A question of taste for an Israeli winery

Carmel is attempting to turn Sabras into wine connoisseurs

September 21, 2010
L’chaim: visitors to the Carmel winery experience the new-style educational tasting workshops

L’chaim: visitors to the Carmel winery experience the new-style educational tasting workshops

Imagine this for a day trip. Israelis, stereotypically unable even to stand in a queue, will call up months in advance to book. Then, one by one as their turn arrives, they will head for the Carmel Mountains and transform themselves into wine connoisseurs.

Sketching out his plan, Adam Montefiore, development director of the Carmel Winery, admits that it does not sound likely. But he points out that two decades ago it seemed equally inconceivable that Carmel, then synonymous with super-sweet wines, would soon win accolades from wine critics.

In the last few years, Carmel's wines have won high ratings from the legendary American wine critic Robert Parker. The New York Times wine critic Howard G Goldberg gave a Carmel wine a 95 out of 100 score. And a few weeks ago, a Carmel Shiraz won a top prize at the Decanter awards in London.

Now, it is time for phase two. With the product improved, Montefiore is determined, with almost missionary zeal, to help Israelis to appreciate it. "The objective is to bring what we call wine culture to Israel," he says. "Despite the wine revolution in Israel, our consumption is just four litres per head a year, which is nothing. We are out to show people how to taste wine, how to store it and simply how to enjoy it."

Until a year or so ago, a tour of Carmel's 130-year-old winery in Zichron Yaakov (its other sites are closed to the public) was less than ideal. It was Israel's first winery, employer of three of the country's prime ministers and the first place in the country to have a telephone. Yet the guides worked for an outside company, had limited knowledge of the winemaking process and cited textbook stuff on the winery.

Montefiore, a British immigrant, snatched back control of the tours, redeveloped visitor facilities inside, and decided to offer something new to the Israeli market. "There are various Israeli wineries where you can go and see the basics of how wine is made. You can take the family, take a pushchair, spend 20 minutes or so on the winemaking process, enjoy a glass of wine and then get on your way," he says. "But we wanted to open a wine school within a winery."

So last year it was out with the tour guides with Carmel Winery emblazoned T-shirts and in with a smartly dressed sommelier. Now, the winery would offer places to just 60 visitors
a day rather than the former 600. And instead of an explanation spouted off parrot-fashion, visitors would be offered a tour built around their points of interest.

Some visitors ask to begin by taking a drive to see a vineyard, and if there is consensus in the group, the sommelier takes them. Or it might be a tour of the town, built around the winery.

Then there is a detailed explanation of how the winemaking process has changed over time. Most Israeli wineries are much younger, and therefore cannot show all the different phases in technology. At Carmel you can still see the ultra-cool cellar built in the pre-refrigeration era. You learn about old barrels used until the 1920s, the cement tanks that replaced them, and the stainless steel vats that in turn replaced them. The sommeliers explain how advances in technology enabled Carmel to up its act in the last couple of decades. They also give you an insight into the workings of Carmel's boutique winery and experimental micro winery, which are on the same site.

Barrel rooms in kosher wineries are generally no-go zones, because due to kashrut laws governing wine, the public may not touch them. Back in the spring, Carmel decked out a cellar with barrels holding brandy, which is not subject to the same laws.

The tastings in the old Carmel tours were brief and perfunctory. In the new tours they are lengthy and educational. The group is asked to choose a theme, such as cabernet sauvignon wines, or grapes grown in different regions of Israel. The sommelier then presents a workshop on the chosen theme, accompanied by relevant tastings.

Palwin, it ain't.

Last updated: 11:42am, September 21 2010