Israel's Wines: A Culture Uncorked

By Linda Gradstein
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, June 7, 2009

When most people think of Israel as a tourist destination, they think of history, archaeology and holy sites. Now, wineries in the Jerusalem area want them to think of wine as well. Some of them have aligned to form the Judean Hills wine route, 25 wineries between Jerusalem and Tel Aviv ranging from small garagistes to medium-size operations. Almost all of them welcome tourists.

Wine has been made in this area for more than 3,000 years, and the remains of ancient wine presses are scattered around the country. But only in the past 20 years has Israel begun to develop a modern wine culture. The country now is home to more than 150 wineries.

The climate of the Judean Hills around Jerusalem is perfect for wine grapes: It's hot by day but cool even on summer nights. And, of course, wine professionals talk about the area's terroir, the soil characteristics that give a wine its unique taste.

"The wine has Middle Eastern spices like za'atar [wild oregano] and other spices that are specific to this area," says Guy Haran, the owner and manager of Mia, a center for wine and spirits culture in Jerusalem. "Along with the Galilee and Golan Heights, the Judean Hills is the best place to grow wine grapes in Israel."

Many of the winemakers along this new wine route came to their craft later in life, after careers in high tech, filmmaking or tourism. Because many of the wineries are small, visitors often find themselves chatting with the owner/winemaker as they taste his wines.

A good place to start is the Sea Horse Winery in Moshav Bar-Giyora, in the tree-covered hills just outside Jerusalem. Winemaker Ze'ev Dunie built his winery in a converted chicken coop next to his home. Dunie is a one-man wine band, responsible for every part of the process from production to marketing to delivery.

"Last night I made my last delivery to a restaurant in Tel Aviv around midnight," he says, laughing as he alternately fills out order forms and uses a large pipette to take a tasting from a barrel of zinfandel. "And all of these people are sitting in the restaurant relaxing. I really must be crazy to do this."

Dunie, a former filmmaker, got inspired 15 years ago when he made a documentary about wine. He specializes in two varietals not common in Israel, syrah and zinfandel, and he waxes poetic when he talks about his wines.

"If cabernet and merlot are classical music -- serious, aristocratic, dressed in a suit and tie -- syrah and zinfandel are jazz: sensual, warm, simultaneously complex and rich in taste," he says.

And his wines have cool names. The zinfandel is called Lennon, and a cabernet blend is called Fellini. Dunie also is about to come out with a white wine made of chenin blanc grapes, which he says is the first in Israel.

The winery is open on Fridays and Saturdays and "by appointment," which he says means that people call him as they are driving into the village to see if he's home. He makes 1,500 cases a year and sells them all.

A very different experience is Domaine du Castel, just a few miles away in Ramat Razi'el. Eli Ben Zaken has built a state-of-the-art winery that looks as if it belongs in Provence more than the dusty, contentious Middle East.

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2009 The Washington Post Company