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Fine Wine from the Black Basalt Earth

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(Courtesy Golan Heights Winery)

L’Chaim celebrates wine from the Golan Heights

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Given the Purim day presidential tweet about the United States recognizing Israeli sovereignty over the Golan Heights, focusing on the Golan seems appropriate. Setting aside all geopolitical and policy considerations (this is a booze column, after all), the Golan is in fact one of the most important wine growing regions in Israel.

The Golan was the launching pad for Israel’s foray onto the international wine table. Specifically, the Golan Heights Winery (GHW) caused wine lovers across the globe to really begin to pay attention to Israel; the GHW began what is now universally acknowledged as Israel’s wine “quality revolution.”

The Golan is a volcanic plateau—about 44 miles north to south and about 27 miles from east to west at its widest point, altogether covering an area of about 444 square miles—which rises from Lake Kinneret to the foothills of the snow-covered Mount Hermon. The high altitude and cool climate combine with the hospitable soil composition, a mix of volcanic tuff and black basalt stone, to provide suitable conditions for high quality viticulture.

 

 

While Israel is on the same parallel as North Africa and is therefore one of the hotter wine-producing countries, climbing topography can neutralize some of the less optimal effects of the latitude, since elevation typically translates to cooler temperatures. Ranging from 1,300 to 4,000 feet above sea level, the Golan’s vineyards have some of the highest altitudes in Israel and enjoy the country’s coolest climate and a longer growing season.

As Victor Schoenfeld, chief winemaker of the Golan Heights Winery, once explained it to me, “We have a classic Mediterranean climate: cold, wet winters providing the vines a deep dormancy, coupled with warm dry summers; we typically enjoy a long and surprisingly gentle growing season. Our days during the ripening period are dry, and almost always accompanied by afternoon winds; the nights are cool with fog or dew. Vines love these conditions!”

Back in 1972 professor Cornelius Ough of the University of California at Davis identified the Golan’s potential for quality wine grape cultivation. At that time, it was a newly developed apple orchard area, but Ough noticed that the fruit was very good—apples, like wine grapes, also need a fine balance between fruit and acidity. He recognized and explained to the locals that the conditions were probably ideal for grapes.

Taking Ough’s advice, the first vineyards in the Golan were planted in 1976, and a core group of four kibbutzim (collective communities) and four moshavim (cooperative communities) then in partnership took the endeavor to the next level by establishing GHW in 1983. GHW also imported winemaking expertise from California in by hiring Peter Stern as a consultant and embraced and invested in his recommended new world technology. Schoenfeld, another California import, took over from Stern as head winemaker in 1992 after being the assistant in 1991.

Equally significant, this new world technology was matched with new approaches, such as the elevation of the importance of the vineyard and of proper vineyard management. Vineyards used to not have so much primacy, whereas today it is universally understood that the foundation of quality wine is made in the vineyard.

This new focus on the vineyard for wine production also meant that the management of the vineyard—the decision-making process of how to prune and when to harvest—shifted from the grower to the winemaker. This was another significant first. Taken altogether, Israel’s wine quality revolution was born.

The GHW’s first wine, a 1983 Yarden Sauvignon Blanc, was released to the market in 1984. It received widespread attention and equally widespread approval by wine critics across the wine world.

The GHW seemed to be blazing a path. In 1987 the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 1984 won Israel its first major international wine award: the Winiarski Trophy, and Gold Medal at the International Wines & Spirits Competition in London. The GHW has since become something of a symbol of Israel at such international competitions, routinely winning major awards in a wide variety of categories.

Part of the great accomplishment of the GHW was not merely, as 40-year Israeli wine industry veteran Ed Salzberg (formerly of the Barkan Winery) once told me, the creation of dry table wines that finally reached an internationally acceptable standard. It was also the fact that it “created the perception of quality Israeli wine,” and that, in turn, “forced the entire industry to follow suit,” planting better quality grapes in better matched locations. Israelis also invested in production technologies.

Until the Israeli boutique wine revolution of the 1990s, in which small new wineries began to flourish while focusing on excellence, the Golan was widely considered Israel’s only top-quality wine region. Since then, the Upper Galilee and the Judean Hills have also become known for superior quality. Even still, the Golan has flourished. There are now numerous successful wineries garnering attention and critical praise, though none of these wineries have yet matched GHW in accomplishment.

Indeed, GHW continues to blaze a path. Despite dramatic increases in volume production, GHW continues to be perhaps the most technologically advanced winery in Israel, with exemplary vineyard management and development, while still producing some of the best wines across various price-points. In 2011, for example, GHW won the Trophy for Best Winery in the World at Vin Italy, and in 2013 GHW was awarded the trophy of Best New World Winery by Wine Enthusiast Magazine here in the United States.

So this week, let’s toast Israel’s Golan region with a Golan grown wine. My own choice is the Golan Heights Winery, Yarden Rosé, Brut, 2012 ($40): This delightful, lightly pinkish, elegant sparkler is a blend of Chardonnay and Pinot Noir (typically 70/30 in most years), offering aromas of citrus, strawberries, stone fruits, and brioche, all draped in flowers. The bubbles are nicely sharp and concentrated, and the acidity is zippy and zingy. Yummy. L’Chaim!


Postscript: President Trump issued a proclamation formally recognizing Israel’s sovereignty over the Golan Heights on Monday, March 25th, 2019. Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who was present at the White House for the historic policy change, immediately commented: “Mr President, I have to tell you that I brought you a case of the finest wine from Golan.” I have it on very good authority from a friend of a friend who moves in such circles — remember, this is just a booze column — that the wine in question was indeed from the Golan Heights Winery.

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