For the small but budding wine community of Israel (and many local revelers), The Israel Wine Festival at the Israel Museum in Jerusalem is the pinnacle event of the year. Friends and celebrities — close to 10,000 of them — mingle outside between the museum’s buildings and trees. Wines from around the country were poured, as guests munch on locally made cheeses from places like Jacob’s Dairy.
The festival, which started on Monday and ends tonight, is in its eighth year and was started by owners of two Jerusalem wine shops, by Avi Ben and Smulik Shahar. The winery lineup consists of 40 Israeli wineries. This year’s newcomers included: Bazelet ha’Golan, Kitron, Ella Valley, Katlav, Gva’ot, Har Bracha, Chillag and others. More established wineries like Carmel and Golan Heights were there as well, as was Tishbi Winery and Binyamina Winery. And some of the boutique Israeli wineries like Tzuba Winery, Odem Mountain Winery and Yatir Winery also made appearances.
When asked which wines Ben he was most excited to taste he commented, “the excitement comes after the tasting — I’m a blank page each year.” As a wine professional, I enjoyed the festival Monday evening with my husband and friends and came away with some delicious discoveries. My forth Israeli wine festival, I cannot say it was better than last year, but it was as enjoyable. I tasted a few surprising wines and wines that have improved from last year. There was also a better food selection this year with, pasta, focaccia, sandwiches, cheese platters and chocolates as well.
Sampling all the varieties served is virtually impossible, as most wineries serve multiple wines. However, six wines sparked an interest in my pallet. Some are exported to the United States, while others are not. But they are more than worth seeking out on your next trip to Israel.
Zion Winery: was founded in 1848 by the Shor Family in the Old City of Jerusalem. Today they produce four million bottles of wine and grape juice a year. While all of their wines are palatable, I was struck by their dry Emerald Riesling, a rare find in Israel. It was crisp and had a nice green apple finish. This wine would be great alone or paired with some fruit and nuts while sitting on the porch on a hot summer’s afternoon. Zion Winery is kosher and exported to the U.S..
Chillag Winery: was established in 1998 by Orna Chillag, one of the four female winemakers in Israel, and the only female owner of a winery in Israel. (She came dressed festively as a Greek goddess to the festival). The winery produces 20,000 bottles annually with grapes from the Upper Galilee that are made into wine in a facility located in the center of Israel. I was impressed with the Solo Cabernet Sauvignon 2007, which has a very attractive smell of black fruits and cassis with a leather and smoky taste. It would pair nicely with lamb or steak. Chillag is not kosher and is not exported.
Kadesh Barnea Winery: is located in the Negev desert and was founded by Alon Tzadok in 2000 and produces 50,000 bottles annually. I was pleasantly surprised with the improvements in the wines from last year to this year. I especially enjoyed their White Desert 2010 which is a blend of Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc and Mourvèdre which was oaked in American barrels for 6 months. It had a great almond, nutty flavor with a butterscotch texture. This wine would pair well with meat or fish, and especially with some camembert cheese. Kadesh Barnea is kosher and exported.
Gat Shamron Winery: shocked me with its quality. This winery was established in 2003 by Avigdor Sharon and Lior Nachum near Kfar Saba. They produce only 7,000 bottles annually. Their Cabernet Franc, Gatot semi-sweet red blend, a variety which is often looked down upon in the wine community, was surprisingly delightfully smooth and would be enjoyable with any meal or dessert. The wine I enjoyed most was their ice wine, which is made with frozen grapes. This is a winery to watch. Gat Shamron Winery is kosher, not exported and only sold at the winery.
Tzuba Winery: is located in the Jerusalem Hills and was established in 2005. Tzuba Winery is a boutique winery, producing 40,000 bottles annually but they are expanding and plan to triple their production in the coming years. Metsuda 2007 is a Bordeaux style blend with an elegant, smooth and well balanced wine that has great aging potential. This is a perfect steak wine without a question. Kosher and exported to the USA.
Meisher Winery: was established in 1991 by Ze’ev and Chaya Smilansky and currently produces 10,000 bottles annually. Meisher has been on my radar for a couple of years but it wasn’t until this festival that I really enjoyed their wines. Their Merlot 2007 was divine, well structured, easy to drink now but could age for a couple of more years. It was very fruity and had a hint of strawberry. Meisher is not kosher and is exported.
Esther Cohen, a Boston native who made aliyah, is the CEO of My Israel Wine Tours, a company that has taken over 500 people on 115 wine tours around Israel.
My Israel Wine Tours: Drinking and driving - the acceptable way U.S. immigrant Esther Cohen's wine tours serve up vino for oenophiles and uninitiated alike. By Raphael Ahren
http://www.haaretz.com/weekend/anglo-file/my-israel-wine-tours-drinking-and-driving-the-acceptable-way-1.379466Esther Cohen and her clients have made their way to an ancient winepress in the Judean mountains. Overlooking the breathtaking scenery on a recent Thursday, she explains that the three holes cut in the stones in front of them are 2,100 years old and in ancient times served as fermentation tanks, as the searing sun would shine on the grapes.
