KIBBUTZ YIRON, Israel — From the oversized visitors’ balcony at Galil Mountain Winery, look past the symmetrical rows of vines on the rolling hills, and you can see the border with Lebanon. It’s close enough that a decade ago, when the countries were at war, artillery shells fell onto the vines, and workers had to stop bottling and evacuate.
The best grapes, some wine experts say, are those that grow through adversity — tough soil, heavy rain, a harsh and prolonged sun.
While many parts of the world are boasting about their new world wines, perhaps none have as complex a narrative as the land of Israel, which produces around 40 million bottles annually. Israel’s wine industry has grown in quality and reputation over the last decade, but its output remains small compared to other countries. Still, especially for repeat travelers, the country’s vineyards offer the incomparable — history.
Thousands of years ago, this region was making and exporting wine, and it’s not uncommon to see a millennia-old wine press within minutes of a state-of-the-art winery. Drive an hour south of Galil Mountain Winery, past the Sea of Galilee, and you’ll find Kafr Kanna (Cana), where many Christians believe Jesus performed his first miracle — turning water into wine.
“We are a ‘new world’ country (like California, South Africa, and New Zealand) with an ancient history of vine growing and wine production,” said Boaz Mizrahi Adam, winemaker at Galil Mountain Winery. “Although having this history, we are not constrained with tradition, and our industry could be considered a young industry that still seeks in a way its identity.”
More good news for travelers: Israel is about the size of New Jersey, but its diverse topography often resembles that of California. The beach in Tel Aviv is less than two hours from the desert, where the country has revived the Negev Desert Wine Route. Near Jerusalem are the Judean Hills, where limestone has provided the foundation for thousands of years of wine production.
Drive two hours north to the Golan Heights, where, for a couple lush months every spring, the mountains show off flowery fields and many shades of green. It’s this area that comprises the heart of Israel’s wine country. With soils ranging, from sedimentary to volcanic, widely varying altitudes, and proximity between vineyards, Israeli winemakers enjoy a significant logistical advantage in creating distinct blends.
From a visitor’s perspective, Israel is not Napa. There are, however, many large wineries that offer guided tours and tastings that may remind you of your last weekend in Sonoma or even the Finger Lakes.
The key is to delve into one of the country’s five wine regions over the course of a couple days: Galilee in the north, the Judean Hills, the Samson region, the Negev desert and the Shomron region. From there, pick a variety of wineries, large or small, and never attempt to visit more than two in a day.
It helps to keep to one region because the journey, even if it’s a short distance, can be a production. If you decide to drive — responsibly, of course — navigating the Israeli wine trail in the cheapest rental car is inadvisable. You’ll encounter winding switchbacks through green pastures marked by barbed-wire fences that warn visitors of the minefields left behind after mid-century wars.
There’s also no colorful map from the local Chamber of Commerce to show you the way. Adam Montefiore’s “The Wine Route of Israel,” as well as a recent cover story in Wine Spectator provide ample information on tours. But leave your spontaneity at the beach, because even the mid-sized vineyards require appointments during weekdays. (Also, they expect you to be on time.)
The trade-off is worth it: I’ve been on more winery tours than I can remember in the United States and abroad, but this was the first time I’ve had the pleasure of a personal tasting session with the winemakers.
“We don’t think we’ve arrived. We’re not saying Israeli wine is better than California or France,” said Montefiore, wine writer for the Jerusalem Post and 30-year veteran of Israeli wine. “We’re proud of our wine, but we’re very young in terms of a quality wine producer. We’re very young, but we’re on a journey. Twenty years ago, I wouldn’t believe where we are today. Who knows where we’ll be in 20 years time?”
At Flam Winery in the Judean Hills, the patriarch, Israel Flam, spent more than an hour at our table, talking in near perfect English about the country, politics, his career, and the winery that bears his name. Meanwhile, members of his family buzzed about the tasting room, and his son prepared for a sales trip to New York ahead of Passover.
At Kadma Winery, also in the Judean Hills, the founder explained her use of antiquity-inspired earthenware to store wine while it initially ferments. We were the only two people on a weekday afternoon to tour the former chicken-coop-with-a-view turned winery, but the founder says the parking lot is full on the weekend.
Speaking of tourist season, in observance of the Jewish sabbath, Israel celebrates the weekend on Friday and Saturday. This means some wineries are closed on a Friday afternoon, while others are packed with foreign tourists.
Adherence to Jewish food laws also makes for an interesting tour — and a conundrum for Israeli wines. It’s more expensive for many reasons, including that only observant Jewish men may come in contact with the product — and also, that vines must be rested every seventh year. But keeping kosher is key for marketing Israeli wine, both in the country in the United States, their largest export market.
That growing trade makes it difficult to believe that as recently as in the 1980s, Israelis referred to their local vintage as “Hammer Wine” because it caused pounding heads the next morning. The wine had a sweet, syrupy taste reminiscent of cough medicine.
“One of the biggest problems Israeli [wine] has today is that a lot of people presume that the word ‘kosher’ is related to these hammer wines,” said Montefiore. “Not all kosher wine is Israeli, and not all Israeli wine is kosher.”
Shira Center can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org