Situated along the east coast of the Mediterranean or the western edge of Asia, Israel is surrounded clockwise by Lebanon, Syria, Jordan and Egypt. This narrow strip of land used to be the vital route linking two of the four cradles of civilisations – Egypt and Mesopotamia. The earliest winemaking may have originated from Georgia in the 6th millennium BC, but the earliest agriculture probably occurred in the Fertile Crescent in the 10th millennium BC. This is where humans first transformed from migratory hunter-gatherers into sedentary farmers, triggering the emergence of organised religion, codified law, social hierarchy and property ownership. Indeed, many of the oldest continuously inhabited cities are located in the Fertile Crescent.
The history of wine in Israel can be traced back to biblical times, with the Book of Genesis recording that Noah was the first to plant vineyards, drink wine and fall drunk. The Book of Deuteronomy, meanwhile, lists the fruit of the vine as one of the seven blessed species of fruit. The Land of Israel continued to produce wine, and its wine continued to be held in relatively high regard, under the Roman Empire and Byzantine Empire. Subsequent to the Muslim Conquests in the 7th century AD, however, even if vineyards were not uprooted, the grapes produced were to be consumed as fruits, and winemaking was nearly eradicated.
The resurrection of Israeli wine in the late 19th century has much to do with Edmond Benjamin James de Rothschild, who apart from supporting Zionism brought French grape varieties and oenological savoir-faire to Israel. Yet, until the late 20th century, Israel used to produce bulk kosher wine – often sweet and oxidised – for export. Thanks to the influx of capital and technology in the last three decades, Israel is now home to just under 300 producers, many of which are quality-driven, whose produce has been garnering awards and high ratings on the world stage.
Israel has a total of five wine regions: Galilee, Judean Hills, Negev, Samson and Shomron. Due to the country’s arid climate, careful site selection is important, and irrigation sometimes essential. Israel has a variety of terroirs, ranging from clay and terra rosa to limestone and marl with sediments or basalt deposits. Israeli wine is often described as more American in style, whereas Lebanese wine more French in taste.
Not all Israeli wines are kosher, and not all kosher wines are from Israel. A kosher wine is, in short, a wine produced as per Jewish dietary laws. As with anything legal – and Judaism is one of the most legalistic religions – laws are open to interpretation. For the more conservative, a kosher wine must be handled by only orthodox and observant Jews and supervised by a rabbi. For others, a mechanically made wine is kosher, as no gentiles (non-Jews) are involved in production. For the more liberal, the grapes can be harvested and winemaking process directed by non-Jews. Once opened, a bottle becomes non-kosher if touched by a non-Jew, unless it is mevushal (cooked beforehand). Some opine that 75 centigrades would suffice, others argue for 90 centigrades. Whether flash pasteurisation would suffice is another point of contention. Kosher wine for Passover is free from contact with chametz (leavening agent), which is forbidden for the festival.
Ella Valley EverRed 2012
A classic Right Bank blend of 70% Merlot, 25% Cabernet Sauvignon and 5% Cabernet Franc from Judean Hills. Supervised by a rabbi and kosher for Passover. Rich garnet with cardinal-crimson rim, the aromatic nose offers cranberry, red cherry, allspice, cocoa and sandalwood. With generous acidity, suave tannins and clear minerality, the lush palate delivers plum, redcurrant, coffea arabica, tobacco and sous bois. Medium-full bodied at 14.5%, the engaging entry continues through a fleshy mid-palate, leading to a long finish.
Ella Valley Cabernet Sauvignon 2011
A classic Left Bank blend of 85% Cabernet Sauvignon, 10% Merlot and 5% Petit Verdot from Judean Hills. Supervised by a rabbi and kosher for Passover. Rich garnet with carmine-purple rim, the fragrant nose presents black cherry, cassis, cinnamon, pencil shaving and iris. With abundant acidity, polished tannins and clean minerality, the elegant palate supplies blackberry, liquorice, nutmeg, black coffee and graphite. Medium-full bodied at 14.5%, the juicy entry persists through an expressive mid-palate, leading to a lingering finish.
Samples provided by Prof. Glenn Timmermans, D.Phil. (Oxon.), FRAS, of University of Macau. A board member of Hong Kong Jewish Film Festival, his research interests include, inter alia, Jewish History and Holocaust Studies. W: https://fah.umac.mo/staff/staff-english/glenn-timmermans/; E: firstname.lastname@example.org; T: +853 8822 8206
Jacky I.F. Cheong is a legal professional by day and columnist by night. Having spent his formative years in Britain,
France, and Germany, he regularly writes about wine, fine arts, classical music, and politics in several languages