Saturday, November 22, 2008

A kosher revolution in the Holy Land

There are many things you might not know about Israelis. They drive like maniacs, they wear summer clothes through winter and when it comes to wine, they exhibit a surprising chauvinistic pride. With good reason. If you believe the Bible, the Holy Land is the oldest winegrowing region on Earth.

"We've been making wine around here for 5000 years," says Yaariv Katz, the owner of the Wine Hall, a popular haunt for wine drinkers in downtown Jerusalem. Noah, according to scripture, planted the first vineyard and then became the first man to get drunk when he siphoned off the harvest.

According to Israeli wine guru Daniel Rogov, author of the annual Rogov's Guide to Israeli Wines, the Bible refers to the vine "as one of the blessings of the good land promised to the children of Israel". Thursday night was a big night for Israeli vintners and wine connoisseurs, who gathered at cellars around the country to celebrate the first harvest of the new season. "It's a French tradition, to sample open the first Beaujolais of the year, but we celebrate it here with even more passion I think," Katz says.

After struggling for international respect for many years, Katz says Israeli winemaking has undergone a revolution.

"We now make what I think are among the world's best wine - perhaps not as good as the French but being a Mediterranean climate, we're getting close."

Drive south-west from Jerusalem and in about 45 minutes you'll end up in the Ella Valley, the site of David's battle with Goliath. The valley is home to about 25 wineries.

"We looked long and hard for best possible area to grow premium wine and we found it here - surely one of the best winegrowing regions in the world," Iris Berg, manager of the Ella Valley Winery, says.

Established in 1998, the winery is regarded as the producer of the world's best kosher wine. "Israeli wine has struggled with the perception that kosher wine cannot be as good," Berg says.

Little wonder, considering that winemakers used to have to boil their wine to get the stamp of approval from the local rabbi, leaving little in the way of taste.

Nowadays, winemakers like Doron Rav-Hon at Ella Valley can make premium kosher wine without sacrificing the quality of the product. To make wine kosher, the grapes of any new vines must not be used for wine within the first four years. No other fruits or vegetables may be grown in between rows of vines, the fields must lie fallow every seventh year, and, most importantly, only kosher tools and equipment can be used throughout the entire process.

And until the bottle is sealed, only observant Jews may come into contact with the wine or the winemaking equipment.

"It takes a lot of work and planning but we have proved that you can make a premium wine that is of a world standard that is kosher and can be drunk by observant Jews," Berg says. "Kosher wine does not have to be boiled and it does not have to pasteurised. You just have to be careful about who and what comes into contact with the wine as it is being made."

The Ella Valley winery produces about 200,000 bottles a year, 80,000 for export.

Back at the Wine Hall, Michael Steinberg, 37, says things have changed. "My parents only used to drink European wine. Now I'm happy to only drink Israeli wine."

1 comment:

Wine Tasting Guy said...

Great Piece. There sure are some excellent wines being made in Israel. And while their wines are great I'm sure many would argue against the opinion that Ella Valley produces the world's best kosher wines.

I do really like the line describing kosher wines "Kosher wine does not have to be boiled and it does not have to pasteurized. You just have to be careful about who and what comes into contact with the wine as it is being made."