Buying an inexpensive bottle of wine doesn’t require much thought or effort. However, if you want to purchase a quality wine bursting with robust flavors from northern Israel, you need only a vivid imagination and an appreciation of the wonders of nature in the Holy Land.
As the rays of the warm spring sun begin to melt the winter snows on the mountaintops that surround the Golan Heights, the multitude of grape vineyards scattered throughout the region emerge from their winter hibernation. The blooming acts as mother-nature’s “alarm clock” for Israel’s viticultural experts and winemakers to head out into the fields and begin preparations for the summer harvest.
During the past decade, a variety of Golan Heights (and nearby Galilean) vineyards have produced some of the best wines in the world, with a substantial number of them winning gold medals in international competitions, as well as receiving rave reviews in newspapers and wine magazines in the United States, Italy, and beyond.
“The beginning of spring signifies the grape-growers’ and winery’s season of active transition in the vineyards as well as the production process,” said Shlomo Tzadok, who manages and maintains the Golan Heights Winery’s 400 vineyards across the Golan Heights region. “As the buds and colorful green leaves begin to bloom, we begin tidying up the vineyards by getting rid of the old cuttings and tending to some of the natural grasses that grow between the rows of the grapevines that allows for a true organic environment.
“At the winery, blended wines are bottled, while the oak barrels are cleansed and prepared to receive the juices from the various grapes that will be harvested during the forthcoming summer harvest season,” said Tzadok. “In addition, the winery orders new oak barrels that will be used to store and create new wines. We only have four months from the onset of spring to prepare the vineyards and the winery for the harvest season. It’s a unique process that requires harmony between the workers in the field and the winery’s winemaker.”
The Golan Heights region, whose history of wine production dates back nearly 6,000 years, boasts a unique topography (cool, high altitude) highlighted by rich volcanic, basaltic soil. The grapes that are grown in these vineyards, located atop mineral-rich plateaus, are considered among the best within Israel’s renowned “Derech Hayayin” (Wine Trail), which has been likened to the renowned wine regions of Bordeaux, France, and Tuscany.
“The vineyards do not belong to the winery; rather the winery belongs to the vineyards,” said Rabbi Shalom Aronzon, Golan Heights Winery’s kashrut supervisor, who also doubles as a tour guide at the winery’s visitor’s center in Katzrin.
According to Aronzon, 21 varieties of wine grapes are grown across the Golan Heights for the winery’s 13 red and eight white wines. These vineyards yield over 6,000 tons, which are harvested manually and mechanically.
The Golan Heights Winery is known for sparking the “quality revolution” in Israeli wines and creating a ripple effect throughout the entire Israeli winemaking industry. Notable wineries such as Carmel and Barkan decided to upgrade the quality of their wines as the demand for quality wines increased. Gone are the days when one would walk into a store and be compelled to choose between syrupy sweet Israeli sacramental wines and a handful of lifeless dry wines.
Ya’ara Shimoni, who is responsible for Israeli wine exports at the Israel Export & International Cooperation Institute, said it’s widely accepted that the Golan Heights Winery was the first Israeli winery “to produce excellent wine. Then came the boutique wineries, then the medium-sized and then the large wineries. There were a lot of other factors as well, but when you pinpoint the revolution, it started with Golan Heights.”
Here are some suggestions on deciding which Israeli wines to purchase:
2010 Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon features ripe red and black fruit flavors layered with hints of earth, spices, and French oak. The wine is a perfect match for full-flavored dishes such as an herb-crusted leg of lamb or pan-seared rib-eye steaks. It is considered to be the winery’s “flagship” wine, having won numerous medals at international competitions.
2009 Yarden Merlot, a fascinating red wine that highlights ripe cherry and berry fruit flavors, with hints of citrus blossoms, spices, and fresh herbs. The wine goes great with roast Cornish game hen, grilled lamb chops, or Beef Wellington. It has been hailed by critics as being a consistent high-quality wine that titillates your palate with its strong body and flavors.
2009 Yarden 2T, a truly unique wine that exhibits wild berry and plum characters layered with floral, spice, and a hint of chocolate. 2T was created by an intriguing blend of two traditional Portuguese varieties; the full-bodied wine displays concentrated flavor with a long finish. It goes well with any number of beef and lamb dishes.
2012 Gilgal White Riesling is a perfect wine for spring, as it reveals floral, melon, lemon zest, peach, and tangerine essences complemented by hints of fresh mint. This is the type of wine you can drink alone as an aperitif, or try it alongside spicy Chinese chicken wings, cheese fondue, or fish braised in a spicy tomato sauce.