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Sun, Jul 18, 2004 - Page 12 News List

Israeli vintagers start new trend with old roots

Israel is not well known for its wines, but the efforts of a few winemakers, and several award-winning brands may change that


Even though the first documented winemaker in the Middle East is mentioned in the Bible, Israel has not had much of a wine-growing and wine-drinking tradition in modern times.

However, thousands of years after Noah was described as planting a vineyard after the flood, Israelis are now trying to improve the quality of the local wine and its popularity among customers.

Noah appears to have loved his wine -- according to Genesis 9:20-23 he was found drunk and naked in his tent to the embarrassment of his sons Shem and Japeth.

But in modern Israel the local wine was not very good until recently, produced mostly as an exceptionally sweet tool for religious blessings and drunk more in worship of Jehovah than Bacchus.

"Until a decade ago, Israeli wines were really bad, but now Israelis are beginning to understand that wine is part of culture, not only of religion," says Israeli wine and restaurant critic Daniel Rogov, whose book Rogov's Guide to Israeli Wines is due out in November.

In the past decade wine consumption in Israel has almost doubled, from about four litres per person per year in the early 1990s to six to eight liters today.

Israeli wines have also begun winning ponal competitions, including the Vinexpo in Bordeaux, Vinitaly in Verona and London's International Wine and Spirit Competition.

Rogov explains this trend by saying Israeli customers acquired the taste for wine during more frequent foreign travel over the past decade. Their experience of new foods and wines abroad changed the restaurant and food culture at home.

Dozens of wineries are now producing the ancient drink in Israel. The agriculture ministry says there are more than 60, while two local wine experts estimate the number of producers to be at least 100.

With nearly constant sun, warm temperatures during the day and colder ones at night, the climate conditions for the grapes are "pretty ideal," explains Eyal Rotem, who owns a vineyard between Tel Aviv and Jerusalem.

"It's no wonder that Israeli wines are winning medals and that slowly but surely people are beginning to understand that wines from Israel are good, because at the end of the day it comes from the grapes," says the suntanned, lean and tall vintager.

There is not much rainfall, but the grapes are irrigated, he continues and points out: "It's good when a vine suffers, that it struggles. It makes the grapes more concentrated."

He speaks while standing outside a new but traditional-style stone building, which overlooks acres of vines and green fields. Inside, wine from grapes harvested last year is being processed in shiny metal cylinders or matures in wooden barrels.

Rotem's winery, which belongs to the Har'el kibbutz in the biblical Ayalon Valley, marketed its first wines in 2001, from vineyards planted in 1998. Its 2001 red wine and 2002 white wine won a gold and silver medal at a national competition last February.

But while the winery is new, its grounds contain an ancient winepress dating back to the Roman rule in the area centuries ago.

Rotem points to a stone surface on which the grapes used to be crushed and a deep hole into which the liquid was collected.

"They have always produced wine in Israel," he says, "but really in the past eight years it's begun gaining momentum and getting exposure."

Almost all supplies had to come from abroad though: the machines for crushing the grapes are from Italy, the oak barrels, bottles and etched wooden transport boxes from France, the corks from Spain.

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