Where do we go from Here? (Israel’s Path Forward)

#162 – February 15, 2011

Following on my end-of the-year newsletter which dealt with past and future trends in the kosher and Israeli wine world (Trending Upwards), I wanted to spend a little more time discussing the current status of the Israeli wine-industry and the direction in which it seems to be going.

As you all know, while the Israeli wine industry has been on a steady ascent with respect to quality and sophistication for 20 years, the last 5-7 years has been explosive insofar as the number of incredible wines and wineries that have sprung up and provided the consumer with a multitude of increasingly interesting possibilities when reaching for a good bottle of wine that just happens to be kosher.

This has happened all across the spectrum, from the lowest level of supermarket wine which has become really good wine at a decent price (the Barkan Classic Pinot Noir and Petit Sirah being good examples), all the way to the Super-Israelis like the Rom and Katzrin wines from the Golan Heights Winery, Dalton’s Matatia, the “E” from Ella Valley, Carmel’s Limited Edition and of course the impeccable Yatir Forest.

One the wine making revolution got underway in Israel, for years the top-tier wines produced by Israeli wineries were big, bold and fruit-forward wines with tons of alcohol and lots of ripe fruit, made from the classic Bordeaux varietals – Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Syrah, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay with Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Petit Sirah, Malbec (and other secondary varietals) primarily used as blending agents. The wines produced were pretty similar to each other and, while well-made and delicious, they tasted like many other wines made all over the world and could have been made anywhere. Many of these were also wines that had been what Alice Feiring likes to call “Parkerized” – meaning made to please the palate of famous wine critic Robert Parker and hopefully win a high score from him (although, given the captive kosher consumer audience, Daniel Rogov’s scores probably move more Israeli wine than Parker or anyone else’s). The main difference between the Parkerized kosher and non-kosher wines was their price, as kosher wines were (and still are) priced significantly higher than their global peers. While this is probably the result of kosher consumers being locked into a monopolized market, that is a debate and discussion for another time (I’m working on a future price-related newsletter).

The last few years have seen a number of welcome and very important trends start to percolate throughout the industry. Israeli wine-makers have started to realize that in order for Israeli wines to be recognized around the world as anything other than “kosher”, they need to have some “Israeliness” to them. As long as the wines being made in Israel tasted like wines made in numerous other places, there was little incentive for anyone other than the kosher consumer to try them, especially given their higher price-tag. As a result, recent years have seen a trend, spearheaded by Carmel, to try and find a more Mediterranean style of wine that would brilliantly showcase Israel’s unique terroir and provide the global wine consumer with an incentive to try something truly different – a wine from Israel, the country with thousands of years of wine-making history. Carmel even created a flagship wine –Mediterranean – comprised of a few varietals that have proven themselves to be at least somewhat expressive of Israel’s terroir, specifically Petit Verdot, Syrah and Carignan (more on Carignan below) which include more herbaceousness such as Mediterranean herbs like rosemary, sage and thyme. Other wineries, including Tzora, Tzuba, Vitkin (non-kosher), Psagot, Agur and others are also making “dirt” wines that actually taste like they come from a specific and special place. All in all, a very welcome trend.

Another trend along the same lines is Israel’s search for a varietal to call its own. While Israeli winemakers have shown their ability to successfully create Bordeaux blends and single Bordeaux varietals (which was the right initial move and necessary to build up the industry), Israeli wine makers need to start experimenting with different grapes, blends and wines in order to find the grape(s) that are most suited to its climate(s). Focusing on creating spectacular wine with such varietals that will be appreciated around the world is surely the next move. I have heard from many professionals, that one of the main reasons that Castel’s wines get so much international attention is that they are discernibly different than most Israeli wines and really stand-out from the pack, which is true and proves my point (I usually chalk it up to their incredible PR team (:-)), but it’s obviously more than that).

Most people professionally involved in the Israeli wine industry, including wine makers, critics and those in charge of promoting Israel’s wine industry to the world, agree with this necessity and there are a number of leading candidates for Israel’s varietal. In my opinion, the current varietals that are most likely to succeed are Carignan, Syrah, Petit Verdot and Cabernet Franc. Some folks think Grenache has a good shot but I haven’t seen any results to back that up – yet. Carignan actually has quite a history in Israeli and was its primary grape for almost 100 years (until the mid 1980s when Israel fine wine revolution took off). However, the wine produced in those days was nothing like the superb Carignan wines available on the market today, one of my particular favorites from Carmel – the Appellation Carignan 2006. In addition to their increasingly larger roles in the top-tier blended Israeli wines, all of the aforementioned varietals are also providing superb single-varietal wines as well.

As the industry barrels down this path, one question I would raise is whether the Israeli / kosher consumer is actually ready for this shift? As with many global trends, Israel tends to lag a bit behind. The move away from Parkerized wines to more those with elegance and a taste of place is probably about five years old and started with the professionals – wine critics, sophisticated drinkers and the wineries and wine makers themselves. The wine consumer is just starting to get into this trend, one of whose offshoots is the increasing interest in organic and biodynamic wines. The question I pose is how will the kosher wine consumer, who is just starting to get into drinking wine on a semi-massive scale, react to the shift away from Parker’s big bad boys to more subtle and elegant wines that actually taste like they were made in a winery as opposed to a laboratory? Most of the wine drinkers I know, who are only recently getting into wine tend to still prefer the big, fruit-forward wines, and don’t usually like or appreciate the more elegant, dirt-driven stuff. Only time will tell, but I can promise you it will be a fun journey.

To sum up, the wine industry needs to figure out how to satisfy the sophisticated and international palate by creating more terroir driven and Israeli/Mediterranean wines while still coaxing the newbie drinkers along to greater sophistication by still satisfying their palate for the bold and the beautiful.

No notes this week, but I’d suggest giving some of the more elegant, subdued and terroir driven wines a try. The Carignan and Petit Sirah in Carmel’s Appellation series or Tzora’s Givat Hachalukim (their Gewürztraminer is also great) would be among my top picks.