles, not cases when talking about production) while the larger ones were topping off at several million bottles. The topography throughout the country reminded me of traveling over the valley floor of Napa or through the rolling hills and steep hillsides of Alexander Valley in Sonoma. The conifers and rocky terrain in the north actually reminded me of when I lived in the mountains of Colorado. There were even times when my ears were literally popping due to the sharp increase/decrease in altitude. I had to keep telling myself I was still in Israel!

IMG_8839Overall, there were really only a couple of things different from how the wines are produced in Israel to how it is done here in the states. To be considered kosher, Sabbath-observant Jews must supervise the entire winemaking process and any ingredients used, including finings, must be kosher. Wine that is described as “kosher for Passover” must have been kept free from contact with grain, bread and dough. In fact, as we toured the inner workings of the facilities, we were escorted by a “Kosher Supervisor” (Mashgiach Kashrut, in Hebrew…Mash-gee-akh Kahsh-root). Basically, he was there to make sure we did not touch anything, and I mean anything! These customs date back several centuries and still play an integral role in the Israeli culture and tradition.

Overall, the wines of Israel are pretty spectacular. I would feel very confident slipping one of their wines into a blind tasting with those from Napa or Bordeaux. Sure they have their entry level wines similar to California, but there they also have their hand-crafted beauties that would surprise even the most sophisticated palate.

Here’s a list of some of my favorite wineries I had a chance to visit:

Flam Winery 

FLAM CLASSICO BORDEAUX BLEND 2011 

FLAM RESERVE CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2010 

Barkan Winery 

BARKAN CLASSIC CABERNET SAUVIGNON 2012

BARKAN CLASSIC MERLOT 2010 

BARKAN CLASSIC PINOT NOIR 2011

BARKAN CLASSIC SAUVIGNON BLANC 2012

Segal’s Winery 

SEGALS FUSION WHITE 2012

SEGALS FUSION RED 2012

L’chaim!

Mick Ter Haar, Beverage Director

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