Professional, Wise & Curious

The following post is from wines-israel.com

Charles Loinger seems as young and as energetic as ever. As a sprightly 90 year old, he still talks as fast as ever, with all his old passion & enthusiasm. He speaks in French accented Hebrew with the occasional French word thrown in for emphasis. Hard to think that he retired in 1986!

Charles Loinger was born in Strasbourg, France in 1920. He decided to become an agronomist, and later specialized in wine, studying in Montpelier. He always intended to go to Israel, but became sidetracked and ended up in Uruguay because of the war. He ended up staying there twenty years, but gained experience of viticulture and winemaking in another country.

The story of his youth, his interrupted studies, his love affair with his wife Sally, whom he met when he was eleven years old and has now been married to for a mere 70 years, is well worth hearing. It is a story of love, determination to study at all costs and ultimately to fulfill his Zionist dream of being an agronomist in Israel. However this article is more a study of his effect on the Israel wine industry than an appraisal of his early life, fascinating though it was.

He made aliyah in 1963 and was immediately head hunted to take control of the young Israeli Wine Institute in Rehovot, in order to bring it up to standards. When Loinger arrived in Israel, most of the wine drunk was sweet. Most of the vineyards were in the Mount Carmel region or the Judean Plain, south east of Tel Aviv. There was one big winery, Carmel, which dominated the industry. Their two wineries at Rishon Le Zion and Zichron Ya’acov were by far the largest in the country. The main winemakers in the country were Rosenthal and Avni. Rosenthal, who was based at Rishon had learnt his winemaking in Germany and Avni, based at Zichron, had studied in Algeria.

Charles Loinger began a process of experimental plantings, and winemaking on a tiny scale to test different varieties and clones. He wanted to bring international varieties to Israel, knowing that Israel did not have indigenous varieties, and that those already in the country were not suitable for quality winemaking. He went to University of California at Davis to get virus free varieties. Loinger also hosted Cornelious Ough from UC Davis, who visited Israel in the mid 1960’s and again in the 1970’s. It was of course on Ough’s second visit when he recommended the higher altitude Golan Heights has being suitable for producing quality wines.

The first noble varieties imported to Israel at this time were Cabernet Sauvignon and Sauvignon Blanc. Cabernet Sauvignon had been in Israel since Baron Edmond de Rothschild insisted on planting it in the 1880’s, but though it still existed, Loinger notes it had been largely forgotten. As a result of Loinger’s efforts, Cabernet Sauvignon was replanted in Israel. The first Cabernet Sauvignon varietal wines were produced by Carmel in the late 1960’s and the first exports were the 1970 vintage. The first famous Israeli red wine was the legendary Carmel Cabernet Sauvignon Special Reserves of 1976 and 1979. They were the first wines to be aged in small oak barrels. Freddie Stiller by then Carmel’s winemaker, had to use Limousin barrels purchased for brandy to age his precious red wine, because there was no budget to buy barriques.

Later the Yarden Cabernet Sauvignon 1984 produced by the Golan Heights Winery won the Winiarski Trophy at the International Wines & Spirits Competition in 1987. It was the first major international award heralding the new importance of Cabernet Sauvignon to Israeli winemaking. Today it is the most planted red wine variety in Israel and arguably Israel is best known for its Cabernet Sauvignon varietal wines and Cabernet Sauvignon based blends.

Sauvignon Blanc was first launched by Carmel in the late 1960’s. It became Israel’s most used variety for making dry white wines in the 1990’s. The first wine from the Golan Heights Winery that was noticed in the USA, was the Yarden Sauvignon Blanc 1983. It was referred to by a famous American wine writer as: “Israel’s first world class wine”. However in truth, it was not a variety that Israel made very well, until far later. Maybe the Dalton Sauvignon Blanc 2001 was the first of the new wave of quality Sauvignon Blancs that came out in the beginning of the 2000’s.

Merlot and Chardonnay arrived in the 1980’s. Here too, recognition soon followed. The Yarden Merlot 1988 won the gold medal and Grand Prix d’Honneur at the Vinexpo wine exhibition in Bordeaux in 1991. Merlot is today the third most planted variety in Israel.

The first Yarden Chardonnay and Rothschild Chardonnay (by then Carmel’s flagship label) came out in the late 1980’s. So by the time Loinger retired in 1986, Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc and Chardonnay were established in Israel, growing in new young vineyards and the finished wines were already gaining recognition for the new quality of Israeli wines.

Charles Loinger was also responsible for bringing over from UC Davis, Colombard, Emerald Riesling and Petite Sirah. These you might think did not contribute much to the quality wine revolution in Israel, but each found a place and played a part.

Colombard (aka French Colombard in Israel) became Israel’s largest planted white wine variety. Loinger said he brought this here because of its excellent acidity. It was intended for blending as the lack of natural acidity is always a problem in Israel. Colombard was sparingly used as a varietal wine by Carmel in the 1990’s, but never took off. However it is a misunderstood variety. Aromatic with excellent acidity, it could be used to better effect being ideal for the climate. Some wineries today use it for sparkling wines (Tishbi Brut, and Selected Sparkling), others use it in blends (Tishbi has a good blend of French Colombard with Emerald Riesling which they call French Riesling.) Only Mony Winery has come out with a varietal Colombard. The winemaker there is Canadian born Sam Soroka, one of Israel’s most experienced winemakers. He is worth listening to when he says Colombard has the potential for fresh, fragrant dry white wines with excellent balancing acidity. It is still Israel’s largest planted white variety, but is gradually being replaced by better known varieties. What there is mainly hidden in blends or used for grape juice.

