Israel is located in the Middle East at the very eastern edge of the Mediterranean Sea. The modern Jewish state’s famously controversial borders were created at the conclusion of World War II. Its wine industry has its roots in the late 19th century, but has largely developed in recent decades.
A number of ‘international’ wine grape varieties have proven to be successful in Israel. Among these are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc, Semillon, Chardonnay and even Gewurztraminer. Several members of the extensive Muscat family, which retains its historic links with this part of the world, are also to be found here.
Although small compared to most modern wine-producing nations, Israel’s wine production has attracted attention from all across the wine world. This is not only due to the development of new cooler-climate terroirs such as the Golan Heights, but also to the quality-conscious approach of the nation’s wine producers.
Many parts of Israel are too hot and dry to be a reliable producer of high quality wine. However there are some suitable microclimates that are either well established or showing good potential.
Throughout much of the 20th century, wine production was focused on Kosher wine to be exported around the globe. These wines were generally sweet and made from high yield vineyards. Carmel Winery was the first to produce a dry table win, as late as the 1960s. Today sacramental wine accounts for only about a tenth of Israel’s wine output.
The revival in quality winemaking began in the 1980s. This was aided by an influx of winemakers from France, Australia and the USA, and a corresponding modernization of technology. The 1990s saw a marked rise in the number of boutique wineries. By 2000 there were 70 wineries and by 2005 this number had doubled.
Today Israeli wine is produced by hundreds of wineries ranging in size from small boutique enterprises to large companies producing over ten million bottles per year. In 2011, Israeli wine exports totaled over 26.7 million bottles.
It has been observed by several wine authorities that Israel’s approach to winemaking has evolved from being an Old World producer to developing into a stylistic New World producer.
The demand for kosher wines throughout the world has reinforced the development of the Israeli wine industry over the past few decades. However, not all wine made in Israel is kosher. Modern Orthodox Jews believe that for wine to be considered truly kosher, the wine should only be prepared by Jews. Some Jews consider non-Jewish wine (known as yayin nasekh) to be kosher if it has been heated; the reason being that heated wine was not used as a religious libation in biblical times and its consumption is therefore not sacrilegious. Therefore, mulling, cooking and pasteurizing wine renders it kosher in the eyes of many Jews.
The modern Israeli wine industry was founded by Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, owner of the Bordeaux estate Château Lafite-Rothschild. Today winemaking takes place in five vine-growing regions: Galilee, Shomron, the Judean Hills, Samson and Negev. Some of the Israeli defined wine-growing regions, such as the Judean Hills, refer to areas that are largely Israeli-occupied territories. Because of this the definition of wines produced in such areas are subject to legal contention abroad.