Almost since its initial production in ancient Israel, wine has also been exported from Israel. The pharaohs of Egypt favored Canaanite wine in the Bronze Age and when the Egyptians ruled the area, some taxes were paid in the form of wine.
In more recent history, letterhead of the Societe Co-operative Vigneronnes de Grandes Caves Richon le Zion & Zichron Yaacov Ltd., (Agudat Ha’Kormim) from 1934, clearly shows that in the last century Israeli winemakers had sales and distribution channels in, Syria, Turkey, Belgium. Switzerland, Germany, Czechoslovakia, United States, Africa, Australia, and even New Zealand.
Therefore, it’s no surprise that wine is being exported from Israel, today. However, the fact that some truly good wine is produced here still seems to elude many. Interestingly, part of the industry’s former export success, lies with the export of non-alcoholic ‘grape juice’ to Moslem markets.
According to the Israel Export Institute, the country’s three largest wineries control over 83% of the local market. Carmel, harvests 57% of the country’s grapes, Barkan, harvests 15% (including the recently purchased Segal Wines), and Golan Heights Winery, harvests 11%. A sign of the booming local market, all three of these wine growers are developing new wineries: Carmel at Ramat Arad in the hills of the northern Negev, Barkan at Kibbutz Hulda in the Samson region, and Golan a winery in the Upper Galilee.
During the Roman era, a Jewish family consumed an average of 350 liters of wine a year. This is an astounding amount, especially when compared to today’s domestic Israeli consumption of six liters per year, per person. Six liters represents a considerable increase in domestic wine consumption, which has risen in the last seven years from a mere four liters per person, per year.
By comparison, wine consumption in countries such as France and Italy is about 60 liters per capita. During the Roman era, growing vineyards was one of the most profitable industries, second only to only to piracy on the high-seas.
Vitis vinifera (Vitis-vine, vinifera - wine bearing) is part of the Vitaceae family of about 700 species worldwide. Most of these species are tropical or sub-tropical and Israel’s semi-arid climate is similar to other great wine producing countries, such as Italy, France, and California in the United States.
It is believed that vines originated in the mountains of Ararat, or modern Armenia, although some have suggested that they originated in the Shiraz region of Persia. Vines thrive in rocky slopes, just one of the reasons they do well in the local topography. It is estimated that vines and the production of wine in Israel commenced sometime in the Chalcolithic Era.
The word yayin was used to indicate fermented or unfermented wine. According to Encyclopaedia Judaica (1971), the word is described as follows; "The newly pressed wine prior to fermentation was known as yayin mi-gat (‘wine from the vat;’ Sanh 70a), yayin yashan(‘old wine’) was wine from the previous year, and that from earlier vintages, yashan noshan (‘old, very old’)." The noun yayin is used to describe wine in the Old Testament, 141 times.
The Talmud mentions more than a dozen types of wine. In the Jewish tradition, wine is used in a variety of rituals, during Friday evening service, in wedding ceremonies, on Holy Days, and especially during Passover, when Seder participants drink four cups of wine. Additionally, on Purim it is considered to be a mitzvah to become so inebriated, that one cannot distinguish between Haman and Mordechai. It is interesting to note that during the Mishnah era, the price of wine was about half that of olive oil and equivalent to that of meat.
The modern evolution of wineries in Israel can be divided into three distinct phases.
1) Rishon Lezion and Zichron Ya'acov the first Jewish agricultural settlements of the late 19th century chose vineyards and winemaking as their main industry. Baron Edmond de Rothschild sends his experts to introduce viticulture.
2) After the formation of the State of Israel in 1948, wineries such as Askalon (now Segal) and Eliaz (now Binyamina) were established.
3) Israel’s modern wine making history begins in the 1980’s.
The real changes in the local wine scene took place in the 1980’s. This era witnessed technological changes that have often been compared to the wine revolution in California, 35 years ago. New grape varieties were planted in cooler higher altitudes, winemaking expertise was imported; new wineries were built while existing wineries invested in new equipment. Today there are over 300 wineries in Israel and the main exporters are Carmel, Barkan, Golan Heights, Efrat, Binyamina, Tishbi, Dalton and Castel.
In the last ten years, a new wine culture has slowly evolved in Israel. Once, wine purchases were limited to supermarkets that typically carried a limited selection. Today, over 900 wines can be purchased in specialty wine stores that carry everything from the wine itself to accessories and even imported wine refrigerators. Wine courses and wine-tasting have become all the rage.
“The land area of vineyards in Israel has doubled in the last five to six years, and this increase can be seen across all types of quality varieties. The harvest in 2000 yielded over 40,000 tonnes of grapes. This is expected to grow to 60,000 tonnes by the year 2004”, states a report by the Israel Export Institute.
The Middle East is the cradle of viticulture. In Israel, winemaking goes back to biblical times. Don’t miss out on tasting Israeli wine both abroad and during your next visit, when you can sample some of the wines that are not exported.