The headline “Israel wins plaudits and acclaim in international forum” seems strange in today’s political climate. But the forum was not the United Nations Human Rights Council, but the prestigious international Vinitaly and Decanter magazine awards.
At the 2011 Vinitaly awards, the Golan Heights Winery won two gold medals and was declared the best wine producer in the world. At the equally important Decanter annual international awards, Carmel Winery beat some of the world’s most renowned producers to the top award for its Kayoumi Single Vineyard Shiraz 2006 — the first time any Israeli winery has walked off with the Decanter International Trophy.
According to Adam Montefiore, wine development director for Carmel Winery and wine writer for the Jerusalem Post, there has been an explosion of interest in wine in Israel in the last 15 years. “The market is growing, but the great move has been to quality. More vineyards are being planted in higher altitude regions and more are planting quality varieties, which is driving the industry forward.”
To date, Robert Parker, the most influential wine critic in the world — who rates wines on a 100-point scale — has awarded 19 Israeli wines scores of 91 or more.
The UK’s leading wine critic Hugh Johnson is also a fan. “Israeli winemakers are dynamic and internationally trained. The red wines seem to be improving each year,” he says.
One of the most exciting developments is the growth of hundreds of boutique wineries. Many are micro-wineries, producing small amounts of limited production wines while others are run by internationally trained professional winemakers with state-of-the-art equipment. Each produces between 100,000 and 1,000,000 bottles a year, beating the French, Australians, Chileans and Californians at their own game. Montefiore attributes the success of this sector “to individuals wanting to join in, producing wines in small amounts with individuality and passion”.
But it has not been easy. “Israel is too often associated with kiddush wine” explains Montefiore. It has taken Israel’s wine industry years to shake off the sticky sweet image. Politics is another issue. Golan Heights Winery (which exports over 38 per cent of all Israeli wine) suffered the humiliation in Sweden of its wines being labelled as originating in “Israel, occupied Syrian land”.
Edgar Bettridge is the buyer for UK distributor Enotria, a company importing Yatir Forest and Carmel wines. In his view, “the Middle East conflict polarises opinion and we have feedback that some consumers boycott Israeli products. There is no doubt that peace would improve the image of Israeli wine.”
Israeli wineries now produce over 36 million bottles a year. Some medium-sized wineries are planning to double or triple their production over the next few years. The problem is that the local market is fairly limited. On average Israelis drink about seven litres of wine a year compared to 56 litres for the French and 49 litres for Italians. Many wineries are looking to the kosher market to increase sales, but that market is also relatively small — Jews just do not drink enough.
In Bettridge’s view, international export also presents issues. “Pricing is sometimes a problem and the logistics of delivering relatively small quantities of niche products can be an issue compared with larger volume producer countries”.
But international wine sales are becoming increasingly regionalised. Wine clubs are selling “Eastern Mediterranean wines”, and including wines from Greece, Turkey, Cyprus, Lebanon, the Balkans — and Israel. In May, Marks & Spencer started an eastern Mediterranean promotion, which includes Israeli wines.
The future of Israeli wine does remain promising. Nathan Herzog, vice-president of Royal Wine Corp, which distributes in the United States, believes: “We have only begun to scratch the surface with Israeli wines, and a peace treaty can only further the embrace”.