Five Great Israeli Wines

Readers of this blog: You know I like wine. And at all three of our Foreign Service posts — Sana’a, Madrid, and now Jerusalem — wine has been something of an issue.

First wine was an issue in Yemen because there was none. It’s a dry country where booze is haraam, but us crafty Americans have our ways and so we made sure we had our own supplies of wine. But when I arrived to Sana’a in late summer of 2012,  I was crushed to find the American’s supply of wine had dried up.  Getting through that transition (uprooting my Washington DC life, getting hitched, and moving to the Middle East) without wine seemed unfathomable. After some time in Yemen, an alcohol shipment arrived. But it had been sitting in a steamy port for ages, causing all the wine to turn. Using the fancy new decanter we’d received as a wedding present didn’t help. Apparently you can turn wine to vinegar but you can’t go the other way.

But then the wine gods repaid us with our Spain post. I know everyone talks about how cheap the wine is in Spain, but it’s so true! I never could get over the fact that a decent bottle at a restaurant in Madrid was a fraction of the total bill where in the United States, it’s often half of our restaurant tab. And much of the wine in Spain is so, so good. I fell in love with the deep, earthy Ribera del Douros, and the sharp and fruity Ruedas. We shipped all we could (about sixty bottles) from Spain to Jerusalem and enjoyed every last drop for all too short of time.

I’d heard Israeli wines were good – I mean, they should be, they’ve been making wine in this area since Biblical times. But at first taste, I was disappointed. I suppose I was in Spain-mode thinking a good wine needn’t be pricey, and so I’d buy a $15 bottle from the grocery store and expect it to be good. It never was.

This negative impression of Israel’s wines was compounded by an early on visit to a big Kosher wine festival. It was certainly a unique experience to see so many folks in religious wear (many women in wigs, skirts, and stockings, and for the men: hats, curls, and white shirt black pants) getting sloshed on wine. But I found all the wine to be pretty bad, which is confusing because there’s no chemical reason Kosher wine would couldn’t be good as any other wine. Kosher laws require a religiously observant Jew oversee the process from the time the grapes are turned to wine up to the bottling, but it doesn’t require, like, heating of the wine or anything that would ruin flavor.

After that, I realized in order to find the good stuff, I’d have to do some research, which is basically my motto for everything here: It all takes a bit of effort to find the gems in Jerusalem. And now, nearly a year in the Holy Land, I’m happy to report I’ve found some good wines.

My faves so far:

  • Pelter: This winery is located in northern Israel, but harvests grapes from all over the country: The Jerusalem Hills, the southern desert, the Upper Galiliee, The Golan Heights (on the border with Syria). Despite the variety in the grapes, all Pelter wines I’ve tried have been reliably good, but my favorites are Pelter’s oaky Cabernet and silky Pinot Noir. Pelter also makes kosher wines under the Matar label and they’re very good.
  • FlamMr. Em in Jerusalem and I spent a lovely post-hike afternoon at Flam’s pretty tasting room in the Jerusalem Hills where we got a lengthy lesson in Israeli wines from one of the owners. We sipped wine, noshed on cheese, and left happy with a case of 2014 Merlot and the nicely balanced 2013 Cabernet Sauvignon. When we calculated the price in dollars we decided we probably shouldn’t make purchases after drinking wine. It wasn’t cheap! But now we have a nice supply of special occasion bottles.
  • Amorphae: Located in northern Israel, just below Mount Carmel National Park, Amorphae looks as though it has a spectaclar tasting room/farm set-up and it’s next on my list of places to visit. In the meantime, I buy their wine from shops in Jerusalem, and I especially like their Cabernet Franc/Cabernet Sauvignon blend and their Chardonnay.
  • Domaine du Castel: We also haven’t yet been able to get to Castel winery in the nearby Judean Hills for a proper tasting, but its “Grand Vin” (a blend of Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Cabernet Fran, and Malbec) is lauded internationally, as it should be: It’s exactly  the richness and balance I’m always looking for in a Cab). But it’s about $60 a bottle so for us, that’s a special occasion wine. (Special occasion = eating lasagna and starting Narcos on Netflix last Saturday night).
  • Lotem: This is a low-key, small-scale organic winery, located in the town of the same name. You sip your wines outside, and look out over hills and valleys and the Sea of Galilee. The views are unbeatable. Winemaker Jonathan only makes reds, and they are all good, especially the Allegro (a Cabernet/Nebbiolo blend) as well as reasonably priced, making Lotem my top value pick for Israeli wine. Oh, and Jonathan believes that playing music to the grapes as they are turned into wine creates a more mellow and balanced wine. Gotta love that quirk.
This cat at Lotem winery is no fool in choosing this awesome spot as his home.

So those are the early findings from my in-country wine study. While it’s a tough job to discover the most delicious wines in a country, someone’s got to do it. That person is me.


Em in Jerusalem


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