Israel can lay claim, as evidence suggests, to be the first major winemaking region in history. The oldest wine cellar on record dates back to 1700 BC, discovered in the town of Nahariya in Northern Israel. We generally credit the 6th century Roman Catholic Benedictine Monks for giving birth to the modern wine world, but the earliest wine merchants shipped wine barrels to Europe 3,000 years ago from Israeli ports along the Mediterranean. In other words, like with a lot of things—laser technology, Hollywood, E=mc², Tin Pan Alley, the capitalist economic system, to name a few—the Jews started it all.
Flash forward to the Israeli wine industry in the 21st century. Relegated to a tiny area of shelf space in most wine retail shops in the U.S., public perception of wine from Israel is that of a cottage industry—here to serve only a very targeted customer base who are seeking to stay kosher, either in their religious practice or as a special request during Jewish holidays. Adam Dromi, buyer and curator of Israeli wines for The Wine House in Los Angeles, which carries some of the most diverse and carefully selected offerings in this category on their shelves, says, “Easily, 90-95% of the customers buying these wines are from the Jewish community.”
It would be a major surprise to most people, then—both non-Jews and Jews—if they were to discover that the exciting new wines coming out of this ancient, mystical and biblical land today are some of the most distinctive wines in the market and equal in quality to top wines from California or France.
Thanks to winemakers returning to the homeland after receiving academic degrees in viticulture and oenology in the most prestigious wine producing regions of the world, Israel is at the beginning stages of a modern renaissance. RECANATI, along with other boutique Israeli wineries such as Flam, Tulip, Yatir and Margalit, as well as bigger, more recognizable names such as Castel and Yarden, are all riding the new wave, fighting the current perception and re-defining what is Israeli wine.
Israel’s wine industry has never been on such a precipice of change, or sensed the potential to permanently alter the course of its future, until now. These are exciting times—but changing the world’s perception of its product may prove to be as difficult a challenge as parting the Red Sea.
The Renaissance of Recanati
Gil Shatsberg, head winemaker at Recanati and one of Israel’s top winemakers, is one of those who had an opportunity to get an education in his craft outside of his home country, at U.C. Davis, and chose to go back, packed with renewed vision and energy to blaze a new trail. Within the last five years, he has guided the winery towards a shift into producing a wider variety of white and red Rhone varietals—the Roussanne/Marsanne blend is a stunner—as well as identifying grape types that uniquely express the character of Israel—leading to a program to cultivate and produce Carignan, Petite Sirah and Marselan, all considered “exotic” varietals.
The winery’s current production level is around 85,000 barrels, which makes it the seventh largest winery in the country, with 25% of its business in export, mainly to the U.S. Gil’s goal in mind is to strive to make wines that remain true to the land they came from versus imitating those from elsewhere in the world, and also to offer an ideal match for Israel’s rich and diverse cuisine which reflects a Middle Eastern, European and North African heritage. If Israeli wines are going to succeed in taking a place on the dining table as commonly as new world wines from Argentina, Chile or New Zealand, it will be because they are judged purely on quality and pleasure derived from their drinkability. I asked Gil for his perspective on the advancement of his country’s winemaking technology.
Gil: Israel, by all means, is a new world winemaking country. Though we don’t have a wine program or faculty in Israel where you can get an academic degree in it, all of the winemakers in Israel come with a degree from the most prestigious universities in the world: UC Davis, Adelaide, Milan and many more. We are on the cutting edge with regard to the most recent technology, and getting it to Israel is no problem at all.
He has also made a definitive aesthetic choice regarding the wines he produces, which he describes as “fighting the tannins.”
Gil: Since Israel is a hot climate country, we have no problems, as other viticultural areas in the world, ripening the fruits. When I say we are “fighting tannins” it is specifically a stylistic decision we have at Recanati. We strive to have an approachable wine: soft, yet complex, and ready to drink—as we think this would be the best for Israeli cuisine. We have the privilege of not having any problem with ripening the grapes, with no danger of summer rains or spring frost.
Indeed, if there’s one consistent quality across the portfolio of Recanati wines, it is the exquisite balance between ripeness of fruit and softness of texture. The wines are bright and fresh and eminently drinkable, and it’s easy to see eating some hummus or brisket or shawarma with them. However, there’s no reason you can’t pair these wines with burgers, ribs or a high-end cut of steak.
Gil has clearly succeeded in creating a diversity of wine offerings that are two things not necessarily diametrically opposed: wines of a uniquely Israeli character but also of a quality to draw comparisons to great wines from the established wine regions of the world. All the pioneers of modern Israeli winemaking are finding their way through the balance between these two objectives and succeeding at it. But what will it take for the world to acknowledge this change of approach?
A Word About “Kosher”
I asked Gil how he felt about the “kosher” label on his wines. The response was frank and one of mixed feelings.
