I srael’s world-leading technology is hardly news. But now Israeli scientists are making huge strides in an unexpected sector — wine-making.
The Golan Heights Winery was a collective founded in 1993 by a group of kibbutzim and villagers who settled in the north of Israel.
Vines were imported from France and California and planted in 1976, producing a spectacular crop of high-quality grapes. However, the major winery in Israel at the time was not interested buying the crop, arguing that there was no domestic market for fine wines.
Instead of selling their grapes for a lower price, a collective decided to start producing their own wines. Californian expert Victor Shoenfeld was brought in to advise. The first Yarden Carbernet Sauvignon, produced in 1984, was aged in oak barrels, bottled, then aged some more and sent to London in 1987, where it won a gold medal in the International Wine and Spirit Competition.
The premise of the winery’s founders was to produce excellent wines but also to educate Israelis to appreciate and demand better wines. Early vintages were mostly exported, but the balance has changed, so that 80 per cent of its output is now sold in Israel.
As well as investing in education, the winery has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars in technology and in a short space of time made significant scientific breakthroughs that have allowed GHW to improve yields and quality.
One of the major problems to overcome has been the tiny mealybug, which transmits leafroll virus from vine to vine.
The virus, which mainly affects red grape vines, has been recognised as one of the biggest problems facing wine-growers worldwide. All of Golan Height’s vineyards, and probably all vineyards in Israel, are infected. Vines will have to be pulled up and replaced with virus-free clones, which take at least four years to become productive.
GHW has worked with world-renowned plant virologist Professor Gerhard Pietersen to control the disease.
He says: “I believe Golan Heights Winery’s relative isolation and dedicated approach will soon lead to complete control of leafroll, or maybe even eradication. But the majority of wine-growers worldwide are not yet following suit.”
GHW has also harnessed technology to make the best of its natural resources. Renowned Israeli soil surveyor and geologist Yoshua Mager has helped it to create detailed maps of the subsoils on which the vineyards sit, so that they can now accurately match the ideal types of vine with different soils.
The winery has also worked with Dr Phil Freese who has adapted Nasa-developed satellite imaging technology for agricultural use, allowing measurement of a vine’s sunlight absorbency, leaf density and colour variation. At any time, the winery knows how much light is being reflected off the leaves and the amount of sunlight absorbed, information that is crucial in knowing how and when to produce the highest quality grapes.
The Golan Heights’ microclimate has also presented issues. The latitude is Mediterranean, but the high altitude makes the growing conditions similar to regions like Bordeaux — but with only one-third of the rainfall. So ensuring water efficiency is essential.
Plant physiologist Dr Michael Kopyt has used weather stations to help GHW create a unique model, which can even predict how blocks of vines will react to future weather conditions. Eventually, blocks of vines will be designed needing little or no irrigation.
For the winery, one wine exemplifies the extent of its achievement. Yarden Rom 2006 was developed by Shoenfeld together with the internationally-renowned Californian viticulture expert, Zelma Long.
The wine is made up of 37 per cent syrah grapes, 34 per cent cabernet sauvignon and 29 per cent merlot, and was aged in French oak barrels for 21 months and was bottled without filtration. The fruit comes from the winery’s finest vineyards in the central and northern Golan Heights, and from one outstanding vineyard in the Upper Galilee.
The reviews have been ecstatic. The late, celebrated critic Daniel Rogov described Yarden Rom as “the best Israeli wine ever” on the basis that “it will not fully come into its own until somewhere about 2014”.
He went on to compare the winery favourably with the best producers in France, Italy and California, describing it as “doing something very right indeed”.
So, in a relatively short space of time the Golan Heights Winery has made itself one of the world’s most advanced wine producers.
As Zelma Long says: “Israel may be a small wine-growing country, but the wine team and wine-growers here have made the world their playing field.”