Viniculture isn’t new; it’s perhaps as old as history itself. The first winery discovered dates back to 4100 BCE in Armenia. Some wine historians date the origins of winemaking back as early as 8000 BCE. Grapes are one of the seven biblical species (Deuteronomy 8:8). With 221 mentions in the Old Testament, wine always has played a role as a pillar of Judaism and its rituals, but perhaps never as profitably as today. Quality wines have replaced sweet red wines once produced for religious rituals. While 95 percent of wine produced in Israel is kosher, only 55 percent of wineries are kosher and less than 15 percent of Israeli wine is produced for sacramental purposes.
Israeli viniculture was improved as vineyards began to move inland from the humid coast to chillier, drier hills on the Golan Heights and Galilee, Judean Hills, and Negev highlands. Vineyards have transformed the countryside with green rows across the dusty hillsides. With more than 70 commercial companies and 250 boutique wineries, wine trails are easily intertwined with history and archeology for tourism today.
That’s how travelers on the mid-October Weintraub Israel Center Israel Experience 2018 wound up at the Golan Heights Winery, one of the top three wineries in the country. Hosted for a tour, wine tasting and lunch, the Tucson visitors got a quick education in the industry, the winery, and the internationally acclaimed tastes of some of the 20 wines produced there.
“I knew we were in for something special when I noticed that half of their winemakers graduated from the UC Davis viticulture and enology program, considered by many to be the world’s best enology program,” says Harry Crane, a trip participant. “The food was exceptionally good, as is generally the case at wineries who hire top-notch chefs to make sure the food and wine pair beautifully together.” Crane, a former French fine dining chef, recently retired as an executive chef from Kraft/Heinz Company.
“The winery presented an array of salads that were exceedingly well executed and accompanied by a complex gewürztraminer that allowed the dishes to really shine,” Crane says. “Their lightly oaked chardonnay paired perfectly with the dill-scented salmon. I particularly liked the sauvignon blanc, which had tropical fruit and citrus notes that reminded me of the New Zealand wines that I enjoy so much.”
Winner of numerous international awards, Golan Heights produces 5.5 million bottles of wine annually, labeled as Yarden, Gamla (Gilgal in the United States), Mount Hermon and Galil Mountain. The winery’s 28 vineyards cover more than 1,500 acres at 3,900 feet elevation, with 22 grape varieties. The bulk of production, 75 percent, is sold in Israel, with about 15 percent of the balance exported to North America (1.5 million bottles) and the rest to 32 countries, says Ruven Fiverock, wine tours public relations guide. In fact, $50 million of Israeli wines are exported annually, largely to Jewish communities including the United States.
Two-thirds of Golan Heights’ production is young wine, bottled after a short fermentation. It must be sold in one or two years, or it loses its flavor, according to Fiverock. Aged wines are stored in French oak barrels for maturation then bottled for the process to continue. The content is 100 percent grapes, with nothing more than yeast added. While some wineries add gelatin or milk to clear the wine faster and more cheaply, all workers in Golan Heights’ winery fermentation area are observant, and all ingredients are kosher, with no food allowed into the fermentation area. A rabbi supervises the high tech process.
Golan Heights wines are sometimes available in Tucson at Total Wines or online from various vendors, primarily under the Mount Hermon label.