You can’t go wrong with a bottle of wine from one of Israel’s big five wineries — Carmel, Barkan, Golan Heights, Binyamina, Teperberg — or from other well-known brands, such as Tishbi, Dalton, Galil Mountain and Recanati, whose consistent quality has earned them a solid place on American retail shelves.
These wines have been winning customer kudos and international tasting awards for the past decade, which is largely responsible for the steady growth in Israeli wine exports to the level of some $15 million annually.
But if you’re ready to spend more and be a bit adventurous, you’ll find additional choices from Israeli wineries you’ve probably never heard of.
“There’s been an explosion of the [Israeli] boutique brands, such as Domaine Ventura, Adir, Saslove, Gvaot, Lueria, Alexander, Psagot,” says Richard Fishman, general manager of Skyview Wine & Spirits in New York.
Some of these boutique brands were brought to Fishman’s attention by importers, but most of them are on Skyview’s shelves because customers told him they’d tasted these wines in Israel and wanted to buy them locally. His personal favorites include Gvaot Pinot Noir, Adir Plato and Alexander Amarolo.
They are not cheap. “Generally, these brands range from $25 to $75,” says Fishman. “It does not seem to be a barrier. They’re very high-end, unusual and extremely different tasting.”
“All around the world, wine magazines are naming Israeli wines, so among experts everybody recognizes the surge in quality,” says Gary Landsman, director of marketing for Royal Wine, the largest importer, distributor and producer of kosher wines in North America.
Importers and Israeli trade organizations are trying to get the word out that these labels are worth the price.
“Israel isn’t what you think,” says Landsman.
He notes an “elegance trend” in newer Israeli wines that reflect where winemakers get their training. Those schooled in Australia or the Napa Valley favor robust, fruit-forward wines, he explains, while winemakers trained in Italy or France espouse the European approach that wine is made to be enjoyed with food and shouldn’t overwhelm the food or be overwhelmed by it.
“According to this philosophy, wine should be complementary, restrained or elegant, as opposed to bombastic,” says Landsman.
“You’re starting to see a trend more toward that style in larger wineries, like Carmel and Binyamina, and in the Castel boutique winery for example, where the proprietor is Egyptian-born and grew up in Europe enjoying their cuisine. You’re beginning to see this also in the small Flam Winery, whose owner was trained in Italy, and Shiloh, Psagot and Alexander all are doing a great job with this.”
Israeli-bred Manhattanite Yossie Horwitz offers contact information and a map for 70 Israeli wineries on his “Yossie’s Corkboard” kosher wine blog.
“In any wine store specializing in kosher wine — which is unfortunately how Israeli wines are still marketed, instead of with Mediterranean wines — the majority is going to come from Israel just because of the sheer number of the wineries,” says Horwitz.
Altogether, more than 100 Israeli wineries (kosher and a few non-kosher) produce about 60 million bottles per year. Exporting is critical because the Israeli market is so small, and more than half the bottles of exported Israeli wine are bound for the United States. When asked for a few recommendations, Horwitz thinks a bit. “I like different, interesting tastes,” he replies. “Recanati Wild Carignan is a good wine but high-priced. Gvaot Pinot Noir is one of the best. Bravdo, a Judean Hills winery, has a Coupage blend that is excellent. Carmel Riesling 2010 succeeds in an area where kosher wine has not been so successful, and it’s the right price, too. Yarden Katzrin 2008 is the best kosher wine, period.”
The Golan Heights Winery decided a few years ago to create a brand of wine specifically tailored for the American palate. “The Gilgal product line consists of wines that have been found to be exceptionally well-suited to American tastes. They are of a high quality, yet not overly complex, and [are an] excellent value for money,” said Udi Kadim, the CEO of Yarden Inc., which imports Gilgal Wines.
A new Israeli wine website is soon to debut from the Israel Wine Producers Association, which works closely with Royal. The 15 wineries it promotes represent all of Israel’s grape-growing regions, from the Golan Heights and Galilee in the north through the Judean Hills down to Mitzpeh Ramon and the Southern Hebron Hills: Alexander, Barkan, Bazelet Hagolan, Binyamina, Carmel, Castel, Domaine Netofa, Flam, Gamla, Psagot, Segal, Shiloh, Tzuba, Yatir and Zion.
“The wineries are helping fund this initiative to penetrate places that don’t know such wines exist in Israel,” says Landsman. “The idea is to put a nice glass of merlot in someone’s hand and hear them say, ‘Can you believe this is from Israel?’”