"They believe wine made here was brought to the Temple," says Cohen, 28, who immigrated to Israel three years ago and recently opened My Israel Wine Tours, a business focusing on English speakers living in or visiting Israel.
Just minutes before, Cohen's clients, Dani and Arielle Klein, were standing in a vineyard near Kibbutz Tzuba - keenly listening as Cohen talked about the wine making process, shared tidbits about the Israeli and international kosher wine industry and explained what actually makes wines kosher. "Israelis on average drink 4.6 liters per head per year," Cohen said, adding that the French consume 10 times that amount. The Kleins ask questions and take photos, but are secretly waiting for the true highlight of every wine tour: the tasting.
Since launching "My Israel Wine Tours" in January of 2010, Cohen has taken some 800 clients - both wine greenhorns like the Kleins and die hard aficionados and experts - to some of Israel's 300 wineries. Clients either choose which kind of wineries they want to visit or let Cohen create the itinerary for them, based on their preferences regarding size of the business, location and other factors such as whether the wines need to be kosher or not.
The Kleins, Orthodox Jews from New York, are not big wine connoisseurs. "What kind of wine do you usually drink?" Cohen had asked them in the car on the way from Jerusalem to the Judean mountains. They usually do not drink wine at all, besides Shabbat, when he makes Kiddush on sweet sparkling wine, said Dani, a marketing professional who in his free time runs YeahThatsKosher.com, a blog about food-related issues for observant travelers. "Everyone loves that," his wife added. "In this regard, we're typical American Jews."
Cohen sighed in disappointment. "I'm going to expand your palate today," she then said, and started the first part of her routine talking about the history of wine making in Israel. Because of Muslim dominion no alcohol was produced here for about 1,000 years, she says, until the dawn of Zionism in the 1880s. After a short survey of the main wine companies, she introduces her clients to the basics of wine making, such as the difference between a Chardonnay and Cabernet Sauvignon.
About half an hour later, sitting on the balcony of the Tzuba estate winery, which is part of the kibbutz, the Kleins are being served their first tastings. Earton Green, the business's New York-born manager, and winemaker Paul Dubb, who moved to Israel from Cape Town, pour three or four cups of their best vino, as Cohen explains the different kinds of wine barrels, which feature hints of almonds, red grapefruit and green apples.
"I really like this one," Arielle finally says, after taking a sip of sweet dessert wine. "You see, we're not really wine people."
At the wine tour's second stop, however, at Kibbutz Tzora, near Beit Shemesh, Arielle gets more sophisticated. "I don't like dry, but this one has something sweet in it," she said about Tzora's Shoresh White, which consists of 85 percent Gewurztraminer and 15 percent Chardonnay.
Cohen herself says she grew up with Manishewitz and only fell in love with more distinguished vintages after taking a wine appreciation course while studying in New Zealand for a semester. "During that period I also dated this guy in Boston for two years who owned a liquor store," she recalled. "So we were going to wine exclusives and beer fests and I was learning very informally through him."
A few months after moving from Boston to Jerusalem in 2008, Cohen decided to travel up north, handing her resume to every winemaker she could find. She was soon hired by Tishbi in Zichron Yaakov, waiting tables at the company's visitors center and helping management with all aspects that require fluent English, including attending wine fairs across the country and abroad.
After working at Tisbhi for eight months, Cohen, who today lives in Tel Aviv, identified a market for organized wine tours. Not having any credentials in the field beyond the college course she took, she started learning more about Israeli wine and started offering her expertise while keeping her day job at Tishbi. Today, she is a full time wine guide and also has her own company, which plans to export Israeli bottles to the United States.
Producing wine in Israel has its challenges - corks, barrels and glass bottles are imported, the extra costs of kosher certification, the high price of water, and so on - but Cohen believes the success story of local wines is just getting starting.
"The wine industry is increasing by 10 percent every year," she said, adding that she expects the current number of wineries in Israel to grow from 300 to 400 within a decade. While leading Israeli industry experts agree that the business has impressively grown, some are unsure whether the trend is going to continue or plateau in the near future.
Either way, with the launch of "My Israel Wine Tours" Cohen did her new home country and herself a huge favor, according to Yoel Mansfeld, the director of Haifa University's Center for Tourism, Pilgrimage and Recreation Research.
"Wine tours geared at English speakers is a nice market, but a very good one, one that reaches people all over the world," said Mansfeld, who together with his student Noa Shor has studied wine tourism in Israel. "A lot of people are specifically interested in wine tourism and they will go across the globe in order to experience good wine, and especially the narratives and the stories and the culture behind it. Wine tourism is not only about tasting wine, it's about the landscapes, the territories, the culture, the people, history - it's about a lot of different subjects and things which are of interest and relate somehow to wine production and consumption."
Contact MyIsraelWineTours@gmail.com to set up a tour
On December 14th, Margot Stern, the Marketing Director of Leadel, an organization that leads Jewish innovation, enjoyed a wine tour with the AACI group. Click here to read what she wrote about her wine tour experience with MIWT.
Margot also posted beautiful pictures on Flickr of the day.
Thank you Margot!