Israeli Terroir Reflected in this Elegant Red

Contributed by wine writer and consultant, Zachary Sussman

You might say that the tradition of winemaking in Israel extends as far back as the Old Testament, ever since Noah famously “planted a vineyard” and “drank of the wine” in Genesis. Given such ancient origins, it’s ironic that the modern Israeli wine industry has hardly outgrown its adolescence, at least compared to the legendary vineyards of Italy or France.

Sure, by now Israel has proven its ability to make high-quality wine: the most critically-acclaimed and “serious” examples, of course, are the rich and powerful expressions of Cabernet Sauvignon that currently dominate the country’s high-end market. But as Israeli viticulture enters the next stage in its development, the question inevitably emerges: what distinguishes an Israeli Cabernet, for example, from any other expression of that grape hailing from anywhere else on the globe?

What, if anything, makes an Israeli wine Israeli?

This isn’t an easy question to answer. To think along these lines probes deep into the elusive French concept of “terroir” essentially, the notion that a wine should faithfully reflect the singular climactic and geographical identity of its place of origin.  You might consider it the “stamp” or blueprint of the soil.

If you’ve ever been to Israel, you know that it enjoys a sunny, Mediterranean climate. As in other warm growing regions, such as California’s Napa Valley, the challenge for Israeli winemakers remains to preserve acidity while avoiding over-ripeness— a problem to which the Cabernet grape remains unfortunately prone. Without this crucial freshness, the wines risk having a “jammy” or over-concentrated quality; this masks the subtle, secondary flavors (think earth, mineral, and herbs) that impart a unique sense of terroir.

 

photo courtesy Royal WIne Corp

Taking its inspiration from the rustic yet elegant reds from Provence, the 2009 Domaine Netofa Galilee Red represents a welcome approach to the question of Israeli terroir. This unique effort shifts the stylistic model away from high-octane Cabernet, thoughtfully using the Syrah and Mourvedre varieties instead. Indigenous to the sun-baked hills of Southern France, these grapes have adapted over the years to retain freshness even in their warm native climate. As such, they seem like a natural fit for Israeli soil.

The results are stunning: a bright, versatile, and surprisingly balanced red, whose tell-tale notes of lavender and herbs offer a fascinating glimpse into Israel’s emerging identity as a distinctly Mediterranean wine region.

 

Welcome Guest Contributor, Zachary Sussman.

Zachary Sussman is a wine-writer and consultant based in Brooklyn. He contributes regularly to the “National” and “New York” editions of Tasting Table, and his work has appeared in Wine & Spirits, Serious Eats, and the Lot 18 blog, among others. He is also the Manager of New York University’s Graduate Program in Creative Writing, where he has taught at the undergraduate level.

THANK YOU to Visual Bible Alive for the first image in this post. AND another big THANKS for all other images, courtesy of Royal Wine Corp.

4 Comments

  1. It’s appropriate that Mr. Sussman is a Creative Writing teacher and not an oenologist, etc. Using the terms “Israeli wine” and “terroir” together is a sad joke as there is very little that is Israeli about most wines that Israeli winemakers crank out. They use French or other foreign varietals and then obsessively store them in French oak barrels to further alter the juice. Compare this with dynamic young winemakers elsewhere who are working hard to have their wines truly reflect the unique qualities of their origins.

    • I’m tossing this back into Zachary Sussman’s court as I am not a wine expert. He, however, is! Please check back to find his response here.
      And, what’s your favorite wine from Israel? Any vineyard you have particularly enjoyed visiting? All tips and opinions are welcome.

  2. Hi Trent: Thanks for the compelling response! You raise a very good point about many of the problems that currently plague the Israeli wine industry, but I believe that the issue is a bit more nuanced than your analysis might suggest. I’ve been writing about wine for many years now, for a wide variety of publications, and one of the topics that most interests me is the way in which developing/ New World wine regions approach the difficult question of uncovering their respective terroirs. This can be particularly challenging, since these regions are faced with the challenge of making wine without the guidance of any meaningful local viticultural tradition (it’s a bit like trying to put together the pieces of a puzzle in the dark). Compared to France or Italy, for example, the Israeli wine market is practically embryonic, and as you correctly diagnose the situation, far too many wineries are only interesting in cranking out big, oaky, internationally-styled fruit-bombs designed to garner high scores from critics, rather than to faithfully communicate their place of origin. That said, I do believe that Israeli winemakers need to start somewhere (and the process, of course, will take a very long time!). To that end, Netofa is at least on the right track and setting a positive example: by shifting the stylistic model away from the Cabernet-based wines of Bordeaux (or, perhaps even more appropriately, those from Napa Valley) and embracing varieties from the South of France, they’re making thoughtful choices concerning the grapes that might best suit Israel’s Meditteranean climate. Are the wines aren’t the most pristine and crystalline examples of Israeli terroir imaginable? Of course not, but that’s not really the point; this early in the game, it’s impossible to define what “terroir” actually means in relationship to the Israel’s wine industry. What’s important, however, or at least what I find worth mentioning, is that the Netofa red meaningfully engages with a specific European model (in this case, the Syrah and Mourvedre-based wines of Provence) as a useful point of reference for beginning to contextualize Israel’s extremely nascent identity as a Mediterranean wine region (as opposed to a breeding ground for nondescript, oak-laden, internationally-styled Cabernet). This represents a significant step forward for a nation where, as you correctly suggest, too many wineries aren’t even making the effort.

    • I agree with your points, Zachary. It would be a miraculous positive to have native Israeli varietals but alas such is not the case. What about wild yeasts — are those/can those be used in Israel ? Or aging in amphorae, or leather, as some Italian winemakers have tried ? I hope the Rhone tactic is a successful one, although not inherently more Israeli than Cabernet (but as Oregonion as Pinot Noir). I have found most Israeli Syrahs flabby and expensive. Better a great Cabernet or Merlot from Israel than a mediocre Mourvedre, I would think. Time will tell. In the meantime, the kosher wine consumer will be wise to read reviews whenever possible on the seemingly inexhaustible experiments as Israeli winemakers try new varietals every few years. Also, contrary to the Royal Wine claims on their Netofa website, the Wine Advocate ratings for the product were poor (88-89 points).

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>