As we approach Easter, this month’s column will touch upon the holy land and wine making. I will introduce you to an interesting figure with an Italian connection playing a big role in the development of excellent quality wine in Israel.
Many wine lovers are familiar with the exciting wines produced in relatively new wine regions such as New Zealand for example. Very few are familiar with Israeli wines or know that excellent wines are being produced there. The wine industry in this country has undergone a profound change in only twenty years. Whereby there were very few wineries 30-40 years ago, today you have over 300 wineries in a country the size of New Jersey.
Today’s wine industry in Israel can attribute its success to French Baron Edmond de Rothschild. In 1882, the Baron, owner of the Bordeaux estate Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, began to import grape cuttings and wine making know how to the area. However, wine making in the area goes back even further: biblical times. In Deuteronomy 8:8, wine is described as being a “blessed species of fruit found in the land of Israel.” In Genesis 9, 20-21 the bible says that 'Noah, a man of the soil, proceeded to plant a vineyard'. The geographic location of Israel was part of a wine trading route between Mesopotamia and Egypt. In Roman times, wine from Israel was exported to Rome in Amphoras. With the arrival of Islam in the 7th century, wine production was destroyed. It was not till the 19th century, that a revival of wine making in Israel took hold.
From a viticultural point of view, the climate of Israel is defined as Mediterranean. That is, the growing season is long with moderate to hot temperatures and little rain. There are 5 main growing regions in Israel:
- Galilee-Golan - Israel’s top wineries are located here, especially in the Golan Heights
- Samson - Most of Israel’s wine production is located in this region. About 40%. Judean Hills - This region enjoys cool nights. The cities of Bethlehem and Jerusalem are located here.
- Negev – Hot and dry region of Israel. Requires irrigation.
- Shomron – Largest region in terms of vineyards planted. Most of the grape varieties grown in Israel will be found here.
Most of the grape varietals in Israel are the Bordeaux grapes Merlot, Cabernet Franc and Cabernet Sauvignon. Other red varietals found are Syrah, Pinot Noir, Zinfandel and some Barbera, brought from Piemonte. Some of the white grape varietals present are Gewurztraminer, Chardonnay, Riesling, and Sauvignon Blanc. While Israel has a rich history in terms of wine making, it does not have any indigenous grape varieties. Any indigenous varieties that might have been present were replaced with table grapes with the arrival of the Ottoman Empire and Muslim rule.
Any discussion of food or beverage consumption in Judaism must cover the topic of Jewish dietary laws or Kosher. For a wine to be deemed kosher, the entire wine making process must be supervised by Sabbath-Observant Jews. Any ingredients added must also be kosher. Finally, a kosher agency or rabbi must provide the final approval or hechsher. While not all wines produced in Israel are kosher, the vast majority are. Whether a wine is kosher or not, has no ramifications on the quality of the final product.
One exciting winery which been around since 2000 is the Recanati Winery in Galilee owned by Lenny Recanati. His family hails from the Marche region of Italy where they lived for centuries. They trace their roots to the town of the same name. The town of Recanati had a sizeable Jewish population for hundreds of years. The Recanati family left Italy in 1933 for Israel. As a child Lenny’s parents would make wine with the grapes grown in their backyard. However, Lenny is not a wine maker by trade. He is a very successful international banker and financier. But his dream was to have his very own winery. And in the year 2000 along with some partners he founded the winery. Today Recanati Winery produces about 83 000 cases per year. It is Israel’s sixth largest winery. Their wines are exported around the world, including Italy! About 80% of production is devoted to red wines and the remainder to whites. The winery’s mission is to produce quality wines at reasonable prices. The wines fall under the Yasmin label, the Recanati and Reserve label and the Special Reserve label. Red wines are made mostly from the Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot varietals. The winery also produces wine with the Cabernet Franc, Shiraz and Syrah, Barbera, Zinfandel, Carignan, and Petite Syrah varietals. The whites are made with the Chardonnay, Sauvignon Blanc, French Colombard and Emerald Riesling varietals. The LCBO has 9 wines available from the Recanati portfolio. Amongst the reds, I would recommend the Recanati Petite Syrah/Zinfandel Reserve KP 2011, $33.95. This is a blend you often see in California and it was a surprise to see it being produced in Israel. It’s mostly Petite Syrah with some Zinfandel in the blend. It’s a beautiful deep ruby red colour. Berries and a slight nuttiness are the primary aromas. On the palate you will notice that it is a full-bodied wine with moderate tannins. The berry flavours, especially cherry carry over to the palate. There is also a slight herbal note of thyme and oregano and some black pepper. Great with Easter lamb. Released a few weeks ago at the LCBO is the Recanati Chardonnay KP 2012, $19.95. Made from grapes from a single vineyard and aged in French oak barrels sur lie. This is a French term which means “on the lees”. The lees are the sediment which consist of dead yeast cells, small grape particles which accumulated after fermentation, at the bottom of the barrel, demi-john, etc.. Winemakers allow the wine to age on the “lees”. This results in complex wines with a buttery, yeasty almost creamy feel in the mouth. The technique can also add a slight carbonation to the wine. This technique is often used with Chardonnay grapes. The Recanati Chardonnay has aromas of lemon and green apple and peach. On the palate you quickly pick up the creamy notes and oak from the aging sur lie. This is not a heavy bruising toasty chardonnay that sometimes you come across from California. It’s very elegant and smooth. Citrus and peach notes come across on the palate. It finishes off with a clean, crisp acidity. Because of the acidity I would pair this with a rich creamy pasta sauce or risotto alla Milanese. It has that backbone of acidity to stand up to any cream sauce. I was very impressed with the complexity of the wine.
Researching this article was a real eye opener for me regarding the exciting wine scene taking place in Israel. I invite you this Easter to try some of the wines of this very holy and historical area of the world. You won’t be disappointed.
Buona Pasqua. Grazie e salute!
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Domenico Cellucci is a wine consultant and educator and is a graduate of Algonquin College’s Sommelier Program. He puts on food and wine matching events in the national capital area. He has visited wineries and vineyards in Italy, France, British Columbia, Ontario and the United States.
By Domenico Cellucci