Gil: It’s no longer true that a “kosher” certificate on a wine bottle implies a sweet “Kidush” wine. We look at kosher the same way we see organic or biodynamic wines—it is simply a set of rules you have to follow that have no restrictions in regard to quality. We have proved in the past 20 years that you can make kosher wine that can stand up to the highest quality wines in the world, yet we still fight the image that kosher wines have in the general public eye. Our goal is that our wines will be judged for their quality rather than the certification they have. My assumption is that we are on the right track but it will take some time. It is easy, right now, to sell these wines to the Jewish market, and we will not want to give up this market, but we do want to expand to other markets.
No one can deny that kosher wines, to this day, suffer a less than dignified reputation. Adam at The Wine House, who is Israeli, says, “15 years ago, if my family said we were going to have kosher wine with dinner, I would say—What else is there? It’s really only within the last 2-3 years where I had the wake-up moment where I realized kosher wines today are so much more.”
The preferred approach, then, when regarding modern wines from Israel, is to look at them as Israeli wines that happen to be kosher. It’s an added bonus. If kosher matters to you, great. If it doesn’t, enjoy the wine like you would enjoy any other wine from another country.
What Makes an Israeli Wine an Israeli Wine?
“I don’t know,” says Adam. “I don’t think we can say, yet. This is what the Israeli winemakers are still figuring out. We could talk about terroir and all that, but it’s got to be something more for real change to happen.” I asked him what he thought it would take for the world market to change its perception of Israeli wine. He believes it’s up to the distributors and importers. “Right now, the main reason they take on a winery from Israel is because they need to have kosher wines in their books. They will need to create the new category of “Israeli wine” so that it becomes a bigger section in the store, and then the customer will begin to see these wines in a new way.”
It’s clear the change, if it’s going to happen at all, will take a lot of time. Watching the progress, or shall we say, tasting the progress of the transition of this most unique and fascinating winemaking region from a neglected Old World to a vibrant New World is one of the more rewarding opportunities a wine lover and explorer could ask for. If we should all find ourselves in the future saying to a sommelier, “I’ll have the Recanati” with the same regularity we say “I’ll have the Lynch Bages,” well, like parting the Red Sea, it would be a miracle. If Moses did it once, it could very well happen again.
A Sampling of Recanati Wines
Owner: Lenny Recanati
Head Winemaker: Gil Shatsberg
Location: Hefer Valley, Upper Galilee
*Note: Recanati wines are available in the U.S. on a limited basis. If you are not able to locate the wines near you, your best contact is The Wine House, 310.479.3731.
Reserve Wild Carignan 2012 (Judean Hills, $55)
If you’re looking for a quintessential Israeli red wine, this is it. Carignan is the most widely planted grape in the country, thanks to a Rothschild who brought over a clone from France in the 1880s, and it has provided the backbone for the local wine industry ever since. So beautifully rich and concentrated with a rush of blackberry and notes of espresso, licorice, fig, cardamom and fennel in the mix. It’s a deep and mellow wine, round and full, that pairs well with the exotic spices used in local cuisine. There’s a Mediterranean x-factor to the quality and texture that you can’t quite pin down which makes this wine special, rather profound, and uniquely Israel. 95 pts search
Special Reserve White – Roussanne/Marsanne 2012 (Galilee, $50)
A delightfully charming, lightly sweet white Mediterranean blend. Charming, bright and sweet, after all, is every part of Israeli character. There is a serious heft to the wine, however, which provides a counterpoint to all the cheeriness of the peach, apricot and vanilla essences, creating something altogether complex, balanced and lovely. It’s not too early to say this has to be one of Israel’s great white wines. 94 pts search
Reserve Petite Sirah 2012 (Lower Galilee, $25)
Rose, pomegranate, savory spices. Soft as compared to most California-made Petites and remarkable balance, making this a rare wine in this varietal. The winemaker’s artistry is on full display here, making aesthetic choices that are right on the mark. Round and delectable. 92 pts search
Special Reserve Red 2011 (Galilee, $50)
According to winemaker Gil Shatsberg, it’s a very tedious process to make this reserve Bordeaux-inspired blend, and the effort shows. He and his team select a different blend each year through blind tastings. Version 2011 is a knockout. Vivacious and powerful in its lengthy expression of dark fruit, cassis, and dark chocolate in aged oak, ending on black pepper accompanied by well-cut acidity. As with all in the Recanati portfolio, there’s an elegant soft touch. Draws comparisons to a cru Saint-Julien, but manages to carve out a distinctly Israeli character. 94 pts search
Reserve Merlot, Manara Vineyard 2011 (Golan Heights, $26)
An exceptional expression of a common grape, capturing that special combination of Old World and New World contained in the best of modern Israeli winemaking. Sappy and delicious, a product of the perfect weather for grape-growing the country is blessed with. Draws comparisons to a Napa Valley-produced Merlot with its ripeness and boldness, but the terroir is distinctly Middle Eastern. The winemaker’s touch brings a silkiness to the texture that adds allure. 92 pts search