How Israeli Wine Caught Up to France, Italy and California

Wine festival near Jerusalem takes our correspondent (who wasn't driving) on a swell assignment.

The 15th annual Mateh Yehuda Wine Festival is underway. As I hold the list of participating wineries in my hand – there are 32 in the Mateh Yehuda Regional Council, which surrounds Beit Shemesh – I see the names of many wineries I have never heard of, and find that encouraging and intriguing.

As I visited five wineries in Mateh Yehuda and spoke with the vintners I met, I tried to understand what has made this region, with its round hills and soft, pleasant vistas, a successful wine district of the sort that we once found in France, Italy or California. I was told that it’s a combination of the soil, the weather, the climate, the sun and the relief from the heat that comes with evening. I was also told that it’s the history – it turns out that people in the Mateh Yehuda area were making wine long before Burgundy's locals ever dreamed of it. I was also told that what makes the wine here special are the vintners, who are “a bit out of the ordinary.” One can visit these five wineries for a tasting only – and, of course, to buy. A tasting can cost NIS 15 to NIS 30 if no purchase is involved.

10 A.M. – Kfar Uria

It’s too early in the day to drink, but when we reach the Kadma Winery, a busload of visitors is already leaving. Lina Slutzkin, the owner and winemaker, gives us a tour of the large renovated building that was once a poultry run. Now it has a visitors’ center with a large terrace beside it that overlooks the hills, and a refrigeration room with dozens of large earthenware jars, each with a capacity of 500 liters. The sight calls to mind the story of Ali Baba and the forty thieves, who hid in jars like these. The fragrance of fermenting wine fills the room, causing a light, pleasantly dizzy feeling. We sit on the terrace and taste some of the wines.

In 2010, Slutzkin left her job as a programming engineer to devote her life to developing the family winery. “We want to renew the ancient methods of making Israeli wine, and I got the idea of using earthenware jars from my Georgian roots. They used this method to make wine there before anyone else. Here in Kfar Uria, we found an ancient winepress, and this continuity intrigues and attracts me.”

Slutzkin bought 20 enormous earthenware jars in Georgia and brought them to Israel. She says that Kadma is the only winery in the country that uses earthenware jars for the fermentation process. “It requires more patience. The fermentation takes longer, up to eight weeks, and it’s like cooking over a low flame. The result we get is wine with a unique quality.”

I figure that each wine we were served that morning will have something unique about it, but the early time of day, the beautiful earthenware jars, the flowing conversation with Slutzkin and the hilly landscape above Kfar Uria all led me to praise the wine, ask for a little more and drink with pleasure. I went back to my car feeling slightly tipsy, grateful that I wasn’t driving, and on we went.

'Good soil, good wine'

11:30 – Katz Winery, 
Mesilat Zion

Yossi Katz, owner and vintner of the Katz Winery, is a chemist who ran a laboratory and has a background in cooking. Now he devotes all his time to the winery, which is in – what else? – a former poultry run, surrounded by thick greenery, on a side path on Moshav Mesilat Zion. “For me, wine is a cognitive occupation,” Katz tells me at the start of a long conversation. His watchword is that no chemicals are added to the wine. He has an enormous amount of knowledge. He describes himself as an “outsider in the vintners’ group.” Later, he calls himself a “giraffe with a hump,” but that is after we have tasted one of the off-dry wines (half as sweet as semi-dry wine). I’m not sure I understood the connection between giraffes and wine; anyway, it was time to go.

12:30 - the Deir Rafat Monastery

Shakib Artul, owner of the Mony winery, is the extraordinary one on this tour. He will say so himself, willingly and with a smile. His winery is not run out of a former poultry run. The conversation with him takes place in a cave adjacent to the Deir Rafat Monastery near Kibbutz Tzora. Artul arrived in the 1980s from the village of Merar in the Galilee and leased land from the monastery. He now lives there with his family and his sons, who work with him in the family business. They have 700 dunams of vineyards and 800 dunams of olive trees. They produce 100,000 bottles per year, all of them from grapes they grew in the family vineyard. “Wine starts in the vineyard,” Artul says. “The vintner only completes it. If the soil is good, the vineyard is good, and the vintner knows that whatever he does, he will end up with good wine.”

Sam Soroka, a Canadian vintner who has been in charge of winemaking at the Mony winery since 2009, agrees. “We’re not rewriting the book, but adapting the knowledge accumulated in many places throughout the world to the local conditions. Merlot and Cabernet don’t work so well, so we look for other varieties, such as Shiraz, for example, that are more suitable for the heat here. Wait until you taste our Colombard.”

Two of Soroka’s assistants come to ask a question. Both are young religious men with thick beards and long sidelocks. “Look,” says Artul, “I’m a Christian Arab and he [referring to Soroka] is a Jew who doesn’t keep the Sabbath, but the vineyard produces wine that is kosher beyond any question. In other words, Sam and I aren’t allowed to touch the barrels. These guys are our hands.” When I ask whether it’s worth all this trouble to produce kosher wine, Artul smiles and says, “At first, we made wine without kashrut supervision and it didn’t work. Now it’s much better. In Israel, even non-religious people won’t bring home non-kosher wine.”

They bring fresh bread, olives and excellent cheese from the shop. Soroka insists that we taste the 2012 Colombard, a delicious white wine. A close look at the photograph I took in the winery courtyard shows that at this point, it would have been a good idea to take a short noon siesta.

No rules, no formulas

2:30 – Bar Giora

Zeev Dunie, owner of the SeaHorse winery, is a former cinematographer. “I made a film about wine, and that brought me in. The field arouses strong emotions. No such thing exists in other fields,” he says. Dunie learned from the legendary vintner Ronnie James of Tzora Vineyards, and says that what he likes best is that there are no rules, no formulas. A 30-year-old vineyard can suddenly bear the best grapes and create high-quality wine. “I work on intuition. I come with a blank slate, and it changes every year,” he says. Dunie has 30 dunams of organic vineyards in Bar Giora, but says right away that organic grapes don’t always produce good wine. “What sets my vineyard apart is the choice of variety,” he says. “There was no Chenin Blanc in Israel until I started producing it in 2007. Today there’s fantastic white wine. Or the Zinfandel in Adumim. Here, taste it.” Dunie’s wines are named after the Wright brothers, John Lennon, Antoine (de Saint-Exupery), Camus and Munch. For a moment I wonder how wise it was to insist on visiting five wineries in a single day, but the wines are wonderful. After a break for coffee at Bar Bahar in Nes Harim, it’s off to the last one.

4:30 – Zafririm

Lori Lender, owner of the Zafririm winery, has been making wine in the small family winery together with her husband for 10 years. Her husband, Shaike, is an expert on archaeology, and Lender emphasizes the local connection.

“Winemakers lived here in biblical times,” she says. The wines are named for the ancient ruins in the area. We taste the Lavnin 2011, which contains several varieties. The Lenders produce 5,000 bottles per year in the building next to the moshav’s old poultry runs. “It has to be linked to where we live – to Mateh Yehuda, to the local agriculture and vineyards. That’s the only way it will work.”

When they showed me an ancient winepress, I imagined how the locals made the wine back then. I’m sure it made them sing out loud – just like I sang to myself all the way home.

Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad
Moshe Gilad