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Exploring Israel through wine tours

Posted by Chaim Helfgott LLM on Aug 2, 2018 9:28:08 AM

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A few words about the history of wine tours

Wine regions in France such as Bordeaux, Burgundy, Champagne, Loire and the Rhône have always been popular destinations with wine lovers. These regions produce the most sought-after wines in the world, and for avid wine lovers a visit to these vineyards and wineries is comparable to a religious pilgrimage. However, many of the destinations—Bordeaux and Burgundy, for example offer little else of interest to visitors from overseas; if not for the wine, there is very little reason to explore the region.

Wine tours to regions outside France

In recent years many other countries have begun producing quality wines with unique expression of their region. Ten years ago it was enough to study five international wine regions in order to pass wine qualification exams, while today there are wine regions in almost every corner of the world. Wine tours to these regions present wine lovers with an opportunity to discover diversity, indigenous varieties, interesting blends and vinification practices. In addition to their wines, these countries have a great deal more to offer visitors.

Destinations like the Mosel in Germany offer breathtaking vistas, while Italy offers its centuries-old culture to supplement the wine. Wine tours have become educational experiences, a way to understand the wine through the general and culinary culture that influences the production of wine in that particular style. Wine regions close to the ocean, for example, will endeavor to produce white wine to accompany the seafood diet common in the area. One important rule in pairing wine with food is “what grows together goes together.”

Winemaking in Israel

Winemaking in Israel flourished for thousands of years. Archaeologists have discovered hundreds of ancient wine presses in Israel, dating from the fourth century BC through to Byzantine times. The wine industry in Israel came to an abrupt halt in the seventh century AD when the new Muslim rulers prohibited the production of wine, and the indigenous wine grapes of the land atrophied or were pulled out entirely.

The ancient quality-wine industry in Israel began to be rebuilt in 1983. In addition to excellent Cabernet Sauvignon and Chardonnay-based wines, wineries also produce wine from Mediterranean varieties (such as Carignan, Petite Sirah, and Marselan), which may be better suited for the hot climate.

Three-hundred wineries in Israel now produce 50-million bottles each year from grapes planted on two thousand acres of vineyards. In just 30 years, a thriving, diverse wine industry has been established. Winemakers come trained from all over the world. Excellent quality wine is produced from varieties originating in France, Italy, Spain and Portugal. The diversity is also evident by advisors with different wine philosophies: Jean-Claude Berrouet (advisor to Tzorah winery), Michel Rolland (Amphorae), Alberto Antonini (Barkan), and Dr. Pascal Chatonnet (Castel), to name a few.

International recognition of the Israeli wine industry’s achievements was eminent when Wine Enthusiast Magazine awarded the Golan Heights Winery the 2012 Wine Star Award in the category of New World Winery of the Year, and both the Web site of Robert Parker and Wine Spectator awarded wines from Israeli wineries such as Castel, Tzora, Yatir and others, marks ranging from 90 to 93.

New-World wine from an ancient wine-producing region

Part of the attraction of wine tours in Israel is the existence of ancient history and modern times side by side. For example, only a few hundred meters away from the state-of-the-art stainless-steel fermentation tanks of the modern Golan Heights Winery, archeologists have discovered a fourth-century AD then state-of-the-art wine press in the Jewish village of old Katzerin, which was destroyed by an eighth-century earthquake. A fifteen-minute drive brings us to the densely populated village of Gamla, destroyed by the Romans in the first century AD, where the production of wine was among its chief sources of income. Many vineyards in Israel have discovered ancient wine presses, serving as a reminder of the thriving wine industry thousands of years ago and its modern renewal. The combination of the many noteworthy attractions with high-quality wine and an incredible diversity of regions from deserts to mountains have turned Israel into an ideal destination for wine tours.

Elements of a fabulous wine tour

The success of a wine tour as an enjoyable learning experience is dependent upon four elements: the option to visit the vineyards rather than just the wineries; the winemaker (and not a salesperson) conducting the winery tour; the breadth of wine knowledge of the tour guide; and of course the wineries chosen for the tour.

Visiting the vineyards

A major part of any visit to the production area of a winery usually entails viewing stainless-steel vats and oak barrels that are in different stages of the aging process. This can be quite boring. If you have seen it once (and you should see it once) you have seen it all. Vineyards are different – every vineyard is different! Wine starts in the vineyard, and that is where a great deal of the tour should take place. Each offers unique scenery, and some have spectacular views, worth a visit even for those whom wine holds no interest.

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Winemaker conducting the tour and tasting

Winemakers are really artists of nature. Many Israeli winemakers started their careers as professionals in other industries: film directors, architects, doctors, lawyers, carpenters, horse breeders, chefs, etc., leaving it all behind to fulfill their dream of making wine. With winemakers, some of whom are real free spirits, you can hear the story behind the wine, while they reflect their love and excitement of wine, food and the way of life in Israel. Wine tours are often run by salespeople, whose knowledge of wine is rather limited and who see the winery as little more than a retail outlet. Although winemakers too want to sell their wines, they are not salespeople: they have a real passion for wine as well as pride in their product. A wine-savvy tour guide will encourage them to share this passion with visitors.

Of course there is an opportunity to purchase wine that you like following the tasting. A bottle or two so purchased is an important aspect of wine tours, but drinking it at home should remind you of the learning experience of the wine tour rather than the sales pitch that accompanied it.

Knowledgeable tour guide

If the tour guide is just someone who gets you from one winery to the next and relies on each winery’s staff to enrich your knowledge, then your guide needs only to be good at navigation. However, to get a holistic picture of the wine scene of the country, your tour guide should have a depth of knowledge about wine. With a knowledgeable tour guide, your education starts in the bus, and an open exchange of views between him and the winemaker is an experience that cannot be replicated.

It is well worth doing a background check of your tour guide: read articles they wrote and see what wine competitions they’ve judged. It is not enough that they took a short course in wine tourism; they should have real expertise in the subject matter. Remember that part of the reason to take a wine tour is for the learning experience. Ask about the formal training in wine of your tour guide. The guide should either be a winemaker or someone who has passed at least the number 3 award in wine at the Wine & Spirits Education Trust (WSET), the global industry leader in delivering qualifications in wines and spirits. In Israel only four people have ever been awarded a Diploma (number 4 award, the highest available) by WSET.

Choice of wineries

A wine tour should visit wineries that produce quality wines, of course, but quality in itself is insufficient. The winery or the winemaker must have added value, either due to a beautiful landscape, history of the area, an interesting reason for making wine, an unusual style of wine produced, or interesting blends side by side with high-quality common varieties. The wineries chosen should either fairly represent the region toured or represent a variety of regions in Israel. Note that , as in other regions, many Israeli wineries purchase or buy grapes from areas other than where the winery is located.

Finally, let’s talk about the phenomena of boutique wineries. Although some of them produce interesting high-quality wines, it has to be said that "boutique" is not synonymous with "quality." I would advise against a wine tour that concentrates exclusively on boutique wineries, as many (but not all) boutique-winery winemakers have limited knowledge of the art and science of winemaking.

How long should a wine tour last?

It's certainly possible to enjoy good wine and have a great experience spending an afternoon in a single winery. But for a truly memorable wine tour, schedule three or four days of intensive, three-wineries-a-day tours. Alternatively, you can spend a week or more touring historical or cultural sites intermingled with occasional visits to wineries located in the area. Make sure your guide is an authorized tour guide by the Israeli Office of Tourism, able to share his love for the country and its history.

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