Loinger also brought over Emerald Riesling because of its aroma. Emerald Riesling, a cross between Muscadelle and the German Riesling, was developed in UC Davis in 1948 (the year of Israel’s birth) and it succeeded nowhere… except in Israel. It was developed to provide something of the Riesling character, but in a hot country. Any claim that it reached the quality of the real Riesling would be libelous, but it proved immensely popular. During the mid-1880’s and 1990’s, it became Israel’s biggest selling wine. With its blowsy, flowery aroma and slightly spicy finish, this semi dry wine (that was in truth often nearer semi sweet), became the wine of choice for all those Israelis that found dry white wines too sour. In the end it had the same effect as Lambrusco in the USA or Liebfraumilch in the UK, in that it brought many new people to drink wine. Even today Emerald Riesling is Israel’s largest selling white wine, but it has declined from the heady days when it ruled the Israel world.

Petite Sirah was brought over for its color and structure. The over cropped Carignan produced light wines without these two attributes. Loinger thought it would be a good blending grape variety to cover the deficiencies of Carignan and that was how it was used. In the 1990’s it was wrongly referred to as Shiraz in export markets by some Israeli wineries. A loophole in the EC law made this possible, but it was not an honest representation. In recent years Petite Sirah has been rejuvenated in Israel. Yair Margalit was the first to give respect to this variety. He was adamant that the 15% Petite Sirah he added to his Special Reserve, made the wine. Since 2000 wineries like Carmel and Vitkin started to make low yield Petite Sirah wines, from old vines. It is seen as a variety which is different, ideal for the Israeli climate and it produces wines with a more Israeli character than the more international Cabernet & Merlot. As international critics look for wines with more Israeli typicity, the Petite Sirah is becoming a wine Israel could become more known for in the future. The Carmel Petite Sirah 2006 was Wine of the Month in Decanter magazine. The many more wineries now making Petite Sirah wines have Loinger to thank for his foresight.

Loinger first met Avraham Ben Moshe when he was director of the Israeli Wine Institute and Ben Moshe was chairman. Later after his retirement, Ben Moshe became managing director of Carmel and Loinger became a consultant to him in his early years in the post. Ben Moshe complimented him by saying: “Loinger was one of the first people in Israel to relate to wine professionally.”

Other winemakers who became famous in their own right started under Loinger’s wing. Koby Gat was an important part Carmel’s winemaking team for many years and his wine courses where at the time the best forum for students to learn about wine. He worked 6 years under Loinger at the Wine Institute. He remembers that: “The Wine Institute was then very important for the wine industry.” This was a true comment which hints at the decline in the status and influence of the institute since then. He describes Loinger as: ”professional, wise and very curious. All the time seeking to learn more.”

Israel Flam who became chief winemaker at Carmel Mizrahi also talks in flattering terms. He said: ‘Loinger was one of the founding fathers of the revival of Israeli wine.”

After his retirement, Loinger gave wine courses, passing on to the next generation his passion for wine & his sheer enthusiasm for the subject. He lectured at Zman Amiti’s barman courses, at the Tadmor Hotel School for future chefs and hoteliers and at Derech Hayayin, the first modern wine shop in Israel. They each used Loinger’s services for lectures on wine. In these years countless students later to become wine lovers or wine professionals, passed through his hands.

Today Charles Loinger looks back and summarizes three main stages of Israel’s quality wine revolution. The first was the bringing of international varieties to Israel. When he began his tenure Carignan, Alicante Grenache, Ugni Blanc and Clairette were Israel’s main grape varieties. When he left the wine institute 20 years later, these had been replaced by Cabernet Sauvignon, Merlot, Sauvignon Blanc & Chardonnay. “Without quality grape varieties, you can’t make good wine.”

The second revolution was the founding of the Golan Heights Winery. Loinger points out that this was the first time an Israeli winery dictated to the grower what to plant and when to harvest. The change in the decision making process from grower to winery was in Loinger’s opinion the most crucial aspect of the winery led revolution.

He sees the third revolution as the growth of boutique wineries. This meant the Israeli wine industry came of age and it was the new competition which encouraged the large wineries also to change.

Though he delights in the successes of Israeli wine, he believes there is a ceiling that Israel can’t break through. He does not think Israel will ever make red wines like Bordeaux or white wines like Alsace or Germany, because of the climate. He also does not see Israeli red wines lasting more than 12 years or so, let alone the 20 years or more by the best Bordeaux, Burgundy wines or Californian wines.

However he is pleased to see the re-emergence of Carignan. “I always thought Carignan had potential if yields were reduced. The problem was that in those days wineries worked with Carignan precisely because the yields were so high.”

He can’t resist a dig at the new trend led by the Americans of scoring wines out of 100 points, preferring the more systematic way he used to score wines. He eagerly explains the scoring system he initiated at the Wine Institute, which he believes produces a fairer, more professional result. Though Israel seems to have followed America in this respect, many people in Europe would agree with him.

Israel has been making wine for 5,000 years. However the most exciting period has been the last thirty years. It was the groundwork laid down by Charles Loinger, behind the scenes and without much fanfare, that enabled the Israeli wine to prosper and focus on quality. Today’s wine industry should be grateful to the Frenchman from Strasbourg who came to Israel to lay the foundations by bringing quality grape varieties to Israel. Châpeau to Monsieur Loinger!