Israel – modern wines from an ancient civililization
At first glance, Israel may not seem to play an important role in today’s modern wine industry. The country is about the size of the state of New Jersey with only about 10,000 acres of vineyards and 30 commercial wineries in the entire country. But where Israel has played a leading role with global consequences, and the reason why it will continue to be a serious producer of quality wines, is in the area of technology. Israel has the distinction of developing the modern form of drip irrigation in the 1960’s that is used in agriculture in dry climates around the world. Today it is “green” to use drip to avoid waste, but in many wine regions like California and Australia where drought is a perennial threat, drip irrigation is critical to the industry. Drip irrigation is also used in premium regions such as the Napa Valley as a tool to fine-tune hydric stress in thick-skinned reds like cabernet sauvignon, which can lead to quality. Today, Israel is a global leader in irrigation, recycling and de-salinization technology whose tools are more important than ever given the effects of climate change.
Israel is situated between the 31st and 33rd parallels, near the bottom of the range of “quality” climates typically identified between the 30th and 50th parallels in the northern hemisphere. In fact, in the southern part of Israel which borders Egypt, the climate can be desert-like with about four inches of rain per year. To the north in Galilee however, high elevation vineyards of 1,200 to 4,000 feet provide cool temperatures that allow the grapes to ripen slowly and result in well-balanced wines. Overall, the climate is Mediterranean, with long, warm summers and wet winters. The most planted varietals are cabernet sauvignon, merlot and carignan, with syrah – an indigenous Mediterranean varietal – becoming more popular. Whites are primarily chardonnay and sauvignon blanc.
There are five wine regions in Israel, from the south, Negev, Judean Hills, Samson, Shomrom and Galilee, with Galilee representing the largest in terms of acreage. The Galilee region extends from the Sea of Galilee up to Mount Hermon. It is regarded as the highest quality region due to its high-elevation vineyards and well-draining volcanic soils. It is in Galilee that Israel’s entree into the international stage began with modern technology and imported talent at wineries like Golan Heights Winery. According to Zelma Long who consults at Golan Heights Winery, the red wines of Galilee are not a fruity as Napa Valley, yet not as restrained as Bordeaux, with sweet tannins.