I’ve been selling Israeli wine for over 20 years, and I still get stumped by the same question. Which part of Israel produces the best wines? 40 years ago, the answer might have been the Sharon and Mediterranean Coast Line. 25 years ago, the answer might have been the Golan Heights. 15 years ago, one might have said the Arad Oasis in the Negev. 10 years ago one might have thought the Jerusalem Hills. In truth, all these answers may have been correct. Now, in 2012, we might have a different answer. The Shomron region. The region itself probably has the least amount of wineries per square meter. However, don’t take that as an indication of its grape growing, or wine making capabilities. This region has been producing great grapes and great wines for over 2 millennia. Evidence of superior grape growing potential in this region can be traced back to the Jewish Forefather, Jacob, who blessed the region with great grape growing prowess.
The blessing was again fortified by the Jewish prophet, Ezekiel. More tangible evidence exits throughout the mountain range in the form of all the ancient wine presses that can be found.
So, ancient blessings aside, what makes this region so great for grapes? Well, let’s take a closer look at the some of the wineries that exist there. The northern most winery in the region is Tura. Based in the town of Rechalim, along Rout 60, winemaker Erez Ben-Sadon has his built his boutique winery, in, of all places, an old army barrack. Aside from making wine, which well get back to in a moment, he is also the grape grower, on the much sought after, Har Bracha (Mount Blessing) vineyard. He enjoys the snow topped mountains that the winter provides and feels the cool night summer breezes are a huge help. Many adjacent wineries, and some not so adjacent, come to buy grapes from him. Having grown up tending the vineyards, it was a logical transition to making wine. What was difficult was making “great” wine. It seems, true to its name, Har Bracha yields powerful (blessed) Cabernet Sauvignon grapes. These vineyards are carefully planted, pruned, and irrigated, to allow for these, world class, grape producing vines to flourish. Erez Ben-Sadon uses these grapes to their full potential and is now producing fantastic Cabernet Sauvignon. I refer to his 2007 vintage which has been bottle-aging rather well. I was able to taste this wine two weeks ago, in Jerusalem. The wine was full-bodied, long on fruit, with pleasant balance in respect to the oak and tannins not overpowering the other aspects of the wine. You can expect to pay around 140-150 nis per bottle. The most ironic part of the whole experience to me was, his best selling wine is a fantastic Merlot that he makes! The only down side to enjoying Tura wines is replacing them. They are hard to find as he does not make a lot.
As we travel down route 60, we come to another boutique winery. This one is called Gvaot. Using grapes grown in the local Givat Harel mountain, vineyard, winemaker Shivi Drori, wields his magic. Well, for some, it’s magic. For Shivi, who has earned an MA in agriculture, its more of a science/ art combination. Relying on vineyards that are some 800 meters above sea level, he makes his wines to have a distinct fruit flavor profile. While he relies on old European style production philosophies, I can’t help but be reminded of new-world style Cabernet Sauvignon fruit, when drinking his wines. They posses an abundance of fruit that are in harmonious balance with the oak derived tannins that the wine received while aging in the new French oak barrels he employs. Shivi is also making a name for himself in another rdirection. To his creduit he has started to experiment with unique blends. For example, he now produces a Chardonnay /Cabernet Sauvignon blend. Very unique and worth a visit to the winery to taste. As Shivi is an agriculturalist, he tends his own vineyards and prefers to allow the vineyards to work hard to produce the best fruit possible. He believes intervention should only be done when needed. Once again, however, we have a similar issue with Gvaot. Like all other boutique wineries, supply for Gvaot is very limited.
As we cross Route 60, we get to another winery. While this is also a boutique winery, they have the ability to go slightly more main-stream. This is the world Famous Shiloh Winery. What makes Shiloh Winery “World Famouse”? you may ask. Shiloh is historically famous as it was the resting place for the Tabernacle (Mishkan), when the Jews first entered Israel, before the Jerusalem Temple was built. Fast-forward to present day, while the region is famous for growing great grapes, the winery is famouse for the winemaker and his results. Shiloh Winery is still relatively young. The first vintage they produced was 2005. Much to everyone’s (except the winemaker and owner), the wine started to win local awards immediately. These awards were soon accompanied by international awards and accolades from wine critics around the world. Shiloh Winery was an investment idea of Dr. Mayer Chomer from Mexico where he is a professor of law. While the owner is known for his investment savvy, the winemaker is a very different story. Winemaker Amichai Lurie would be very content to leave the world behind and just produce great wine all day, every day, go home to his family, and go to bed. However, Amichai is truly a victim of his own success. It’s difficult to leave the world when the entire world wants your wine. Last year Amichai and Shiloh Winery, surpassed all expectations of the Israeli wine world by taking Three coveted Gold Medals in The “Eshkol Hazahav” wine competition. Not in just one category, but in all 3 major categories. Shiloh Winery was awarded Gold Medal in Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, and Shiraz. The best part is, those were not his best wines. His “Mosaic” is a blend of superior quality grapes that are carefully blended to make a superb wine. At this time, he has only made it twice 2006 and 2007.
Not to be one to rest on his laurals, Amichai continues to make fantastic wines. Most recently, the winery released a new wine celled Shiloh “Legend”. Shiloh is one of the larger ones, of the boutique wineries. But don’t get to excited. Because his wines are great, they are still hard to find.