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Intoxicating praise for Israeli vintages

Brave growers have revolutionised the way Israeli wines are viewed

    Eli ben Zaken of Domaine du Castel, who turned his back on chicken farming to produce acclaimed wines
    Eli ben Zaken of Domaine du Castel, who turned his back on chicken farming to produce acclaimed wines

    After more than 20 years of striving for a quality reputation, Israeli wines have come of age with a ringing endorsement from one of Britain's best-known experts.

    "These are arguably the finest wines in the Eastern Mediterranean," Times columnist and Master of Wine Tim Atkin told restaurateurs, sommeliers and wine writers who had gathered for the most ambitious tasting Israel's winemakers have ever staged in the UK.

    The event, held last month, featured not just the kosher houses with British distributors who have been wheeled out annually in the past, but some of the newbies who also make great wines and are thirsty for recognition abroad.

    "I did a lot of tasting in Israel a couple of years ago," Atkin explained as he took a tasting break at the Landmark Hotel, "and I found the quality of the wines speak for themselves. With the cost of land and labour, they are never going to be selling for £5.99 in the supermarket - but they have a great opportunity in the £8 to £25 range."

    Atkin waxes lyrical about pricey Domaine du Castel - think £30-£44 per bottle - as you might expect. But one of the more affordable wines which tickled his fancy was the £21 Syrah from Dalton. Founded by a London family which established vineyards in the Galilee as an act of philanthropy, Dalton is following Carmel by making better wines in response to competition from Israel's 200 boutique wineries.

    And being canny about grape varieties is the key to their success, says Atkin. "At first, all the winemakers felt they had to grow Bordeaux and Burgundy varieties to be taken seriously. But Israel can really score with Syrah, Petite Sirah, Carignan and Mourvedre.

    "It's just a shame they don't have any old, indigenous varieties left. Israel is one of the most ancient winemaking areas in the world, with Noah planting the first recorded vineyard and a golden age following, but 1,300 years of Arab and Ottoman rule caused the ancient vines to disappear."

    However, different varieties, including Barbera, Malbec and Zinfandel, are appearing in Israeli vineyards, and great whites are being produced. "Taste the Riesling from Vitkin," Atkin exhorted his audience at the end of his seminar, "it's fantastic." And indeed it was.

    Vitkin, which has attracted gold and silver medals at Israeli wine competitions, is one of these mavericks experimenting with a wide variety of grapes and only now dipping a toe into the international arena.

    Its Riesling has been praised not only by Atkin but Decanter magazine, which also found its Petite Sirah "remarkable". Like many of Israel's boutique wineries, Vitkin was founded by self-taught aficionados from unrelated fields - in this case Sharona, an architect; her brother Assaf, a pastry chef; and Sharona's husband, Doron, who taught himself winemaking after working in stone and marble.

    The self-tutored who follow their instincts and take risks are the ones who are winning the highest accolades.

    Eli ben Zaken, whose Domaine du Castel is considered Israel's top winery, was a chicken farmer who decided to plant vines in the "unworkable" Judean Hills. Now the area, close to Jerusalem, produces some of the finest vintages in the country and is the home of Israel's first wine trail.

    Ben Zaken, who has a few years over the newcomers, decided it was worth the extra cost of making his operation kosher in order to reach a much larger share of the market, and now the Flam winery, one of the most accomplished of his neighbours, plans to follow suit.

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