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Biblical Israeli wineries take on New World

By Michael Blum  /  AFP, NEVE ILAN, Israel

A farmer harvests Cabernet sauvignon grapes for the Bazelet Hagolan Winery in Kidmat Tzvi in the Israel-annexed Golan Heights on Sept. 20, 2012.

Photo: AFP

In the rolling pine-covered hills west of Jerusalem, winemaker Eran Pick checks the vines he cultivates, plying an ancient trade common to the area since biblical times.

“For 3,000 years, wine has been produced in these hills,” said Pick, 40, who trained in a mix of New and Old World winemaking, before joining Tzora Vineyards.

Established in 1993, Tzora is one of Israel’s first boutique wineries — defined as those which produce fewer than 100,000 bottles per year.

“We have renewed this tradition in order to make a typically Israeli wine which will be at the level of the world’s best wines,” he said.

The vineyard produces 80,000 bottles annually, of which 15,000 are sold abroad. Yet its output accounts for a fraction of the 40 million bottles Israel produces each year from its 350 wineries, the vast majority of which are boutiques.

Israeli wine sales bring in between US$300 and US$350 million per year, about 10 percent of which comes from overseas exports, wine expert Gabriel Geller said, with the main importers being the US, Britain and France.

According to French wine expert Marc Dworkin, Israel is “a small country where each wine-producing region is more interesting than the last.”

Geller added that the quality of Israeli wines has changed markedly in recent years.

Wine has been produced in the Holy Land for millennia, but local production underwent a revival at the end of the 19th century, thanks to Baron Edmond James de Rothschild, a French Jewish billionaire philanthropist who owned the iconic Chateau Lafite in Bordeaux.

Rothschild planted the first major modern vineyard at Rishon LeTzion near Tel Aviv in 1882: the Carmel Winery, which today produces more than 25 million bottles a year and holds a major share of the domestic market.

A century later, the Golan Heights Winery was founded. With the help of international experts, the winery began to innovate, shifting away from Israel’s image as a producer of sweet wines for use in religious rites.

Within a decade, as Israelis began traveling overseas more frequently, getting a taste for French and Italian wine, the first boutique wineries were set up. Although by the turn of the century, there were only about a dozen such wineries, today, Israel boasts more than 320 boutique establishments.

“It has also become a sort of trend among foreign investors and businessmen to own a winery, so many Jewish millionaires — mainly Americans — have either acquired part or full ownership in such ventures,” Geller said.

In the Jerusalem area alone, dozens of wineries have recently sprung up. One of them is Flam, a family business started in 1998 by two brothers that produces 100,000 bottles annually.

Perched on top of a hill, the winery hosts tasting sessions, with sample produce accompanied by platters of cheese and fresh bread.

“We want to develop a taste among Israelis for good wine, so that they cannot do without it,” owner Gilad Flam said.

Although far behind Italy or France in terms of consumption, surveys show that the number of Israelis drinking wine regularly has doubled over the past five years.

Even so, the average consumption of wine per person in Israel stands at about 6 liters to 7 liters per year, compared with about 45 liters in France.

Israeli wines are similar to those from other New World wine countries and tend to be made with classic French and Italian grapes — very few use local varieties.

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