November 27, 2012

Israeli Wines - time to get them off the Kosher shelves!

Tel Aviv
I'm going to jump, chronologically, to Israel. We've just returned from a few weeks over there, which, for someone who's never lived in a war zone, was interesting, if occasionally scary. Subsequently, I had to self-confess my own woeful lack of knowledge about Middle East affairs, history and religion. I have been a reading fiend since we returned. I wish little more than peace and harmony for the whole region.
But Israel is amazing and interesting and, for the focus of this website, it has some world class wines. I had the opportunity to meet a few wine folks and taste some excellent wine, and I'm excited to return there in a  couple of weeks for more vinous adventures and travels.

I was wandering through Tel Aviv one day, when I came across this store. Really? The Scottish Wines and Alcohol? I just had  to pop in to see if I could meet the owner. Dan Leeor is the President of The Scottish - a wine and alcohol import and distribution company, started in 1944 by two Scots who felt sufficiently patriotic to come up with the name.
newly acquired wine purchases outside The Scottish

When Dan took over the company, his intent was to get rid of the odd name - well odd for Tel Aviv. But he found that  the quirky, out of context title was both well known, and attracted curious folks like me, so the name stuck.
Me, looking short, which I am, sandwiched between Dan, on the left, and my husband, Gerald
Dan was enthusiastic and helpful. He knows Israeli wineries well, and sells and distributes many of their products. I left there with contacts, recommendations and vague directions, and a few bottles of wine. If you're in the city at some point, you'll find The Scottish on Hata'arucha St, near Tel Aviv Port. Do drop in. Like many people in Tel Aviv, Dan speaks perfect English, which was fortunate as I have about four words of Hebrew. Before I start in on wines, we need some pictorial travelogue snippets!
The beaches of Tel Aviv are pristine; the water is warm.
Tel Aviv Port is a recently revamped area filled with cafes and shops, and an amazing undulating boardwalk.
amazing undulating boardwalk
Crowds of people come out on sunny days to stroll, eat, meet, rollerblade, skateboard, run and just generally hang out.
refreshing mixture of arak (anis), mint and lemonade
Appetizers. Yum.
 Floating in the Dead Sea is a must. Covering yourself in therapeutic black mud is optional - as is the Tilley hat!
 Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv, has a beautiful old city, vibrant night life and endless bars and restaurants.

I didn't absolutely fall in love with Jerusalem, although I definitely understand its pull for different religious groups. To my mind, it's an odd mixture of tensions, important religious sites, bustling underground markets and vying for tourist attention. But I was only there for a day - long enough to lose my Tilley hat, as it happens.
Church of the Holy Sepulchre

the white things are yogourt pyramids

Church at Gethsemane
The Western wall

Very old olive tree in the garden of Gethsemane
 Caesarea National Park is an ancient coastal village, north of Tel Aviv and an important and incredibly well preserved archaeological site. It dates back to Persian rule in 586 BCE, and has a rich history, including  being ruled by King Herod between 37 and 4 BCE. Between the 13thC and the late 19thC it was desolate, but is now an important site with ongoing work. Caesarea is well worth a day trip. Apart from the ancient site, there are great little restaurants, where you can enjoy lunch and a glass of something, overlooking the Mediterranean on a warm November Day. That's what we did!

Sarcophagus from 2nd or 3rdC CE

Tumbled down ancient walls with a restaurant on top.

Nice view from Caesarea

Beautiful couple - just married
We stayed in the grounds of the Weizmann Institute of Science, in a beautiful house with orange, lime, pomelo and fig trees in the garden. And flowers..............

Israelis are not big alcohol drinkers. Annual consumption is about a quarter of Canadian consumption rates. More wine is drunk than spirits, and restaurants and stores do a fine job of promoting Israeli wines, as well as having a range of international wines. Many restaurants focus on local wines and, given their quality, this is a fine thing.
Historically, wine has been consumed in this part of the world since biblical times, but the modern wine industry was started in the 1880's by Baron de Rothschild of Chateau Lafite-Rothschild, who helped start Carmel winery in 1882. There is, and has always been, a sizeable export market, 60% at some wineries, and much of it finds its way to Kosher shelves, where it's usually bought for religious occasions. Many Israeli wines in bygone years were not that good, creating an impression that Kosher wines were cheap or sweet wines, not intended for the table.
Fast forward a hundred years or so. Even at the turn of the millennium, there was only a handful of wineries in Israel  but, with increasing local interest in viticulture and wine making, aided by experts from other grape growing areas of the world, the Israeli wine industry took off. There are now close to 300 wineries! Wine Spectator magazine just recently named Golan Heights winery, founded in 1983,  as New World Winery of the Year.
Despite all of this, Israeli wines are still mostly found on Kosher shelves, and not everyone thinks to shop there, when searching for a nice little Cab Sauv to go with the BBQ lamb. In some stores, there might be a small section for Israeli wines or they might be nestled in a general section called Mediterranean, which can also be a last resort on the wander around the liquor store.
Paul Dubb is the winemaker and viticulturist at Tzuba Estate Winery, near Jerusalem. Tzuba was recommended to me by Dan at The Scottish. This is a winery making excellent wines, largely due to Paul's intelligent work in the vineyard, and experienced wine making skills, honed early when he lived in South Africa, where his father was a winemaker. Although 100% of Tzuba's wines are Kosher, Paul thinks that there's an impression that Kosher wines are inferior, and that some relabelling, and re-shelving would be advantageous to global promotion. He says that the only real difference between Kosher wines and non is that the former requires that a Sabbath observant Jew be involved in the process from harvesting to bottling. There are some other minor requirements, but nothing that would negatively impact the wine. So, while Kosher wines are the wines that should be sipped for Jewish religious occasions, it doesn't follow that they should only be drunk on those occasions.
I spent a fine morning with Paul at Tzuba, where we had a wonderful chat about the industry, the winery and his wines. I tasted an excellent range, including delicious whites, well balanced reds and some very promising  dessert wines. 
In the next story, I'll give more details about Tzuba and  the wines, as well as more info on the Israeli wine industry and regions. But it's been a couple of  weeks since I posted, so I'll put this out for now.
For Ontario readers, the LCBO currently has 50 Israeli wines on the books, ranging from $9.65 to $98. They are all Vintages products and certainly not available everywhere in great quantity, but if you browse the online system, you'll find some. Or, talk to your local friendly product specialist who might be familiar with some. Wineries represented that are worth trying - Dalton, Galil Mountain, Recanata and the Yarden label, which is the second label of Golan Heights Winery. Lovers of big, boozy wines will enjoy the fact that many Israeli wines are over 14% alcohol level. More on that in the next post.
Please check back next week. Off to Scotland for a few days.
Cheers! L'Chaim! Slainte!