What Makes an Israeli Wine Israeli?

Wine experts shy away from defining the Israeli terroir, implying that the concept can't apply to a young wine culture; but Israel is home to one of the world's oldest wine-growing regions.

Noga Tarnopolsky
Noga Tarnopolsky
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Grape harvest at Ramot Naftali, a winery in the Upper Galilee in northern Israel.
Grape harvest at Ramot Naftali, a winery in the Upper Galilee in northern Israel. Credit: Dror Artzi / Jini
Noga Tarnopolsky
Noga Tarnopolsky

Terroir, like boudoir and argot, is a word that seems unnecessarily obscure, laced with that French je-ne-sais-quoi that so often just means quoi?

Simple English words exist: dressing room for boudoir and slang for argot. For terroir, the term is ecosystem, though it’s not quite right.

Terroir, a derivative of terre (land) means ecosystem plus the legal and cultural definitions of a wine’s pedigree: it’s the promise of a specific grape grown in a specific region.

We already know what that means: that it is one thing to buy a Bourgogne Grand Cru and it is entirely another thing to buy a California Pinot Noir. You want to know what you are getting, both in terms of origin and in terms of the taste of what you are about to pour into your glass.

For most of us, terroir means taste. The link between the ground and the fruit is such that some grape farmers are known to sample a pinch of the earth in which they grow their grapes, to try to suss out and develop a flavor they’re searching for.

You know, when drinking a Barbaresco, that you’re about to get a whiff that is powerfully reminiscent of the white truffles that grow in the same region.

But what about an Israeli terroir — what are the aromas and tastes that announce Israel’s wines? The question has long been an irritant, with many Israeli wine experts retreating into a bashful silence which implies that terroir, with its romance, intrigue and allusions to old, family-held domains, cannot be applied to so young a wine culture as Israel’s.

Israel is actually home to one of the oldest wine-growing regions in the world. An archeological dig directed by the University of Haifa’s Prof. Guy Bar-Oz recently unearthed 1,500-year-old Negev grape seeds, and with some luck their DNA may be extracted so as to recreate the wine that Herod loved. There’s a sweet irony here: most histories of wine grapes hold that the seeds were originally taken from the Middle East and planted in European soil, so that the Cabernet Sauvignons and the Merlots we consider foreign implants may in fact be the great-grand-grapes of vanished local varietals.

Israel is part of the Mediterranean terroir, tying us doubly to the term. Mediterranean means “sea within the land.”

Often, wine drinkers recoil from certain aspects of the culture of wine consumption. A common trigger is the florid use of metaphor to describe the tastes and aromas of fermented grapes: shoe leather, moroccan red, slate, beeswax. Who wants to drink any of this?

It doesn’t have to be such a reach. Yoav Levy, who owns Bazaelet HaGolan, a winery celebrated especially for its Cabernet Sauvignons, says that his terroir expresses itself through the taste and feeling of very ripe fruit, forest berry, cherry, and even hints of blueberry. “We have very, very ripe flavors in our wine,” he reflects. “One thing that characterizes our terroir is that the flavors are so saturated you don’t feel how alcoholic the wine is. We’ve even gotten up to 17%, but the sensation is not alcoholic.”

An average red wine has an alcohol content of between 12% and 14%. Recently, I drank a Trio, a red blend produced by another Golan vintner, Tal Pelter, and the liquid in the glass was so dark as to be impenetrable by the bright light of an iPhone torch. A purple so dark it bordered on black velvet.

This saturation is likely due, at least in part, to the vast difference in daytime versus nighttime temperatures on the Golan Heights. When analyzing the Israeli terroir, possibly the “most important point is elevation above sea level,” explains Edan Barulfan, an attorney and wine writer at www.grape-man.com who has just published the first book that classifies and explains Israel’s wine country.

“All over Israel the summer heat is almost impossible for the grapes," Barulfan says. "It’s very difficult. You need the night to calm the fruit down before the next wave of heat.”

For this reason, many of Israel’s premier grapes are harvested at night. All things going well, the extremes in temperatures and the relatively steady seasonal weather create grapes that burst with fruitiness and that actually need high levels of alcohol to do away with what otherwise might be excess sweetness.

Barulfan’s new book, "Zone Defense: On Wine Regions and Regionality Worldwide with Practical Recommendations Towards Regional Legislation in Israel," which combines the legal framework for the definition of wine-growing areas with scientific studies establishing various geographic zones, should end the debate about the existence of an Israeli terroir.

Eran Pick, winemaker in the Judean Hills’ Tzora winery, labors to express the ecosystem in which he operates through blends that he feels best reflect the land. “Something can be very tasty,” he says, “very good, like a single vineyard varietal, but it doesn’t express the region. It is simply a very good iteration of a single grape.”

“I’m not interested in trying to reproduce a Bordeaux or a Chianti here, which given where we are might be a realistic proposition. It is very important for me to produce a singular taste,” Pick explains. “I look for herbs and spices; something very, very spiced and less fruity.”

The Judean Hills are rocky, dusky green and dry, with wild rosemary, hyssop, sage and bay plants perfuming the entire region. Forest mushrooms appear in the fall, after the first rains, at the roots of pine trees. “I like it very much,” Pick says. “You feel it in wines that have less black fruit, less red fruits and a strong herbaceousness.”

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