Author: Shapira, Eyal
Date published: October 28, 2010
Since the most ancient times, viniculture has been an integral part of the history of the land of Israel. Indeed, the drinking of wine is a commandment observed during many Jewish holidays and ceremonies, and over the years, the grapevine has become a recognized symbol of Israel. Those touring the local byways will also come across an abundance of ancient wine vats that were once used for treading grapes.
All of this history forms the backdrop for the recent resurgence of winemaking in Israel, mainly thanks to the many excellent boutique wineries that have sprung up around the country. Alongside several large-scale commercial wine producers, the boutique wineries produce internationally renowned - and often prize-winning - wines based on Cabernet, Merlot, Syrah (also known as Shiraz) and other types of locally grown grapes.
Many of the boutique wineries have built beautiful visitors' centers designed for both individuals and groups. They offer guided tours describing the process of winemaking, from planting and cultivating the grapes through bottling and aging - and of course, the opportunity to taste and buy the finished product.
The Golan Heights, a mountainous area in the north of Israel, is home to wild open spaces dotted with agricultural settlements and several excellent small wineries. Chateau Golan, in Moshav Eliad, offers one of the area's most stylish and attractive visitors' centers. From the entrance, designed in the shape of a giant bottle, visitors descend into a cellar with a long wooden knights' table running down the center. Seated around the table, visitors are invited to taste the winery's Cabernets and Merlots, often while enjoying an art exhibition as well. (Advance bookings required. Phone: 04-660-0026; LU w w. chateaugolan.com)
In the heart of a secluded oak forest in Moshav Odem in the Golan Heights stands the bewitchingly beautiful Odern Mountain Winery. Visitors can tour the production line and sample, in its tasting hall, not only its fine wine but a mouth-watering range of local products including olive oil, goat cheeses, chocolates and more. (Phone: 04-687-1122)
The Galilee, another pastoral region in northern Israel, draws scores of visitors to its wide range of attractions and activities, including, of course, boutique wineries. Standing amid a veritable sea of grapevines in Kibbutz Yiron is the stylish contemporary visitors' center of the Galil Mountain Winery, which offers tours, tastings and a breathtaking view of the verdant Galilee hills all around you. (Phone: 04-686-8748; www.galilmountain.co.il)
A true culinary surprise awaits you at the Rimon Winery, owned and operated by the Nachmias family in Moshav Kerem Ben Zimra in Upper Galilee. Nestled in the heart of the family's pomegranate orchard, the winery produces the world's first fine wine made of 100 percent pomegranates, with no added sugar (rimon is the Hebrew word for "pomegranate"). Vitamin-rich pomegranates are renowned as powerful antioxidants with anti-inflammatory properties that have been shown to prevent heart disease and other conditions. The stunning stone winery sells Rimon wines plus an array of pomegranate-based foods and cosmetics. (Phone: 04-682-2325; www.rimonwinery.com)
Moving south from Galilee, on the coastal plain along the shores of the Mediterranean Sea, you will find Amphorae Winery, surrounded by dense greenery in a secluded valley on the slopes of Mt. Carmel near Moshav Kerem Maharal. The wild natural beauty along the road leading to the winery is just the prelude to tasting the wonderful Chardonnays, Merlots, Cabernets and other varietals produced by Amphorae. The well-designed visitors' center is a lovely place to enjoy the wines while drinking in the stunning scenery. (Phone: 04-984-0702; www.amphorae-v.com)
Some very well-regarded boutique wineries are also located between the coastal plain and the Jerusalem hills to the east. The area's unique topography features hills that rise steeply from the plain, plus suitable climatic conditions and mineral-rich soil, which have made this a top grape-growing region since ancient times. One of the oldest and best-known wineries here is Tzora Vineyards, named after the kibbutz where it is located. The visitors' center has a lovely shop offering - in addition to a selection of fine wines - jams in many flavors, olive oil and other goodies that could be part of a wonderful picnic in the forests all around. (Phone: 02-990-8261; www.tzorawines.com)
Not far from Tzora, in a beautiful building set in a large pine forest, you will find the Flam Winery, whose carefully-run vineyards in various regions of Israel provide the grapes for several renowned wines, including Flam Classico, a blend of equal parts Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot. Personally guided tours by one of the winery's master winemakers culminate in a tasting session around a massive wooden table. (Visits must be arranged in advance. Phone: 02-9929923; www.flamwinery.com)
Commanding a breathtaking hilltop view of the vineyards and the coastal plain, the Dir Rafat monastery on the way to Beit Shemesh is home to the Mony Winery. Among the grape varieties in its vineyards are Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Zinfandel, Argaman, Petite Sirah, Chardonnay and Emerald Riesling. Visits include a tour of the wine cellar, which has been situated for centuries in a limestone cave with ideal temperature and humidity conditions that was originally used for this purpose by the monks who built the place. (Phone: 02-991-6629)
Further south, in the heart of the Negev Desert, a unique project called the Wine Route is reviving the winemaking industry along the ancient Perfume Route, which played a major role in the spice and scent trade for thousands of years. A fine example of the project's success can be seen at the Carmey Avdat Farm, whose owners planted their vineyard on the site of a Nabatean agricultural settlement dating back some 1,500 years. In addition to producing Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot wines, the environmentally friendly farm offers rustic bed-and-breakfast lodging and operates a shop close to nearby Kibbutz Sde Boker. (Phone: 08-653-5177; www.carmey-avdat.co.il)