Israeli family takes pomegranate wine to heady heights
Israelis have perfected the art of making pomegranate wine for a high-end market. A tip: You can't start from pomegranate juice.
Gabi and Avi Nahmias are among the few producers of pomegranate wine in the world. The main reason for this is that you can’t make wine with pomegranate juice.
The first step in all winemaking is adding yeast to grape juice. This starts the process of fermentation, in which sugars are broken down into alcohol and carbon dioxide. Because pomegranates have a much lower concentration of sugar than wine grapes, they cannot be effectively fermented.
The Nahmias brothers, whose family grew pomegranates and grapes in Morocco for generations, knew that pomegranates would need a sugar concentration level of between 22 and 26 degrees Brix to be used in winemaking. They also knew that pomegranates only have a sugar concentration level of 12 to 16 degrees Brix.
Despite having no formal background in agricultural science, the Nahmias brothers ambitiously set out to close this gap. Working on their land in the Upper Galilee agricultural cooperative of Kerem Ben Zimra, they developed a new strain of pomegranate using crossbreeding. The resulting fruit was sweet enough for wine production and more than twice as big as a typical pomegranate – 1.4 to 1.7 kilograms as opposed to 400 to 800 grams.
A versatile fruit
This breakthrough occurred 14 years ago. Using the new fruit, the brothers developed a secret recipe for pomegranate wine, which they use to this day. By 2004, they were producing NIS 225,000 worth of the elixir at their Rimon Winery annually. Last year, the brothers say they produced 550,000 bottles of their pomegranate wine, with a retail value of NIS 44 million.
"The beginning was modest," says Avi Nahmias. "We produced a barrel of wine and several dozen bottles that we gave out to friends and family to get their opinions, and their feedback was excellent. Pretty soon we were producing three varieties of wine, and now we've reached eight varieties."
The brothers’ pomegranate orchard is located 900 meters above sea level and spans 150 dunams (37 acres). Like the grapes grown nearby, the pomegranates produced in this environment are well suited for the production of high-quality wine.
The brothers harvest the pomegranates with specially designed equipment, which precisely separates the juice-holding seeds of the fruit from its bitter-tasting outer and inner peels. These are set aside to be used as cattle feed.
After the picking and sorting, the seeds are fed into a juicer, which squeezes the sweet red juice into stainless steel vats for fermentation.
The fermentation process takes much longer and is done at a lower temperature than with grape juice. This preserves the healthy ingredients in pomegranate juice, which would be entirely lost in a faster or hotter process.
After fermentation, the pomegranate wine is transferred into French oak barrels for aging, much like grape wine. The white pomegranate seeds that remain after the juice is squeezed are placed in a cold press to produce pomegranate oil, which is used as a food additive and helps reduce blood pressure in those suffering from heart disease or atherosclerosis. It also helps maintain balanced insulin levels in diabetes.
High prices, high sales
Israel hosts 22,000 dunams (5,436 acres) of pomegranate orchards. Last season these orchards met the local market’s demand for pomegranates and produced another 42 tons that was shipped overseas for use in juices, jams, concentrates and food additives.
Some of the many orchards that were planted in the past few years are still young and have yet to bear fruit. Nevertheless, the market created a large surplus of pomegranates in 2011, which is expected grow in the coming years.
The glut of pomegranates in Israel is due to a rapid expansion of orchards following recent worldwide publicity about the fruit’s health benefits. Despite the surplus, the price of pomegranates remains high at Israeli retail chains. During the fall's harvest season, farmers receive between Nis 1.50 and NIS 2 per kilogram at the market, but the price for consumers at the major retail chains lies somewhere between NIS 8 and NIS 10 per kilogram.
Almost any kind of wine can be made from pomegranates, including sparkling wines. The Nahmias brothers' Rimon Winery produces both dry and sweet wines. Pomegranate wine is roughly 100 to 200 percent more expensive than similar grape wine varieties. A bottle of premium pomegranate port (750 milliliters, 18 percent alcohol) costs NIS 99 at most specialty wine shops, compared to NIS 33 for port made from grapes.
According to Gary Yefet, who owns a wine shop in Tel Aviv, there is a similar price disparity in dry wines. But he says the taste and aroma of pomegranate wines make them worth splurging for.
In the Upper Galilee, the Judean foothills and Israel's coastal plain, several wineries have recently popped up to compete with the Nahmias brothers in pomegranate wine production. Their products are mostly sold in specialty wine shops.
As their collective annual output increases, the price of pomegranate wine is expected to drop, and the bottles should start showing up in major Israeli retail chains. But the real future of Israel's pomegranate wineries, like most Israeli agriculture, lies in exports. The Rimon Winery exports approximately 60 percent of its wines to Europe and the United States, where clients purchase as much as they can produce.