The (Judean) Hills Are Alive
Courtesy Tzora Vineyards
Wines from Israel’s Heartland
Wines from Israel’s Heartland
About 25 miles from the Mediterranean Sea and about an hour’s drive from Tel Aviv or Jerusalem, lie the Judean Hills, or “Harei Yehuda.” This region is quickly joining the far more established Golan Heights and Upper Galilee as a top Israeli wine growing regions.
Southeast of Tel Aviv, the central coastal plain leads steadily towards the higher ground of the Judean Foothills. The topography rises sharply after the town of Beit Shemesh and climbs steadily from the Judean Foothills to the Jerusalem mountains and includes the Mount Hebron ridge, the Jerusalem ridge, and the Judean slopes. This region encompasses modern-day Ramallah, Jerusalem, Bethlehem, and Hebron. In biblical times this territory was the heartland of the Kingdom of Judah, the cradle of Jewish civilization. It is also a proving to be a fabulous location for growing wine grapes. Quality-driven viticulture took root commercially in the 1990s and today there are more than 30 wineries.
I recently met with the Judean Hills Quartet, a consortium of four Israeli wine producers from the Judean Hills wine region who joined forces in 2017 to promote not only their wines but the region itself. As their sleek website puts it: “The Quartet’s purpose is to educate and explain about this fascinating, new quality wine region, in the same place where wine was made in ancient times.”
Representing the wineries on this occasion was Eli Ben Zaken, winemaker of the family owned and operated Domaine du Castel; Eran Pick MW, winemaker at Tzora Vineyards; Golan Flam, a part-owner and winemaker of the family owned and operated Flam Winery; and Doron Rav Hon, founder and winemaker at the non-kosher certified Sphera winery.
With widely held reputations for high quality amongst both critics and consumers, each of these wineries is genuinely trying to make terroir-driven wines from the Judean Hills.
The region enjoys a Mediterranean climate—warm, dry summers and cool, wet winters—and benefits from cooling winds from the Mediterranean that help ventilate the vineyards. The soil composition tends to be a shallow terra rossa clay atop a deep limestone bedrock, providing good drainage and a mineral-rich environment that is conducive to growing quality red and white grapes. The dry, often scorching summers demand drip irrigation for these vineyards, but if used judiciously, it has proven no barrier to great quality here. The vineyards tend to be small, planted at elevations between 1,310–2,620 “ above sea level, variously located in wadis (valleys) and sloping hills, each offering something a little different to its grapes—or, as the website proffers it, “Each in its own way offers a unique palette for the winemaker to interpret the particular terroir.” While all were fabulous, at this tasting, I was most taken with the wines of Tzora Vineyards.
Founded in 1993 by Ronnie James with the explicit goal of “establishing a Judean Hills terroir,” Tzora has been one of the pioneers of the Judean Hills region, and of the very concept of terroir-driven wines in Israel. James’ vision is being ably championed by winemaker Eran Pick, MW. The Kfar Saba-born Pick caught the wine-bug in Germany’s Mosel region. After finishing his IDF service, Pick pursued his newfound love of wine with gusto, working between 2004 and 2006 at wineries in Napa, Sonoma, Bordeaux, and Barossa, and earning his bachelor’s in Viticulture and Enology with Highest Honors from the University of California, Davis. After graduating, Pick landed a job at Tzora Vineyards. In 2016 he became the first—and still only—Master of Wine, or MW, in Israel. Pick’s tireless focus, however, continues to be producing wines with character distinctive to the land in the Judean Hills of Israel. Tzora produces three reds and two whites under labels that reflect this singular focus: Judean Hills (the region), Shoresh (estate vineyard), and Misty Hills (“the winery’s best vineyard plot”).
Here is one red and one white worth seeking out now:
Tzora Vineyards, Shoresh Blanc, 2018 ($40): A blend of 90 percent Sauvignon Blanc and 10 percent Chardonnay, this is lovely, lively, rich, complex, and elegantly fruity with citrus, floral, and apple, pear and peach notes; nice spice accent on the finish. It’ll improve with a little age but is so charming now I don’t think I’ll resist long enough to see just how much maturation might improve things.
Tzora Vineyards, Misty Hills, 2017 ($70): A distinctive and nicely structured blend of 55 percent Cabernet Sauvignon and 45 percent Syrah, this is gorgeous and velvety, with lovely notes of black cherry, currant, milk chocolate, baking spices, a little aniseed, and some graphite and minerals in the finish. Yummy.